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).

What Are Human Rights? (24): Absolute Rights?

One of the great puzzles in human rights theory is the possible existence of absolute rights. It’s commonly accepted that most if not all human rights are “relative” in the sense that they can be limited if their exercise results in harm done to other rights or to the rights of others. Freedom of speech for example doesn’t offer “absolute” protection for all kinds or instances of speech (see here).

If there are any human rights that do offer absolute protection without exception, the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to suffer slavery would be good candidates. Whereas it seems quite reasonable to silence someone when he or she incites violence or hatred, it’s much harder to imagine cases in which it’s reasonable to kill, torture or enslave someone. I’ll focus here on the right to life.

How would you go about justifying the absolute nature of that right? First, you could claim that life is the supreme value. Life is indeed supreme in one sense of the word: it’s lexically prior as they say. It comes first. You can have life without freedom or equality, but not vice versa. (Of course, there are also other more or less promising ways to argue for life’s supremacy in the universe of moral values. I won’t go there now, and neither will I point to the fact that people often sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the lexical priority of life suffices, in general, to ground life’s supremacy in the system of values).

If life is the supreme value, that means that no life can be sacrificed for an inferior value. You can’t go about killing poor or handicapped people for the sake of aggregate wellbeing. And neither can you execute criminals in an effort to deter future attacks on people’s security rights.

So life is then the supreme value in the sense that it can’t simply be traded against another inferior value. That already makes a lot of potential limitations of the right to life unacceptable, and the right to life therefore moves a significant distance towards absoluteness. However, if life is the supreme value, it’s still theoretically possible to trade the lives of a few for the lives of many others. So not life as such, as an aggregate or abstract concept needs to be the supreme value, but individual life. If individual life is the supreme value, the lives of some can’t be put on a scale to see if their sacrifice could protect a higher number of other lives. Robert Nozick gives the following example to make this point salient:

A mob rampaging through a part of town killing and burning will violate the rights of those living there. Therefore, someone might try to justify his punishing [i.e. killing] another he knows to be innocent of a crime that enraged a mob, on the grounds that punishing this innocent person would help to avoid even greater violations of rights by others, and so would lead to a minimum weighted score for rights violations in the society. Robert Nozick

So, if you accept the argument made so far, does this mean that you have established the absolute nature of the right to life and that this right therefore can never be limited? It would seem so. If life is the supreme value, it’s hard to find a reason to limit it, since this reason would then have to be a superior value. And if individual life is the supreme value, you can’t play a numbers game to conclude that the sacrifice of some is necessary in order to save a higher number of other lives.

However, categorical claims like this always seem to me to make things too easy. Something else is necessary. Take four cases in which lives are commonly sacrificed without universal or often even widespread condemnation:

  • individual self-defense
  • war as national self-defense
  • capital punishment and
  • the murder of a terrorist (and perhaps his hostages) about to kill many others (e.g. the shooting down of a commercial plane hijacked by terrorists and about to be used as a weapon).

In all these cases, the lives of some are sacrificed for the lives of others (assuming that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, which is probably not the case). If the right to life is really absolute, none of these actions would be morally or legally acceptable. In order to make them acceptable, there has to be something more than a mere quantitative benefit in terms of numbers of lives saved. I believe the sacrifice of life is acceptable if in doing so one doesn’t violate these three rules:

  • we should only sacrifice life in order to save life, and not in order to promote other values, and
  • we shouldn’t treat other people as means, and
  • we shouldn’t diminish the value of life.

In the case of one of the four actions cited above, namely capital punishment, we do treat other people as means and we diminish the value of life. Murderers are used as instruments to frighten future murderers. Capital punishment is supposedly intended to further respect for life, but in fact normalizes murder. (See here for a more detailed treatment of this issue). In the three other cases, we don’t necessarily use people as means or diminish the value of life. Hence these case can be acceptable limitations of the right to life.

So the right to life is only quasi-absolute: limitations are possible but extremely rare because a number of very demanding conditions have to be met:

  • you can’t kill for the promotion of values different from life
  • you can’t generally count lives and kill people if thereby you can save more lives
  • and if you do want to kill in order to save lives, you have to do it in a manner that doesn’t instrumentalize human beings or diminishes the value of life.

Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.

Human Rights and Risk

Obviously, we all run the risk of having our rights violated. Depending on where you live in the world, this risk may be big or small. For some, the risk always remains a risk, and their rights are always respected. But that’s the exception. Many people live with a more or less permanent fear that their rights will be violated. This fear is based on their previous experiences with rights violations, and/or on what they see happening around them.

I see at least two interesting questions regarding this kind of risk:

  • Is, as Nozick argued, the risk or probability of a rights violation a rights violation in itself? Do people have a right not to fear possible rights violations?
  • And, to what extent does this risk of rights violations lead to rights violations?

The first question is the hardest one, I think. It seems that the risk of suffering rights violations is there all of the time, although it may be very small for some of us. If there is a right not to live with this risk, then this right would be violated all of the time. What good is a right that is perpetually violated?

However, it would seem that in some circumstances, where the probability that rights are violated is very high, people do indeed suffer. Imagine that you live in a society in which there is a high probability that you are arbitrarily arrested by the police. Even if you are not actually arrested – and your rights are therefore not violated – you are living in fear. It would seem that a right not to live in fear of rights violations does have some use in these high-risk environments.

But if we limit the right not to risk rights violations to situations in which there is a high probability of rights violations, we will have to decide on a threshold: when, at what level of high probability of rights violations, does the right not to risk rights violations become effective? This means introducing arbitrariness.

And another problem: what if you don’t know about the risk? There may be at certain moments a high probability that your rights will be violated, but you don’t have to be aware of this. In that case, you don’t fear the rights violations, and hence there is no harm done to you. It’s difficult to conceive of a right when its violation doesn’t (always) cause harm of some kind, and hence the right not to risk rights violations seems impossible in this case.

The second question is more straightforward. Everyday we see how the risk of rights violations leads to actual rights violations. The perception of risk, and people’s counter-strategies designed to limit the risk of rights violations, makes them violate other rights. The war on terror is a classic example. Ticking bomb torture is another.

The objective of avoiding risk creates risks, namely the risks that our actions designed to avoid risk cause harm. We may have to learn (again) how to live with risk.