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

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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.

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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).

Terrorism and Human Rights (41): The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

I recently wrote a blind referee report for a paper about the so-called ticking time bomb scenario (a short intro about the concept is here), and it occurred to me that it may make a useful blogpost. I can’t show you the paper itself, since it’s not published yet and I don’t know who wrote it (that’s what blind refereeing is about), but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to understand my comments. Undoubtedly, by publishing my comments here I also violate the blind refereeing process, since there’s a chance the author(s) of the paper, whomever it is, might find my comments here and hence find out who I am. It’s a small chance, since this is a small blog. But, truth be told, I don’t care because I object to the whole blind refereeing thing: it stifles discussion. I only go along with it because I get to read interesting papers.

So here goes:

While the authors do an excellent job of doing what they set out to do, I have an objection to their basic objective. The paper is intended as a defense of thought experiments in philosophy in general and of the Ticking Time Bomb scenario (TBS) in particular. That in itself is a laudable objective, and the discussion of the ways in which the use of TBS as a thought experiment has been misunderstood, especially by opponents of torture, is on the mark.

However, it is my view that the authors focus too much on TBS as a philosophical device and as a thought experiment and lose sight of common usage of TBS. As a result, they run the risk of producing a paper on a topic that is irrelevant to the main discussions regarding the topic. If one were willing to count, one would find that a large majority of citations of TBS are not in the context of strictly philosophical discussions regarding our deeply held moral intuitions, but rather in a context in which philosophical discussions about TBS are intended to have policy implications. In fact, TBS is hardly ever a purely philosophical device and almost always a philosophical slash political device. A paper on TBS – even a philosophical paper – should not lose sight of the ways in which discussions about TBS are often intended to have policy implications, especially when these intended policy implications are highly disturbing.

The authors make assumptions about the motivations of proponents and opponents of discussions about TBS. For instance: proponents are assumed to use TBS as a merely philosophical device intended to highlight our moral intuitions, whereas opponents are assumed to be motivated by their fear of the – supposedly non-existent – policy motivations of proponents. The authors seem to be arguing two things:

  1. Those who use the TBS in order to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture only or mainly do so in order to highlight moral intuitions, not in order to actually promote the use of torture were a ticking bomb to be found.
  2. Those who object to the use of the TBS as a means to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture therefore miss the point.

I believe that both arguments are wrong, sociologically speaking. The authors would probably agree and respond that they do not speak sociologically but philosophically and that their point is an “ought” rather than an “is”: even if TBS “is” used as a policy device and a means to promote torture, it “ought” to be used as a mere philosophical device (“the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device”, p. 12). Be that as it may, the paper would benefit from

  1. A clearer statement of this difference.
  2. A clear recognition of the actual way in which a majority of citations of TBS are evidently philosophical slash political in nature rather than merely philosophical.
  3. A more thorough discussion of the respective motivations of proponents and opponents of the use of the TBS experiment.

The paper also contains some statements without arguments. For example, the already cited phrase “the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device” (p. 12). While the usefulness of TBS as a philosophical thought experiment is very well argued elsewhere in the paper, the claim that this and only this use of TBS is the proper one is merely stated, not argued. Many actual users of TBS would disagree and would claim that it is and should be a policy making device. For example, one could make the case that the frequent use of TBS by Bush/Cheney officials was intended as a justification of actual torture. Another phrase that does not receive sufficient argument: “strenuous attempts to show that the TBS … leads to terrible social policy are misguided” (p. 26). Perhaps actual torture during the Bush/Cheney administration combined with frequent citation of the TBS by that administration would indicate that those “strenuous attempts” are not in fact “misguided”. If the authors wish to maintain the two cited phrases, they’ll have to make the argument.

More posts in this series are here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (37): Torture is Social and Political Suicide

When democratic governments consider the option of torturing someone, the stakes are usually high. They won’t consider it just for some marginal benefit. The paradigmatic case is the ticking time bomb that’s about to kill thousands or even millions. Torture is supposed to be justified because the benefits are huge, or – stated negatively – because the possible harm resulting from a failure to torture is huge. Combining the size of what is at stake with the urgency of the threat makes the case for torture even stronger.

However, this justification of torture has some unsettling side effects. Given the urgency, and given the fact that terrorists are probably trained to withstand torture, a free society would have to

maintain a professional class of torturers, and to equip them with continuously-updated torture techniques and equipment. Grave dangers to democracy and to individual freedoms would be posed by an institutionalized professional “torture squad”. (source)

Such a highly trained and continuously available torture squad would be necessary to inflict torture that is likely to succeed in extracting the information on a reliable basis and within an extremely short time frame. It would also be necessary to inflict levels of pain sufficient to procure the victim’s compliance but insufficient to kill or render incapable of communication. Amateur thugs will not suffice. You really need professionals.

This is the institutionalization of torture. It’s difficult to see how a free society could survive the presence of such a torture squad. It would infect our entire society to know that there are people among us who torture for a living. The squad members themselves will most likely fail to remain well-intentioned, and the mere existence of such a squad corrupts morality in a society. It’s naive to think that the members of the torture squad will return to normality once their job is done and function like normal law-abiding and non-violent citizens in between emergency sessions. Torture leads to the destruction of a democracy and a free society that decides to go this way.

Terrorism and Human Rights (36): There Are No Ticking Bomb Cases

The so-called ticking time bomb case is supposed to prove that there shouldn’t be an absolute ban on torture, and that torture is in some cases justified if it can help to prevent catastrophic harm. Maybe there shouldn’t be an absolute ban, but the ticking bomb case is the wrong way to prove it.

Just a brief reminder of what the ticking bomb case is about. Suppose a ticking bomb has been hidden in a densely populated area and will soon kill thousands or millions if not disarmed. The authorities have managed to capture a terrorist who has either hidden the bomb himself or knows where it has been hidden. (One can replace the “ticking bomb” with another and similar type of deadly device without changing the nature of the argument. The “ticking bomb” is in fact a “pars pro toto”, encompassing cases which do not necessarily involve an actual ticking bomb but which are nevertheless similar with respect to their circumstances and consequences).

The authorities are sure the captured person knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it, but the problem is that he obviously doesn’t want to reveal this information. However, the authorities are also pretty sure that he will do so under torture. There is no other or alternative way to extract the information, and simply evacuating people isn’t an option given the urgency and the lack of knowledge about the exact location of the bomb. Are we therefore not morally allowed to use torture in order to get the information and save numerous lives? Or, a somewhat stronger claim: are we not morally obliged to torture given the enormous benefits for large numbers of people compared to the limited costs for the tortured individual?

Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of the wrongdoer. (source)

The problem – if it is a problem – is that this thought experiment can’t justify torture. It can’t because it’s loaded with so many hypotheticals that the chances of a case like it occurring in real life are close to zero. People simply have to know too much and yet just – just – not enough. That state of affairs is very unlikely, as is the application of torture that is so effective that it delivers accurate information in a very short time frame (remember, the bomb is ticking…).

Hence, if we won’t see a case like it in real life, the thought experiment can’t justify real life torture. At most it may be able to justify torture in theory. The purely theoretical nature of the whole affair is supported by the absence of ticking bomb cases in history. Some cases that are claimed to have been ticking bomb cases – such as the torture of Abdul Hakim Murad – were in fact, after closer examination, none of the kind. Murad only gave away his information after a month of torture, and it came as a surprise. He was tortured not because of an imminent threat. There was no such threat, and the torturers did not act on the assumption that there was.

In 1995, the police in the Philippines tortured Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Finally, from this withered and broken man came secrets of a terror plot to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and to assassinate the pope. … it took more than a month to break Mr. Murad and extract information – a delay that would have made it impossible to head off an imminent threat. (source)

I assume that all those who come up with the ticking bomb to justify torture want to use the case not to justify ticking bomb torture but other, more mundane forms of torture. After all, when you think you’ve managed to crack open the door a little bit – even theoretically – maybe it will swing wide open.

More about the ticking bomb case. More about torture.

Terrorism and Human Rights (34): Terrorism Reduces Respect for Human Rights

And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense: terrorism is a human rights violation and therefore reduces respect for human rights. I’m more interested in the indirect effects of terrorism on human rights. According to this study, terrorist attacks substantially diminish governments’ respect for human rights. Extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, torture, attacks on privacy etc. are much more common in countries that have witnessed terrorist attacks. One commonly cited reason for this is the perceived necessity of balancing human rights and security. However, it’s not clear whether restrictions on human rights do indeed work to deter or fight terrorism – perhaps such restrictions just make terrorism more likely in the long run (oppression creates resentment). It’s also unclear whether terrorism is the real reason for the restrictions or merely a pretext.

If terrorists are indeed motivated by their hatred of “our freedom“, then they are extremely successful because they have forced democratic countries to destroy a substantial part of their own freedom. Examples are here.

And whether or not restrictions of freedom do effectively improve security in the short and in the long run, governments can’t claim that what they do is what the public wants:

Terrorism and Human Rights (32): What is Torture?

This question has to be answered, and not just because answering it is intellectually satisfying. Those who engage or want to engage in torture are constantly trying to redefine the word downwards. Nobody wants to be a torturer, but many want to use force during interrogations. because they think they have to, because they believe it helps, or simply because they’re insane and evil.

Hence, if one can manage to exclude certain forms of interrogation from the concept of “torture” by way of some definitional acrobatics, those forms become somewhat more acceptable. An example is the infamous torture definition proposed by John Yoo and the Justice Department (who, I believe, belong to the “we have to” camp):

Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture (under U.S. law), it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years. (source)

On the other hand, we don’t want the concept to cover too much. There are some cases in which the deliberate infliction of pain is justified and shouldn’t be called torture. Sadomasochistic relationships between consenting adults should not be prohibited. And some forms of criminal punishment cause pain – typically mental pain – and yet are commonly accepted. Likewise, we wouldn’t want to outlaw all types of war, no matter how intensely we yearn for peace.

So, let’s propose the following definition, based loosely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lemma on torture: torture is

  • the intentional and non-accidental infliction of severe physical – and in some cases mental – pain or suffering (mental suffering can be a mock execution for example)
  • by one person on another, non-consenting and defenseless person who may or may not be guilty of a crime (the torturer may or may not be a government official or someone employed by a government official)
  • while assuming complete control over the victim’s body and autonomy
  • with the purpose of:
  • extracting information (forward-looking)
  • extracting a confession (backward-looking)
  • punishing the victim
  • degrading the victim
  • coercing the victim to act in a certain way or believe certain things
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the victim, or
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the wider society.

This definition is compatible with, although somewhat wider than, the definition offered in the United Nations Convention Against Torture:

Torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a male or female person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions. (source)

This UN definition has the advantage of explicitly including second-order torture, namely torturing a person – for example a relative – in order to get a confession, information etc. from another person.

Both these definitions exclude, correctly I believe, acts of self-defense, masochism or other types of consensual violence, as well as violent acts between combatants and “collateral damage” (accidental injuries to civilians) in the course of war. However, it’s not because these actions are excluded from the definition of torture, that they are necessarily morally right.

More on torture here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (28): Torture and the Ticking Bomb

In 1987, a judicial commission of inquiry headed by former [Israeli] Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau had reported that “moderate physical pressure” [by the Israeli General Security Services G.S.S.] was defensible in cases in which an interrogator “committed an act that was immediately necessary” to save lives from grave harm. Israeli human rights organizations had monitored G.S.S. interrogations and concluded that some eighty-five percent of Palestinians interrogated had been tortured – subjected to methods almost identical to those currently being used in American military detention – and questioned whether such an enormous percentage of detainees were indeed “ticking bombs”. If those being tortured were all “ticking bombs”, why, asked an Israeli human rights organization shortly before the Supreme Court hearing, did interrogators take weekends off? “The lethal bomb ticks away during the week, ceases, miraculously, on the weekend, and begins to tick again when the interrogators return from their day of rest.” (source)

Whatever you think about the persuasiveness of the ticking bomb argument in favor of torture, or even it’s relevance to actual cases of torture, it’s difficult not see the risk of a slippery slope, especially given evidence like this.