Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Welcome to the Machine, Part 1: The ethics of simulated beings

Without a doubt some of my favorite video games of all time have been those that involve simulations, including SimCity and The Sims.

When I play these games I fancy myself a demigod, managing and manipulating the slew of variables made available to me; with the click of a mouse I can alter the environment and adjust the nature of the simulated inhabitants themselves.

There's no question that these games are becoming evermore realistic and sophisticated. A few years ago, for example, a plug-in was developed for The Sims allowing the virtual inhabitants to entertain themselves by playing none other than SimCity itself. When I first heard about this I was struck with the vision of Russian Matrioshka nesting dolls, but instead of dolls I saw simulations within simulations within simulations.

And then I remembered good old Copernicus and his principle of mediocrity: We should never assume that our own particular place in space and time is somehow special or unique. Thinking of the simulation Matrioshka, I reflected on the possibility that we might be Sims ourselves: Why should we assume that we are at the primary level of reality?

Indeed, considering the radical potential for computing power in the decades to come, we may be residing somewhere deep within the Matrioshka.

Consequently, we are all faced with a myriad of existential, philosophical and ethical questions. If we are merely simulants, what does it mean to be alive? Are our lives somehow lessened or even devoid of meaning? Should we interact with the world and our fellow simulants differently than before we knew we were living in a simulation? How are we to devise moral and ethical codes of conduct?

In other words, how are we to live?

Well, there's no reason to get too excited over this. It's a bit of speculative metaphysics that doesn't really change anything -- assuming we are in a simulation, we should live virtually the same way as if we were living in the "real" world.

That is unless, of course, those running the simulation expect something from us. Which means we need to figure out what it is exactly we're supposed to do...

Tomorrow - Part 2: Descarte's 'Malicious Demons.'

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