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A Simulated Theodicy

I was interested to read this article in this morning’s New York Times. According to Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, the chances of human beings and our perceived existence on planet earth being a computer simulation are around 20%. John Tierney, the Times writer covering the story, considers this scenario to be even more likely—”almost a mathematical certainty” once we accept some “pretty reasonable” assumptions.

If I understand the argument correctly, the potential creation of supercomputers in the not-too-distant future—computers that could plausibly be powerful enough to simulate the lives of each and every inhabitant on the planet—is claimed to provide good grounds for the assertion that we are, right now, nothing more than simulations, living our lives blissfully unaware that we exist for nothing more than the amusement of a “futuristic computer geek.”

At first, I thought that this must be a comedy piece or something. But I scanned the article a few times and it seems that these people really do mean for this to be taken as a serious explanatory option for the existence of our world. Because it seems plausible that computers could do this at some undetermined point in the future, it is set forth as a plausible account of reality in the present.

Perhaps I am alone in thinking that this is just a little too strange to take seriously. Perhaps my frustration at wasting an evening with my local internet provider’s “e-care” program in the attempt to understand why my computer is behaving badly has unfairly prejudiced me towards the “world as computer-simulation” explanation for the existence of the world. Perhaps I am not philosophically sophisticated enough to grasp the technicalities of the argument, or am missing some of the profound existential benefits of embracing an explanation of reality that suggests that I am a simulation in a computer program.

Or perhaps this really is an utterly ridiculous idea that officially signifies that we’ve given up trying to make sense of ourselves and the planet.

After I read the article I began to wonder what might be motivating an attempt such as this one. I was intrigued by one little line, tucked away at the bottom of the first page, which briefly touched on what I feel to be the driving force behind enterprises such as this:

It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude.

This “theory” is not being set forth because it seems to make the most sense of the world. It offers no conceivable benefits in the realm of ethics, and it does not render human beings more intelligible to ourselves. I think that even Bostrom and Tierney would admit that, at least on the surface, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that anything like this could be true. What the theory is attempting, in a bizarre kind of way, is theodicy—a theoretical explanation of the meaning of suffering and evil.

Perhaps it is felt that we’ve run out of decent options: traditional theistic theodicies ask us to believe in invisible entities, and have a difficult time explaining how God avoids being implicated in the evils of his world. Atheistic theodicies have trouble accounting for the existence of creatures who expect better (in the moral sense of the word) from the world than it offers. So why not just claim that whoever or whatever is responsible for the world we find ourselves in is a “Prime Computer Designer” who is motivated by such ordinary human traits as perverse curiosity, boredom, and a need to obtain feelings of power and control.

In short, why not just claim that the best explanation for evil is that the world is the result of an inferior architect/designer—or, at the very least, one who is more concerned with his/her/its own amusement than to worry about things of importance to (simulated) human beings. The world is, quite simply, a ridiculous game, and the evils it contains are the price that must be paid to sustain our “designer’s” interest.

Near the end of the article, Tierney briefly touches on the human desire for immortality, musing that it might be best to attempt to live according to what we think might be the “posthuman designer’s” moral principles in the hopes that we’ll be kept around for another simulation. Or perhaps, as suggested by an economist from George Mason University, we ought to forget about trying to be moral in the hopes of impressing our cyber-designer—what we ought to strive for is to be interesting in the hopes that he/she/it finds us amusing enough to keep around for a few more simulations.

What a compelling vision of the world and of humanity.

Whatever benefits this view of the world might offer (and they seem rather meager), I think that this “simulated theodicy,” this “explanation” of evil comes at much too high of a cost. It is, of course, possible to locate evil within this kind of an explanatory framework. It does the job, and several of the difficulties faced by more traditional theodicies are avoided. But when I am asked to believe that everything around me is an illusion designed by a geeky “posthuman,” and that my best hope for redemption or “immortality” is to attempt to be as “interesting” as possible in order to amuse a designer who could care less about me or anyone else in his cyber-playland, I think that I will, with all due respect, retreat to my “inadequate” religious theodicy, with all of its difficulties.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    Maybe this mythical ‘posthuman’ is behind our variegated bathroom experiences as well. What could be more ‘interesting’ than watching subjects hopping around in front of a machine hoping that it will spit out a paper towel. It’s all coming together…

    August 14, 2007
  2. Not having read the article, it sounds like a high-tech update on Berkeleyan Idealism and his “esse est percipi”. Only, they have replaced Berkeley’s God with this “futuristic computer geek”.

    I guess my initial reaction to this is, if this computer geek is supposed to explain pain and suffering (effectively disposing of God), then he must be an eternal computer geek because pain and suffering are not new phenomena. That is, unless they concede that suffering existed prior to this computer geek’s existence, in which case they have not disposed of that “classic theological question”.

    So… if we have an eternal computer geek, then we have an eternal being, and we’re back to the idea of God. So really, the only thing they have really said is that God exists, but he is not a good God. He is the “evil deceiver” that Descartes wrestled with prior to penning his infamous cogito ergo sum.

    Well, it appears that I’ve added nothing of real substance to the conversation. I do agree with you in finding it interesting that this all comes back a theodicic mindset.

    I think it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that, the mere fact that we are bothered by pain and suffering is evidence that we have an innate knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong with life on this planet?

    August 15, 2007
  3. That’s a very interesting connection you draw between Berkeley and this kind of a view. And you’ve also hinted at some major difficulties regarding the nature of evil and its role in this supposed simulation. Somehow I doubt that those who come up with these kinds of ideas have ethical issues foremost in their minds – the logic and the math are, apparently, more important…

    I don’t think this view holds up very well to any kind of serious scrutiny. I was mainly interested in what might drive someone to actually entertain something like this, and wondered if the problem of evil might be lurking in the background (as it so often is).

    I think you’re right about Lewis as well – I believe it’s in The Problem of Pain, but I could be wrong.

    August 15, 2007

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