Is this for real?

One of the most interesting dialogues of Plato – the Allegory of the Cave (a part of The Republic) – analyses how we can appear to perceive reality that is not, in truth, real. The allegory describes prisoners chained to the wall of a cave for their entire lives; their heads are restrained so they can only see the wall and nothing else. Their sole glimpse of others is through shadows on the wall as people walk past in front of a fire burning behind the prisoners. The reality here, as Plato has Socrates explain, does not consist of the shadows, and yet the prisoners may think otherwise because this is all they have ever seen.

Fans of a certain genre of literature or movie drama (the Matrix, in particular, or maybe Existenz – but there are many others) will of course immediately recognise an early insight into simulation. And of course Plato was articulating something that many of us will feel from time to time: how real is our reality, really? Is this world, indeed are we ourselves, just something that someone else has designed and in which we only imagine ourselves to be? If you are thinking this is a topic best left to a certain type of rather embarrassing nerd, you’d be wrong. Professor Niklas Boström, a Swedish philosopher now working at the University of Oxford, presented the ‘simulation argument’ in 2003, which broadly suggests it is more likely than not that we are in fact living in a computer-generated simulation.

Whether we believe this or not – and the success of simulation depends on its subjects not recognising it – it does tell us something about the fragility of reality. And that is not a bad thing for universities to ponder.

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11 Comments on “Is this for real?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Of course this is not a matter for nerds, how could anyone say that!🙂 By the way French philosophical thought has quite a lot to say about ‘simulation’ http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.it/2012/10/simulacra-and-simulation-by-jean.html?m=1
    As for the fragility of reality (and life) that is not a bad thing for universities, and anyone else to ponder..

  2. no-name Says:

    “Professor Niklas Boström, a Swedish philosopher now working at the University of Oxford, presented the ‘simulation argument’ in 2003, which broadly suggests it is more likely than not that we are in fact living in a computer-generated simulation.

    Whether we believe this or not – and the success of simulation depends on its subjects not recognising it – it does tell us something about the fragility of reality. And that is not a bad thing for universities to ponder.”

    It is relatively easy for many to agree that this is worth pondering. It is more difficult to see how you in particular agree that there is worth in universities pondering such questions. What features does this research have that separate it from “research for its own sake”, using that label, as normal, to categorize research pursued without immediate or obvious applications? Has there been a misunderstanding of your attitude to research for its own sake? Or have you changed your views?


    • Ah, well then you haven’t understood my point at all!

      First, I should maybe say that I’ve never ever mentioned ‘research for its own sake’ at all – I wrote about education for its own sake. But that said, it’s the same point. You are assuming I am against basic or pure or ‘blue sky’ research; but I am not against it, and never have been. In fact, it is a vital activity for universities and much to be encouraged (alongside translational research, also vital).

      But it is not ‘research for its own sake’ (which would be totally meaningless). Rather, pure research produces vital scientific, cultural and social benefits. It is anything but ‘for its own sake’, it has hugely practical advantages.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    I’ve always disliked the simulation argument from philosophy. If our reality is actually a simulation, then what’s running the simulation, and how do you know that what is running the simulation isn’t, in fact, a simulation by something else.

    This is sort of like the concept of the earth sitting on the back of a infinite stack of turtles. It might be interesting, might stretch our ability to visualise, but, like most philosophy these days, it’s little more than intellectual pornography with questionable value. Philosophy does not teach us how to think. It teaches us how to conjecture badly.

    Sure we could probably generate well thought out arguments to convince one another that the universe is run by a master caste of invisible winged elephants … couch the idea in the makey-uppy language and logic of philosophy and you have yourself a book that the beardy types can debate for a few decades.

    To quote a philosophical view from the younger generation – ‘meh’.


    • Oh I don’t know, James – I quite like this particular theory. Maybe it’s my beard.

    • anna notaro Says:

      “Like most philosophy these days it’s little more than intellectual pornography”..here is a sweeping generalization if I ever heard one…for the record these are not the kind of arguments that male, beardy types alone enjoy debating.and certainly more than an intellectual fad..indeed it is quintessentially interdisciplinary and, guess what even beard-less females might find it intriguing…my modest opinion as a member of the latter category is that simulation theory(ies) represent one of the best keys we have to make sense of the reality we perceive as *real*..

      • James Fryar Says:

        Well my opinion is pretty simple – philosophy failed. And failed a long time ago. After about two thousand years of thinking and debating and making virtually no progress on any front, our species replaced it with science.

        I’m always reminded of watching my younger brothers debate how Santa can fit down a chimney – does he squeeze down it or does he shrink in size and then expand? An interesting debate ensued, with a conclusion (he has magical powers and shrinks). Did my brothers walk away satisfied with the outcome? Yes. Was it a valuable contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe? Probably not … and yet we’re expected to accept the academic value of the same sorts of arguments, only we replace Santa with ‘nature of reality’.

        So I’m sorry. I think you can point to the usefulness of philosophy in the same way that you can point to the usefulness of Latin – it was the basis for what replaced it and its value is its historical context. There will be people who will try to keep it alive, but that’s similar to the way some people like to keep the notion of a flat earth going.

        I do, however, accept that not all philosophers are beardy types.

  4. Vince Says:

    Isn’t this a recurring theme in philosophy. Less so since Kant of course, but it tends to pop up. A version of it is the issue the churches have with contraception.


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