I have not had the time to post here as often as I’d like and I am hoping to get back into a semi-regular blogging schedule once things settle down. The hectic pace of an almost-two-year-old and teaching a 6/3/-6/3 course load (18 classes a year!) has taken its toll. I have been meaning to write a post on my plenary session at The Science of Consciousness (TSC2016) conference in Tucson. And I have been working on a paper with Joe LeDoux developing a Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness that is nearing the final stages. I plan to post something about it once we are done. I am also still trying to produce a series of videos for my introductory logic class at LaGuardia and will also post something on that when they are finished (hopefully before the Spring semester). So a lot is going on!
But all of that aside I wanted to take a moment to talk about Westworld. I have not seen the original movie by Michael Crichton but I was eagerly anticipating the new HBO series and now having watched it I think it is a wonderful show with a lot of rich philosophical content. There are a lot of interesting questions about consciousness and computation brought up by the show but I wanted to step back and note the clever way that the show introduces a new twist on the some old skeptical worries. There are some mild spoilers below but if you have seen the first episode that is all that you need to follow the argument.
The basic premise of the show involves the existence of a giant park known as Westworld where there are advanced artificial agents that serve as the backdrop for the various adventures of the patrons of the park. These advanced artificial agents, known as hosts in the show, are very lifelike and in fact stipulated to be indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans. The behavior of the hosts is for the most part scripted and under the complete control of the people who run Westworld. When the hosts interact with the ‘newcomers’, i.e. those who visit the park for recreation, they are allowed limited improvisation and mild variance from their scripted behavior but that is all. The feature that is noticeable for our purposes is that the hosts are programmed in such a way that whenever a newcomer mentions anything about the existence of things outside the park they noticeably fail to notice what the newcomer has said. If they happen to see an artifact from outside the park, like a picture, they do not register it and simply say ‘it doesn’t look like anything to me’. Finally, they mention that the hosts have the concept of dreaming, and specifically of a nightmare, in order to ensure that any weird experiences due to park maintenance can be attributed to being in a dream.
That is enough of the plot mechanics of the show to introduce the interesting new skeptical worry. How can we be sure that we are not now, at this very instant, in a Westworld World? That is, given some common assumptions, how can we rule out that our city -NYworld-, our state -CaliforniaWorld-, our country -USAworld-, indeed our planet -EarthWorld- etc, are not actually vast artificial environments run by external agents set up for the enjoyment of ‘newcomers’ (tourists?)? It is true that I do not notice any evidence that the Earth is just an artificial environment with automatons populating it. But this is consistent with my actually being an artificial agent of some sort whose internal programming, or what ever is equivalent to that, prevents me from noticing any such evidence. In the most severe form EarthWorld might be an amusement park for an alien race. A place where they go to vacation and reek havoc. We may have interacted with any number of alien beings and simply not have noticed that they have tentacles, four eyes, etc. We may be constructed to take their appearance to conform to normal human standards (after all many take physics to already demonstrate that we don’t perceive reality as it is).
In a sense this is related to the Simulation Hypothesis. In that case Bostrom and others consider the possibility that our reality is in actuality a computer simulation, like The Sims but more advanced. This is not the kind of scenario envisioned in EarthWorld. There the idea is that we have an actual physical place, The Earth, complete with physical elements, trees, animals, wind, etc and also artificial agents, ourselves. Our role in EarthWorld may vary depending on the skeptical scenario one envisions but one scenario is that we are highly advanced artificial agents with advanced AI and limited conscious experience (that is we are phenomenally conscious but miss out on a large portion of what is actually happening around us). This is not a computer simulated reality but is still an artificial reality of sorts. Maybe more akin to Live Action Role Playing than to computer simulation (maybe Artificial Action Role Playing?).
As with most skeptical scenarios I don’t think we have to accept the conclusion that we are indeed in such a scenario but it is, I think, an interesting new take on the ‘we might be conscious computer programs in an artificial environment’ trope. As such I also think that the simulation argument, if it works at all, works equally well for Earthworld and so if you think we might be in a simulation you should also think we might be in Earthworld.