A Simple Thought on the Radical Idea That We’re Living in a Simulation

Image for post
Image for post
For some reason most people on flickr caption pictures of this kind as (gross!)

On a Sunday afternoon, going for a walk on the narrow trails in the hills behind my apartment, I had multiple occasions to step over small piles of ants. They were swarming over each other, perhaps mating, perhaps indulging in a deceased beetle that I couldn’t see, perhaps simply celebrating the sun in little ant parties. I don’t know much about ants. What came to mind, however, was a sentiment that I had heard from Neil deGrasse Tyson. That he was concerned; if a superior alien intelligence ever came to Earth that they might crush us, destroy us, without thinking. Like how we might crush an ant.

There are some subtle implications regarding this analogy. First, why use ants as your example bug? Certainly there are other bugs which we destroy with greater relish and confidence in our actions (mosquitoes, gnats, wasps). I’ve actually seen arguments made about how humans could wipe out mosquitoes with almost no larger environmental impact. One of those beliefs I would like so badly to be true, that I have to question its veracity.

Ah-ha, here we come to one of the keys to deGrasse Tyson’s analogy. You cannot wish to kill the ant, you would do it simply without thinking. We don’t even bother to think about the mental life of ants. Or at least this is the implication. But that’s far from the truth. We do think about the mental lives of ants. We actually know quite a bit about how they operate. We’ve studied them extensively. So maybe that’s not the ultimate function of the analogy.

Maybe it’s closer to functioning as a metaphor. How ants stand in for the word small. ‘The people look like ants from up here.’

Not; ‘The people look like ladybugs from up here.’

‘Wait, what?’

‘You know, ladybugs, they’re small.’

‘You’re weird.’

It probably also has something to do with the colony and cooperative aspect of ants. In terms of the insect world, ants are the bugs which we most often find ourselves in comparison. What other bug could get two simultaneous animated heros made about it (watch out, summer 2020, be prepared for ocean adventure. It’s the lice that live on the backs of crabs!)

We have positive associations with ants. They’re hard workers. Sturdy and strong. They don’t really bother us too much, but individually it would be difficult to think of them as in-expendable, as we do with ourselves.

In any case, to come back to deGrasse Tyson’s analogy and my point about it; have you ever thought about how difficult it would be to kill all the ants? Maybe we could devise some kind of chemical and spray it all over the Earth, but why would we want to do that? It seems to me, the only true way to get rid of all the ants would be, basically, to destroy the Earth itself. I think that this same basic principle can also be applied to humans. It would be very difficult to kill all of us. So if, say, an alien species came to Earth, without any intention of destroying it, why be concerned what they think about our level of intelligence? Under what rational could this criteria ever apply?

My argument being (and this will bring us into the simulation thing); human beings are good at conceptualizing and organizing, what we are bad at, sometimes, is questioning the intention of our categorizations. Often, very smart people commit this error most egregiously. Why should deGrasse Tyson worry what an alien species might think of his intelligence? Is it an excess of mental faculties that drive some of our sillier ideas?

This has often been my opinion regarding the simulation argument. I think part of the success of the idea has been the ease into which one slips into understanding its premise. Technology is changing rapidly, computers are getting better, why shouldn’t we be able to completely simulate reality at some point in the future? Perhaps that point has already come and gone. It has already happened and we are it. I get the appeal. Yet, simultaneously, it strikes me as totally bizarre.

One of my favorite fiction authors, Milan Kundera, has a section of dialogue in his novel Immortality about the progress of European history. One character attacks the other with this sentiment:

“You remind me of the young men who supported the Nazis .. not out of cowardice or out of opportunism, but out of an excess of intelligence. For nothing requires a greater effort of thought than arguments justifying the rule of non-thought.”

Now I know for my purposes that a comparison of this passage to what I’m talking about takes a small leap, but it strikes me as a larger argument indicative of a deep human need to think about something. The larger question of where we are in relation to our environment, and that computers have become a huge part of our environment, how we think about the world. That computers should form some fantastical theory of our reality seems natural, in the same way that fascism seems to be able to rise out of our moral hierarchy. So, in a sense, simulation theory is like the fascist endpoint of the silicon revolution.

Also, I have to assume that Douglas Adams deserves some of the blame.

In his wonderful and wildly popular series of books The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, one of the main plot points is that the Earth is a giant computer, essentially. Bio-mechanically created (so not a simulation) as a program to figure out the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything.

I have to imagine that some of the impetus of the simulation argument stems from the ubiquity of these novels, another point where I find no fault. It’s a clever and funny idea. To piggyback on it seems natural.

But the places and people who I see discussing the simulation argument, seem to take it much more seriously than how the idea exists in the structure of Adams’ novels. Simulation theory and AI for that matter are often discussed as tragic ultimates. Yet at the same time, totally necessary. Often the people most disturbed by technological ideas are those who are distinct technological addicts.

How many times have you been with a friend where they’ve observed a bug and questioned, “What the hell is that thing?” How many times have you looked through ornithological books and pondered the extensive minutia of birds?

Walking through the hills behind my apartment I touch individual blades of grass, pull up rocks with different mineral compositions. I have deep trouble understanding how in any way the complexity of life on this planet would be easily simulated. So what is the purpose of the simulation argument?

Is it a question about the limitations of our perceptions? Theory, fascism. The brilliance of our minds also enticing a deep and preposterous solipsism.

Or is simulation supposed to, in a devious way, legitimize technological advances through osmosis?

I don’t know. But it seems to me a flawed theory. Because the more I think about it as a real thing, the less it becomes clear to me why I should think about it, worry about it, at all. Call me an intellectual ant.

Written by

Relates with supervillains. Writes literary fiction. Likes audiobooks. His novella audiobook The Town of Books is available wherever you get yours.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store