Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?


Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.


The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

Nothing to Tell, But Something to Show

Sorry for the prolonged silence, but nothing interesting and novel enough to say. Hence, in lieu of thoughts, some images. I still have this picture book to “sell” (it’s for free actually):

Screenshot 2016-05-11 18.23.53

Available here:

and here:

An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

Dullness is the First Principle of Justice


Every theory of justice should be boring and dull. Dullness is what justice is all about. “It depends on”, “it’s complicated”, “it varies”, “it’s very nuanced”, “it’s somewhere in between” should be the phrases populating any philosophical work on justice. Clear and simple principles, even if arrived at through nuanced and complex reasoning, are an injustice to the concept of justice.

Justice is about the boring middle. For instance, justice is not about equality, because “it depends”. Giving all students, no matter what their ability or effort or accomplishment an equal grade offends our conception of justice, even if in general we view equal treatment as fundamental to justice. Neither is justice about rights, or better it’s not only about rights. Rights are important, as is equality, but in primitive or dysfunctional societies without an adequate justice system it may be best from the point of view of justice to hand over a pedophile to the parents of his victim.

Clear, absolute and immediately comprehensible principles that are true no matter the context and that allow for no exceptions are tempting and often propounded as the essence of theories of justice – although not of most sophisticated ones. And yet such principles are always wrong to some extent and in some circumstances. But then what about torture, slavery, murder and rape you may ask. Well, most of us would concede that there can be extreme cases in which torture is acceptable, even if only in theory (think of ticking bomb cases). We condone forced labor on a massive scale in our prison systems. Not only do we condone it – our allowing it could be considered a moral shortcoming – but there may be good reasons, moral reasons, for it: teaching people skills, fostering a sense of community etc. While there’s probably no good reason for capital punishment, other cases of murder can be morally justified: self-defense only being the most commonly accepted. And rape? While I can’t see any good reason to rape anyone in any circumstance, we do accept that there’s rape in our societies. No theory of justice should claim that we have to do everything possible to avoid any and all cases of rape that currently occur in our societies. Trying to do that would mean giving up other important rights such as privacy. We do and must accept some amount of crime. Hence any theory of justice has to be non-ideal. Ideals are useful but only take us so far. It should be considered lazy to limit yourself to an exhortation of utopia, no matter how well you argue for it.

Even theories of justice that do allow for wishy washy nuance and boring contextuality often posit a small set of grand principles as a basic ground of justice. They permit exceptions, but rarify them. The nuance and complexity they allow is in the exceptions or in the build up to the clear and simple principles, not in the principles themselves. Theories such as those of Rawls are typical of this. The voluminous body of criticism that has followed the publication of A Theory of Justice proves my point. Not all of that criticism was justified, but some of it was – notably that of G.A. Cohen but others as well. Nobody today accepts Rawls’ principles of justice as they are stated in A Theory. We all see the complexity that Rawls avoided or ignored, for example regarding incentives.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no audience for dullness – I know what I’m talking about here. So people are tempted to strive towards simplicity and clearness. That’s OK as long as there’s a thriving community that can offer criticism and nuance. The problem is not the producers of theory, but the audience. Producers can and perhaps should offer clear and simple principles, on the condition that they have complex and nuanced justifications, but the audience should be aware that it never stops there. Unfortunately, it always stops there.

Why Your Blog Is a Failure


Of course, I should say “my blog”, but if we assume, unscientifically, that my experience is shared by many other bloggers then some of you may find my answers to the question in the title somewhat useful.

Almost nobody reads my blog these days. I’ve gone from a high point of about 10,000 pageviews a day – a respectable and higher than average number – to 20 or so. (Hi mom!). Whereas failure or success are subjective notions and to some extent in the eye of the beholder, they are fairly objective at the margins. Krugman is an objectively successful blogger, and yours truly is a verifiable suck. (Much of it my own doing, I admit, but I won’t go into the specifics of my personal failure, thank you). Sure, you can call yourself a success with a tiny readership if all you want is to spread the news about your local soccer club, but let’s limit ourselves here to what we could call “serious” blogging, i.e. writing about important topics for a targeted and perhaps sizeable audience in order to change something in the world – or at least in a part of the world.

How can this go wrong, you ask? In many ways, I’m afraid.

It’s the math.

Since it’s so goddamn easy to start a blog – it literally takes only minutes and costs nothing but time – millions of people have done so. Result: there are too many blogs. Which means that you won’t show up on Google and potential readers won’t find you. The only way for googlers to find you is authoritative endorsement: other famous and credible bloggers who write about the same topics and who publish links to or perhaps even favorable comments about your writing. That, of course, is another problem.

It’s the lack of authoritative endorsement.

Even if people do find you in some way or other, they won’t be able to judge the quality of your work compared to that of the thousands of others blogging about the same thing, unless they read you and all the others carefully. Of course they don’t have time for that. They’ll only read you instead of all the others if some authority figure in the field signals to them that that is what they should do. But getting such a figure to give the right signal is hard, for the same mathematical reasons. You can try to identify these people and email them links to your posts in the hope of receiving their endorsement, but here the mathematics will trip you up again. There are very few authority figures, almost by definition, and they receive far too many endorsement requests from far too many bloggers. The chances of getting noticed by authority figures are probably even lower than the chances of spontaneous discovery by a larger public.

Furthermore, endorsement requests can make you look needy, and the need for endorsement is for many readers – including the potential endorsers – a signal that you’re not worth the trouble. People tend to assume that success is self-made and doesn’t require endorsement. If you need endorsement then that’s already a sign that there’s nothing to endorse.

It’s what you write about.

A major factor in determining readership size is the topic you write about. Some topics are more popular than others, and the things you are passionate about may only be interesting to relatively few people even if these things are objectively important to humanity as a whole. That’s OK as long as you redefine success. For instance, if you write about something like human rights – as I do – then you should realistically aim at a relatively small readership. People in general do not want to read about human rights when they can read about celebrities and royalty. You set yourself up for failure if you ignore this fact about humanity. If, on the other hand, you aim at a small readership but one that includes many of the people working in the field of human rights – academics, activists, politicians – then a small but targeted readership can be considered a success. If you can change how academic specialists in the field of human rights think about their subject, and if you can inform activists about how to be more successful in doing their work, then readership size is somewhat less important. This is true for a lot if not all of what we call “serious” blogging. This type of blogging is by definition specialized in the sense that it’s about one topic, and an important topic, and that it tries to go deep within that topic. It’s success for those types of blogs that I care about and success here is more about targeting the right people than the size of the audience.

It’s the metrics.

So it’s important to get over the fetish of readership numbers. They’re not that important for serious blogs, with possible exceptions for wide-ranging fields such as economics. And anyway, they’re notoriously difficult to measure. Pageviews don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the views you get may be just mistakes or people scraping images from your blog. And the rest of the views may last for a few seconds only (although in theory it’s possible to measure time spent on a site). Advertising income, if you have it, is also not a reliable indicator of readership. The only really useful indicator of readership is mentions of and links to you elsewhere on the internet. And especially from authority figures in the field. And that’s by definition anecdotal and impossible to measure. You’ll have to “feel” it.

It’s your style.

Suppose you have a serious blog with some level of specialization – “going deep” – and a targeted and authoritative readership that came to you by way of endorsement. You may still struggle to hold on to your audience. Even a group of specialists in the field of human rights want to have variety in what they read. Hammering on about the same thing over and over again, even if you make sense and develop good arguments, tends to become boring, even to specialists. And it’s not enough to include the occasional funny gif post as a form of comic relief. People can get that anywhere. You’ll have to find a good balance between being short and to the point on the one hand and original and deep on the other. That’s tough. People don’t go to blogs to read thousands of words (I know, I’ll wrap this up in a moment, I promise). Or to read what they already know. And remember, you’re targeting specialists and authority figures, so they know a lot and you’ll have to be original and profound.

An additional stylistic difficulty: you’re forced to write in English. No brainer. But English probably isn’t your mother tongue. Whereas English is relatively easy to learn if all you want is to communicate effectively, it’s incredible hard to write well in English. Trust me, I know. And I guess you can tell. People want to read good writing. So invest some effort in it.

It’s only blogging.

Finally: if you obsess about success or failure as a blogger, you’ve already lowered your ambitions. Try to be successful as a writer, an artist, politician or spouse. You may face some of the same difficulties but the payoff will be bigger.

What to do about the risk of failure?

If you still want to be a successful blogger after all this, then what should you do? Invest in your mastery of the English language. Continue to seek endorsements and get over your squeamishness about it. But don’t spam people. Limit your ambition and get over the pageviews. Try to get quality readers. Persevere: blogging is useful even if literally nobody reads you. You learn things by writing about them. You become a better writer and a smarter person. Also: be regular. People don’t like blogs that aren’t updated regularly (ahem). But don’t spend more than a couple of hours a day on it. Life’s too short, there’s too much good television and food. And your wife and offspring don’t care about your blog. The sun is shining and your body needs a run.

The Refugee Crisis From a Social Choice Perspective

Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing an increase in media coverage of the plight of refugees and migrants trying to make the journey to Western Europe. Here’s a graph from Google Trends:

refugees google trends

It started with events in Calais and then shifted eastwards to Hungary, Greece and other countries around the Mediterranean. Somehow, the focus is now more on refugees than on migrants, perhaps because there are now more refugees coming across from countries such as Syria. Some argue that the reason for the recent spike in media coverage are indeed the larger than ever numbers of people travelling to Europe, but I’m not sure this is correct or that it’s the main reason even if it is correct. Let’s admit that refugees are photogenic, especially when they’re in trouble, and hence easy material for journalists. Increased media coverage could be partially the result of tragic anecdotes captured on film.

Whatever the reasons for the levels of media coverage, I think it’s interesting to try to assess the impact this coverage will have on reality, as opposed to the impact of reality on the coverage.

We can look at this from both the supply side and the demand side. Let me start with the latter. An increase in the numbers of stories about refugees and migrants in Western media will most likely motivate more people to try and make the journey (foster the “demand” for migration). Although a lot of coverage focuses on the risks faced by individuals or families – people drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating in the backs of trucks – potential migrants or refugees are well aware of these risks and increased media coverage of deaths or other negative effects of migration attempts will not change their risk assessment. (It would be different if destination countries were actively trying to increase the risks, by building walls or stopping boats, but this doesn’t seem to be happening, yet. Or at least not more than before. The so-called wall in Hungary, however shameful, is still very leaky). Compared to the risks of staying where they are, potential migrants or refugees make a rational calculation to leave, and they’re probably correct in most cases. They’re even more likely to be correct when they come from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Increased media coverage also shows that lots of people do make it some distance to their destination, and this will further push other potential migrants’ calculations towards a decision to make the journey. In addition: media coverage doesn’t typically include success stories of people making it all the way and having a good life in their new country. Potential travellers know this, and therefore include this in their risk assessment. They know that media coverage is skewed towards bad news and only tends to show journeys that go wrong and to picture people having trouble along the way or facing hostility at their destination. Migrants arriving safely, being welcomed and having a successful new life just don’t make the news, but they exist. We all know this, but we don’t know how common they are. Still, they exist, and knowledge of this factors into the risk calculations of potential migrants.

How about the “supply side”? How will countries that can potentially offer more or less supply of migration opportunities react to the recent media coverage? First of all, we’re now seeing a strong self-shaming effect, especially after events such as the drowning of Aylan. This mitigates pre-existing xenophobia and forces western European governments to allow somewhat larger numbers of arrivals. This is already happening, albeit on a largely symbolic scale. So both the demand and supply sides will go up, at least in the short term.

Feelings of shame tend not to last, however, and tragic images of dead toddlers on beaches fade from memory much faster than the sight of even a relatively small number of new arrivals squatting in squalor in Western parks and train stations. Xenophobic reactions to the new arrivals and the often imaginary burdens these people place on “our” social security systems, housing markets, job markets etc. will probably make a comeback after a few weeks of face-to-face confrontation with third world poverty. As a result, we’re likely to see a rebranding of refugees as “mere” migrants. Migrants in turn will be called “fortune seekers” and other rather more despicable labels.

FT_Econ_Burden_fw_Pre-crisis levels of toleration of migrants were already low in many European countries, and one can imagine that so-called “swarms” of new arrivals can make things worse very quickly. This in turn can have an effect on the demand side as people considering a potential journey decide to do it sooner rather than later in order to beat the clock and travel before the walls go up. These possible new waves of concentrated arrivals in Western countries will further encourage xenophobia. Etcetera etcetera, as one is tempted to say.

If you’re interested, I’ve got more and older posts on migration, refugees and citizenship right here.

What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks


About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.


So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.