Book Note: David J. Chalmers’ “Reality +”

David J. Chalmers, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2022).

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I’ve been intrigued by some form of simulation theory since I saw The Matrix a couple of decades ago. When I introduce Hinduism to my students, I connect simulation theory to the concept of “Brahman,” the name of existence itself, of which all of us are part. For many Indian philosophers, everything and everyone is Brahman since everything participates in “existence”. When Brahman is personified, questions can be asked as to why there is difference if all of us are ultimately the same thing: lila and maya. Lila is “divine play” where Brahman “decides” to experience endless realities as a way of “enjoying” all the different perspectives that all of us create. Maya is the negative illusion that we’re individuals. Our stress and anxiety come from the false separation of “I” from everything else. So, lila and maya are two sides of the same coin. In order to enjoy our experience of reality, and for Brahman to have that experience, we must believe we are individuals, unique and distinct from the whole of reality in some way. But that sense of self, that illusion, also leads to our own entrapment in samsara, cycling through almost endless lives, until we can realize our oneness with Brahman, releasing ourselves from the illusion of distinction, and merging back into the whole. This is called “moksha”.

Hinduism is said to be “monistic” as in there isn’t one “god” like the popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but just one “thing” or one “reality”. Again, that reality is Brahman.

Why do I connect this to simulation theory? Well, simulation theory asks whether or not we are in a simulation and if we could know if we were in one. I push my students to consider the possibility that we are in a simulation, or that we are emanations of Brahman, and then ask them whether discovering that we are simulated or emanated would change how they view themselves and their lives. Since many of my students have been raised in homes where Christianity is practiced, or where Christianity is the unspoken influence, they tend to think of themselves as creations distinct from a Creator—creations with a unique, eternal soul that will never lose its distinction. For these students, the concept of Brahman, and simulation theory, can be unnerving. For students who tend to be more naturalistic, who already see themselves as material beings emerging from a material world to which their bodies will return when they die, neither Brahman nor simulation theory causes much unease.

David J. Chalmers, one of the foremost philosophers in the area of the study of mind, has written a wonderful book titled Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problem of Philosophy that deals a lot with simulation theory. When I’ve told people about the book, some of them say something like, “I can’t imagine reading a whole book on that topic.” But it isn’t about simulation theory only, just like when I teach my students about simulation theory, I’m really trying to help them conceptualize Indian concepts of Brahman. The book uses simulation theory as a gateway to many of the fascinating “problems of philosophy,” as the subtitle suggests. Chalmers has chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics that all use virtual worlds as thought experiments. When we ask whether we can know if we’re in a simulation, we’re jumping into a conversation about how we can know what we know or if we can really know anything (and what we mean by the word “know”). When we consider simulation theory, we’re asking what is “real”. It physics the only “real” world. Is our perceptions “real” or completely constructed. And when we consider what it would be like to see sentient life emerge in a simulation—whether we are the created or the creator—it forces us to consider our own ethical paradigms around how we treat other minds.

For this reason, the book can serve not only as a niche study of virtual worlds and how we should consider them—whether that be wearing an Oculus, enjoying whatever Meta is creating, or participating in Second Life—but it can serve as a general introduction to many of the problems that philosophers have been addressing and will continue to address. Also, the illustrations found throughout the book are excellent which makes the book all that more effective at teaching difficult philosophical concepts.

Would it be unethical to simulate the universe?

The past few weeks, I’ve been teaching a unit on Indian cosmology (think Brahman, Samsara, Moksha, et al.) as I’ve been reading David J. Chalmers’ Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy while also watching a lot of Rick and Morty, so excuse the weirdness. Because of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nick Bostrom‘s famous Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” article (The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 53, Issue 211, April 2003pp. 243-255). In that article, Bostom made the claim that “one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” (If you don’t have time to read about this theory, there are plenty of YouTube videos that provide decent summaries.) As things are looking now, (1) seems extremely probable. We can’t figure out climate change and we still have weapons that could wipe us out in minutes. But if we are going to survive and slip through our “Great Filters,” then (2) would seem extremely improbable. We’re already making simulations and have been for a while now. If technology continues to develop at the pace it has since I was a teen, then I’d be shocked if it turned out that we humans would choose to not create advanced simulations. Except there’s one idea that has grabbed my attention: humans could choose to not create advanced simulations for ethical reasons.

Chalmers (p. 94) puts it this way: “populations advanced enough to create sims will know how to create intelligent sims that aren’t conscious (while nevertheless serving many practice purposes) and will have strong reasons—perhaps ethical reasons—to do this.” I mean, if I look at contemporary humanity, this seems unlikely. We humans seem to have no problems (collectively) with causing suffering, whether we’re inflicting it on fellow humans or other non-human animals. So, there’s little reason to believe that future humans would be morally superior to us…but there’s one I’ve been pondering.

As we look at the current state of our world, assuming it’s either (A) base reality or (B) a simulation of what base reality looked like in the early twenty-first century, then it appears clear that if humans are going to make it and make it so that we don’t launch our descendants into a dystopic age where they’d have little time to worry about anything other than creating technologies that help them stave off extinction, we’re going to have to experience an evolutionary leap in ethics. I mean, not just on the level of individuals recycling, buying electric vehicles, investing in renewable energies, and maybe going vegetarian, but at the international level and hopefully in a way that includes democratic societies. (Though, as the Pill Pod discussed in their 64th episode, “Democracy Dieth in Darkness,” political scientists/philosophers like Ross Mittiga are already asking if authoritarian power is ever a legitimate form of government, especially if climate catastrophe grows more probable: “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change,” American Political Science Review [December 6, 2021], pp. 1-14).

This feels improbable right now but let’s assume it will happen (or happened, if this is a simulation that is based on base reality). What sort of collaboration would be demanded of humanity? What sort of transnational government structure would have to emerge? And if we were capable of these things, would we be moving more toward the Star Trek vision of the future than the Don’t Look Up one? And if that were to be the case, then doesn’t that raise the probability that humanity would become the type of species who knowing the suffering they’d cause by creating advanced simulations with sentient creatures (who would have to live through the era we’re living through now) would choose to avoid inflicting that type of pain on their potential digitized creations?

I don’t know that answer to this is “yes” but it’s worth considering. But it also leads to theological/theodicy questions and invites us to consider antinatalist ethics as well. First, if I’m assuming morally advanced humans would never create this reality intentionally, what does that say about a god who would create this reality? Now, I’m not actually opposed to this reality. In fact, I’m unsure that I can be because it seems odd to use existence to argue against existence. And I guess questions around postmortem sentience and even multiverses muddy that waters here. But my underdeveloped line of thought does have me wondering: if I think that advanced humans wouldn’t inflict this suffering, what does that say about the idea of “god” or god if god exists?!

Also, back to afterlives: would it be ethically justifiable to run simulations like our world if you offered your digital creations an afterlife of bliss?

Finally, am I being too negative about our current state? If a global catastrophe is around the corner, would it be immoral to have children? Obviously, if humans had foreknowledge and knew with absolute certainty that everything was going to go to hell within the next half-century, then yes. But we don’t have that foreknowledge. So, it gets trickier.

And that takes me back to the question of simulation: what if this universe is an open-ended simulation? Our fate isn’t predetermined. Maybe there’s great joy in meeting the challenge of climate change and solving it? Maybe we actually do that or have the potential to do that? Then I guess we could leave the door open to the possibility that there’s nothing immoral about our universe being a simulation if indeed it is one!