Category Archives: Philosophy

On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.

But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.

Beyond the Curtain

To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.



DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.

The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.

So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.

It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’

And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.

Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.

Before the Gates

So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.

Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.

But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.

To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.

To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.

The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.

As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.

Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’

After the Fall.

To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.

Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.

Why live without purpose, why die at all?

However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.

In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.

Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.

For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.

We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.

And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

ten wisdom dawkins

The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

wisdom nietzsche

Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

wisdom star ten star

Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

wisdom pearls gladwell quote

Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

wisdom harris quote ten

Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

wisdom goldacre bad science

Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

feynman physics quote wisdom

Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

gawande life wisdom

As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

sagan quote wisdom science

Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

Should We Message The Programmer? The Ethics Of A Simulated World

Having discussed how you should generally approach living in a simulated world in our last article, we can now enquire a little further into specific acts. And, don’t worry, we will cover a fair few. So lets talk about Genocide through knowledge. In fact, let’s ask the question a different way. If you ran the risk of destroying the entire simulation universe simply through sending a message to it’s creator, should you? Or would the potential benefits of talking to it’s ‘creator’ outweigh the risks? And how even may you contact them, let alone convince them either way? Today we will consider an automatic message, i.e ‘universe.exe’ realises that ‘entity x’ has become aware. Let’s take another trip into a simulated universe through a thought experiment.

‘Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?’ – Leonardo Da Vinci.

Messages and Knowledge

Firstly we must consider why, not how, we have come to be in a simulation. And the two main theories, based on why we ourselves would create one, would be either ‘for entertainment’ or ‘for experiment.’ Although both seem simple, each is full of a multitude of ethical concerns and open questions. So lets start by saying what we can, that is logical and valid, for both. Firstly, there is significant evidence that we are living in a simulation. Simulations are built on some sort of code, that is readable and checkable. Certain actions of the simulation may prompt review by its creator and user, much like an ‘Error’ on your PC. And that prompt can be automatically or manually dealt with. For example (in a manual response;)

Observation: Entity no. 3216732178 has become aware of ‘universe.exe’

Warning: Universe.exe ”experimental” parameters now biased. Terminate program Y/N?

science philosophy dream simulation

The Universe may be beautiful, but can we destroy it with knowledge?

We can be assured logically that since you are reading this, there is no automatic action to destroy the simulation if one person becomes suspicious of, or convinced that, they are living in it. You can also logically conclude that the realisation of ‘Entity no.3216732178’ has not been deemed enough concern to terminate the program manually. The creator is okay with it, at this level of penetrance at least. But imagine that the program running the simulation has an in-built threshold, by which the program offers a new prompt for manual decision making, or worse automatic. It may go something like this;

Observation: 51% of known ‘Human’ entities (and Parrot No. 321132892190) have become aware of ‘universe.exe’

Warning: Universe.exe ”experimental” parameters breached beyond tolerable levels. Terminate programme Y/N?

User: N

Warning: User override denied. ‘Universe.exe’ has breached operable parameters. Data corrupted. Terminating in 10 seconds.’

As scary as this thought may be, it makes a number of assumptions. The first is that there is a tolerable level by which the simulation could operate whilst entities were aware of it. For The Truman Show, that was 0. Day to day many of us labour under delusional beliefs, and yet the universe does not shut down. So it can be inferred that it is the specific belief that matters to a creator. They are happy to let millions believe in Thor as it doesn’t effect the purpose of the simulation in a negative way. So be it an experiment or entertainment, the simulation runs on. The eventuality that concerns us here is in which circumstances would a creator click ‘Yes’. (Note, this ignores an automatic deletion.)

‘Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, Good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.’ – Truman Burbank, The Truman Show.

Messages And Response

For the sake of argument let’s first consider that we live in a simulation designed for ‘entertainment.’ In our last article we discussed how this may be bad news for the world if we realised it. So much of our top TV shows rely on violence and shock to stay alive, it could be argued that we should do the same to ‘stay switched on.’ But lets consider what may happen ‘naturally’ if the simulation hypothesis was not just proven, but widely accepted. There are two extremes of outcome that are immediately apparent, each with a multitude of potential responses by the creator.

  1. We lose our minds. The Universe is a joke and there are no repercussions, as long as we stay on air we will stay alive. Prep the nukes.
  2. Okay, perhaps the watchers want peace, lets go with that.

We cannot predict exactly how the creator would respond to either (1) or (2), suffice to say that as long as its entertaining enough to stay watched, they will not terminate the simulation. But remember, reality TV either adapts, becomes a circus act, or dies.

simulation ethics science philosophy

A Circus Is Entertaining? But what of Humanity?

A second argument, that we are an experiment, offers both concerning and reassuring extremes. The first option is that a clear realisation that the test subject has become aware of the experiment and it’s potential hypothesis may have three obvious outcomes;

  1. The experiment is terminated as any new data is no longer reliable.
  2. The experiment is left running as ‘knowledge’ of the experiment is just another variable.
  3. The experiment will continue until x percent of test subjects become aware.

In (1) the creator relies on the ignorance of ‘us’, the ‘test subjects’, for the experiment to succeed. We cannot know that we may be in a simulation, and therefore cannot bias the test. But since I am sitting here typing this piece, the presence of my frontal lobes and ability to use information renders the ‘cannot know’ irrelevant. We clearly can. So we are left with option (2), which is that realisation in the experiment is not a contrary to its operational parameters. This could be for a number of reasons, including that the creator is interested in what may happen with this specific realisation, or is running a study of a populations response to chaos. And since we can consider this option, the experimenter has enabled us to do so.

So, since I am still here, option 2 or 3 can be argued as reasonable deductions.

‘A place where we all go can’t be bad, can it girl?’ – Chris Nielsen, What Dreams May Come

Should We Send A Message?

Well, we already have. The first time a scientist, or more likely an author, even briefly considered the ‘simulation’ then that data became available. The question here is when does that information become troublesome to the creator, at what level of penetrance? And do we risk a universal genocide? In the entertainment hypothesis, it depends what we do with the information, how we react and whether the watchers are entertained. If it is an experiment, the stakes are higher.

If option 2 is to be believed (The experiment is left running as ‘knowledge’ of the experiment is just another variable,) then we are probably fine. This is not a new idea, and has been atlas considered by thousands. But if its option 3 (The experiment will continue until x percent of test subjects become aware,) then we may approach a point of no return.

So, in that sense, this may not just be a ‘thought experiment’ after all.  And hypothetical creators up there, please retweet and comment.

‘I find myself exposed, tapping doors, but irritate, in search of destination.’ – Damien Rice, Eskimo (O)

What’s Next?

  • Learn more about the Ethics of a Simulated Universe
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article from drbenjanaway.com
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note: Once again, as per with the previous article, the subjects discussed are not done so exhaustively. There are many other intermediate conclusions that can be drawn between the extremes presented, but for the sake of discussion I have chosen polarising outcomes. You may also be able to fairly debate my inferences and deductions, and it would be useful to do so. Furthermore this entire article has been a rather meta experience. If we are iliving in a simulation, I have broken the fourth wall and rendered the Universe susceptible to the conclusions drawn. If not, then this may provide an entertaining discussion alone.  Awaits ‘Mad Scientist’ badge.

Media credits

  1. Lake and Trees, Flickr.
  2. Circus Performer, Flickr.

 

What Should You Do In A Simulated World? The Ethics Of A Dream

simulation universe ethics

Ethics are tricky in the real world, but there is a surprising amount of evidence that we may actually be living in a simulation. If that is indeed true, we can only speculate on the creator and the motive behind such a complex and compelling trick. Who are they? Are we an experiment or entertainment? What would it mean to them if we figured it out? Do we risk being ‘turned off’ if we were break the proverbial ‘fourth wall?’ And perhaps an equally poignant question, does this change our code of ethics? Join us in the first of several thought experiments into a simulated Universe. Press ‘Save’ now.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. – Edgar Allen Poe.

Simulated Worlds And Real Ethics

Ethics are not simple. The Declaration of Human Rights sets out legally bound rules for what is considered reasonable behaviour, and for the most part it has led to a better world. The basic premise of these rules is that most people would agree with them in order to be fair to others. Legal systems, which differ by country, may interpret these rules differently (and some come up against the United Nations,) but the overall premise of law is the same; to hold everyone to an equal ethical standard where possible. Religions often run foul of these rules, but that’s for another day and a ballsier writer (or after some whisky.) We are all familiar with ethical dilemmas too, for example the famous philosophical question of ‘The Trolley Problem.’

 

 

The crux of The Trolley Problem is quite simple, when does murder become ethically permissible? Would you sacrifice one to save many others? Depending on your individual view it may never be okay to kill, but in a study by VSauce it found that most participants would not kill one to save many, even if they would claim otherwise. There are also multiple philosophical schools or ethics, including Utilitarianism which dictates that we must also provide for the majority even at the expense of the few. We consider such conundrums and hypotheses in a world of consequence, but what if suddenly those consequences seem to disappear? What might be ethical in a simulated world?

Ethics For Entertainment

If we are just a television show, such as the one experienced by Truman Burbank, then it may be wise to consider our audience. And like George reasoned in his discussion of a simulated universe, we may best judge their wants as reflective of our own. And when one of the top rated shows on television at the moment is Game Of Thrones , this is a little unsettling. Humans love drama, action, intrigue, love, hate, violence and explosions in our films. Jerry Bruckheimer makes a living from explosions. So, as economist Robin Hanson says, we should be as ‘entertaining as we can.’ Now here is the problem. If we assume that being ‘boring’ risks our continued survival, then commonly accepted ethics could be argued as an impediment. A progressive world full of love and communication is a worthy goal, but probably wouldn’t make good television. Earth would be ‘cancelled.’

ethics simulation alien television

What would be entertaining to an alien may be integral to our survival.

One could reason that our actions should be as dramatic and entertaining as possible to a lay watcher. Unfortunately this raises many questions, and if the world was suddenly to learn its best chance of existing was violence, drama and explosions, the result would likely fly in the face of common ethics. War would be entertainment, crime pay-per-view. and Alien minds could pay an extra season pass price to follow a criminal from sentencing to execution (but only after the cosmic watershed.) Although this is discussed jovially, it does cause pause for thought. What do you think Truman would have done if there was no door in the sea wall? And sadly, a utilitarian ethos would support mass war as long as more survived than died.

Fortunately there is an alternative explanation for a simulation, experiment. But, even then, we must be careful.

‘It’s the sad thing about entertainment, it’s not always about who is the best.’ – Jake Roberts.

Ethics For Experiment

First off, if an alien species were to create a simulation for their entertainment it wouldn’t be very ethical. Unless, at death, our code was transported to an eternal databank akin to an Abrahamic heaven. So we would have to assume an ‘ethical’ justification for our simulation experiment. So we can work with two extremes, either the creator’s ethics are like ours (or a better version,) or they are very different. You could even argue that, like The Purge, we could be a form of stress relief in a violent extraterrestrial society (so to speak.) So lets assume these greater beings have what we would call ‘good ethics.’

In this case the best we could do, in a rather Nietzsche perspective, is be the best we can in tune with what we perceive as ‘the ultimate good.’ Immanuel Kant proposed the ‘categorical imperative‘ to explain an inherent code of morality within humans that we must adhere to. Wouldn’t be much of an experiment if the creators loaded the dice like that. So lets assume we have a choice to extol or ignore these virtuous ideas, then run the simulation for a few billion years. You can see how making changes to the environment (such as drought or plague) and the insertion of strong beliefs (such as religion or cults,) would make for an interesting test. How would a large, diverse population respond. How would they change? What would be the outcome? The takeaway for the creators is clear, they have a working predictive model of anthropology, politics, psychology and social interaction by which to run their own species.

experiment ethics simulation

If we are an experiment, then how would we act to be valuable?

In this case, we may want to stay around as long as possible. To be useful to the experimenters (but this assumes having an inkling of their hypothesis..)  But that if that means ‘being aware’ of the experiment, it is immediately faulty. We walk on a tightrope.

‘To assume all the powers is not good for anybody. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All those experiments have a bad ending.’ – Rafael Correa

So What Do You Do?

So, in this potentially highly hypothetical situation with contrasting variables and contradicting endpoints, how do you live ethically in a simulation? My personal thoughts would be, if we are alive now, then we have fulfilled either the ‘entertainment’ or ‘experiment’ role. So you could just say ‘carry on.’ But when ‘just carry on’ means continue jihad, crime and war, our own ethics come into question. So I will propose a compromise, go with Neitszche. Do the best you can for the most you can, but be true to yourself. And in the end, there is a saving grace. Catharsis is stronger than division, and our alien viewers may like a happy ending. And our experimenters would probably find it worth learning from anyway… maybe.

Next time; If we could prove this is a simulation, should we?

What’s Next?

  • Learn more about a simulated universe.
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article from drbenjanaway.com
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.

Note: The arguments and assumptions presented here are in no means comprehensive. For example we have not considered the outcome of a simulation experiment, the role of bias, or indeed something as simple as its hypothesis. Furthermore we have not considered the full scope of ethical standpoints that an alien or creator species would have, what they may find entertaining. Each assertion is anthropocentric, and therefore is limited, and the causal nature of each premise based on plausibility rather than induction. This article is not designed to examine all these alternatives, but perhaps a book down the line could. Some of these subjects will be touched in the following articles, but I would wager more questions  would be raised than answered in such a short format. In essence, this article is designed to inspire you to pose your own answer to the riddle.

Media credits

  1. The Trolley Problem, provided courtesy of BBC Radio 4
  2. Featured image courtesy of Flickr
  3. Alien courtesy of Flickr
  4. Petri Dish courtesy of Flickr

 

 

In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream

Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of RenĂ© Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream

Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes

Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?

 

A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation

In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

What’s Next?

  • Even if you are in a simulation, it doesn’t matter because the universe is out to get you.
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article from drbenjanaway.com
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chfoo9NBEow)
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)