Recent political events have turned the world upside down. The UK voting for Brexit and the US electing Donald Trump as president were unthinkable 18 months ago. In fact, they’re so extraordinary that some have questioned whether they might not be an indication that we’re actually living in some kind of computer simulation or alien experiment.
These unexpected events could be experiments to see how our political systems cope under stress. Or they could be cruel jokes made at our expense by our alien zookeepers. Or maybe they’re just glitches in the system that were never meant to happen. Perhaps the recent mix-up at the Oscars or the unlikely victories of Leicester City in the English Premier League or the New England Patriots in the Superbowl are similar glitches.
The problem with using these difficult political events as evidence that our world is a simulation is how unethical such a scenario would be. If there really were a robot or alien power that was intelligent enough to control all our lives in this way, there’s a good chance they’d have developed the moral sense not to do so.
Philosophers have been discussing the prospect that the world is just an illusion for hundreds of years. It most recently returned to public attention when SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk suggested we are probably living in a computer simulation, a real-life version of The Matrix.
Echoing philosopher Nick Bostrom, Musk reasoned that computing power is growing so quickly that our descendants would find it easy to run as many universe simulations as they like. This would lead to an unlimited number of simulated universes, but there would still only be one real universe. The odds of ours being the real one would be infinitesimal.
Bostrom concludes one of three things must be true. Either humanity goes extinct before developing the technology to make universe simulations possible. Or advanced civilisations freely choose not to run such simulations. Or we are probably living in a simulation. Bostrom and Musk put their money on this last option.
The question we’re faced with is whether unexpected events such as Trump and Brexit make it more or less likely that we are living in a simulation. Are they the kind of thing we should expect to see in a simulated universe?
Political scientists usually can’t run experiments in the real world to test their theories like other scientists can. But what if they could run a giant computer simulation to get the data? Brexit and Trump might be deliberate experiments designed to see what happens when key features of our world are put under strain. Is the American constitution self-supporting, even when officials are malevolent or incompetent? Can Britain thrive outside the EU? Can democracy survive without protection from NATO?
But experiments in global politics in the real world wouldn’t just be prohibitively difficult and expensive. They would also be unethical. It’s wrong to make research subjects suffer without their informed consent. Knowledge may be valuable, but it is not valuable enough to justify cruelty in its pursuit.
Increasingly, we’re coming to realise that these ethical limitations apply not only to our fellow humans, but to all beings capable of suffering – including both animals and sentient artificial intelligence. Bostrom has argued that as long as a consciousness is capable of subjective experience, pain and fear are experienced the same way, regardless of whether they are manifested in neurons or circuits.
We might not have sentient AI yet, but the EU is already drafting proposals for the protection of “electronic persons.” And, just as it would be wrong for us to conduct cruel experiments on sentient AI, so too would it be wrong for our digital overlords to conduct them on us. This is good reason to think that advanced civilisations would choose not to simulate our world, even if they had the technical capacity to do so, because doing so would be morally wrong.
Bostrom argues that it’s not clear that creating a universe like ours would be wrong, despite the suffering that exists. He also points out that our possible digital overlords, like the gods of traditional religions, could reward us with a blissful (simulated) afterlife. This is a traditional theological response to what is known as the problem of evil. But it still leaves the question of whether it is ethical to make us suffer first and only provide compensation later.
This argument also won’t save the suggestion that recent events make a simulation more likely – quite the opposite. The worse the world gets, the less likely it is that it’s morally acceptable to have created it.
Of course, even if simulating our world is wrong, our digital masters might do it anyway. Not all technically advanced civilisations are moral. The Nazis were famously adept technologically. It’s not crazy to think that a German victory in World War II, while a moral monstrosity, would not have been a disaster for science.
But there’s a reason why the world depicted in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which portrays just such a situation, is threatened by imminent nuclear destruction. Without ethics to limit its use, science and technology are grave dangers to human survival.
Which makes it much more likely that a universe simulation would never be created. Either our descendants will be ethical enough not to destroy one another and so ethical enough not to simulate suffering like ours, or humanity will go extinct before it is able to.
As W H Auden said, “we must love one another or die”. And we would never put creatures we love into a simulated world filled with malaria, famine, civil war … and Donald Trump.