Are we but ghosts in the machine? Pt. 1

For the last five years, philosophers, mathematicians and physicists have been debating a modern reworking of a theory that has been around for hundreds of years. How do we know that reality is, in fact, truly reality? How do we denote “reality”? How could we tell if reality was, in fact, a simulation? What would we do if we were in a “Matrix”? And what would it mean for the concepts of God and free will? dogsounds investigates.

For many decades, philosophers have mulled over the “brain-in-a-vat” argument, and what it means. Simply put, the argument hypothesizes a scientist who has extracted a human brain and placed it, still alive and fully functional, into a vat where it can be stimulated in all the ways that a brain is, normally. The scientist has technology that allows him to recreate stimuli to suggest to the brain that it is in a living, breathing world. From the unfortunate envatted brain’s point of view, this stimulus means that it sees, hears, smells, feels and touches an outside world that, for all intents and purposes, is real. It has no idea at all that it is sitting in a jar in a lab.

This theory of the envatted brain has fuelled many discussions about the nature of reality and of our beliefs in that reality. As far as the brain is concerned, assuming the simulation is flawless, then there would be no way for the brain to know that it was in fact, in a jar. In fact, the argument deepens and states that in reality (no pun intended) this inability to secure evidence either way means that the the whole issue of “reality vs. envatted” can never be resolved from the individual point of view.

This postulation has appeared in most philosophical discussions of reality, most prominently in the theories of philosophical skepticism and solipsism. In essence, the postulation dates back many hundreds of years, albeit in differing forms. After all, 17th Century philosophers would not have been able to put a scientist or a supercomputer in there!

However, over the years, it has raised many interesting and and often unanswerable questions. But in 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom looked at the issue again – and factoring in knowledge about technology and computing power, realised that the issue itself is, in fact, much more far-reaching, calling into question not just our own personal perception of reality, but also the idea of free will and the concept of an over-reaching creator – God – and what form he may or may not take.

Bostrom coined the phrase “Ancestor Simulation” and revisited not just the hypothetical scenario itelf, but whether such a scenario would be possible, technologically. And why it would happen. And in doing that, he opened up a whole can of philosophical worms.

Firstly, Bostrom knew that the “envatted brain” scenario was nonsense, logistically. It may be feasible that a scientist keeps a single or small number of brains in such a state, but the feasabiilty of the whole human population being so trapped is highly unlikely – there would be no tangible reason to carry out such a monumental and expensive task. He jokes that the Matrix trilogy of films use just this principle, but that the reason for doing so – is utterly silly:

Why the Matrix? Why did the machines do it? (Human brains may be many things, but efficient batteries they are not.) Bostrom, Why Make A Matrix? And Why You Might Be In One

He posits that, yes, there may be reasons for such an endeavour, but it is not likley that it would be done in such a physical and energy-consuming and labor-intensive way. Instead, he theorized that although the envatted brain idea is ridiculous, the idea that a reality could be simulated for historical, research  or some other purpose is not. In fact, as he developed his theory, he began to realise that, statistically speaking, there is a good chance that such a simulated reality is not impossible, and that, by progressing his ideas forward there is in fact almost no way to refute the idea that we are, in fact, currently simulated. Theoretically, you, me, this text, your computer, your room, the people in other rooms and everything that exists to our senses could, in fact, be utterly virtual. However, although he does not believe the feasability of the envatted brain scenario, his theory does agree with one aspect of it – there would be no way to tell whether the reality we perceive is “real” or “virtual”.

In part two we will look in more detail at Bostrom’s ideas about why Ancestor Simulations would be created, and whether there is anything preventing such an endeavor.



  1. Posted August 10, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink | Reply

    My son-in-law, a Christian theologian, thinks Bostrom’s ideas explain the behavior of his two teeen age children perfectly.

  2. Posted August 11, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    Is that a good thing or a bad thing? 🙂

  3. Posted August 12, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  4. Posted August 13, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I’m working on part 4 right now 🙂

  5. Posted September 13, 2008 at 6:25 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for this… Great work not much work is being done on this subject. I been not only studying this theory for a while now but also seeking like minded people on this subject.

    I made a video on this topic

    Im currently working on part 2 and 3 yet i would love your input.
    Let me know if you want to collab on a video on this topic

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