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Brain in a Vat 

I am now two generations removed from first-hand contact with kid culture, so it has taken me a while to catch up with a computer game called Minecraft. This occurred when I was babysitting my nine-year-old granddaughter in Brooklyn. She had come down with some sort of bug and spent much of the day curled up in bed with her laptop watching Minecraft videos on YouTube.

Minecraft is a computer simulation that enables players to build Lego-like structures in a virtual world laid out in grid pattern on an infinite horizontal plane. The computer randomly generates geographic features, such as mountains, lakes and forests. There are also a variety of animated figures, including domestic animals and more sinister creatures that come out at night. The computer graphics are fairly rudimentary, but I suspect it is only matter of time before virtual worlds like the one in Minecraft become indistinguishable from the real thing. Then what?

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum has pondered this question and has concluded that we may already be living in a virtual world without realizing it. He reasons that computers will eventually be so powerful they will not only generate perfect facsimile worlds down to the last detail but also produce conscious beings to inhabit them. Bostrum goes on to suggest that an advanced civilization might run large numbers of simulations of their own ancestors, which raises an intriguing question. How do we know we aren’t one of those computer simulations? How could we tell?

If our world were generated by an algorithm, we would expect to find a mathematical basis for its operations – which, of course, is exactly what we do find. Galileo long ago proclaimed, “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.” The Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac, an outspoken atheist, conceded that the God he didn’t believe in was “a mathematician of a very high order.” For Einstein, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was comprehensible, by which he meant that its workings could be expressed mathematically. He wondered, “How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?” Perhaps the answer is that the world was programmed that way.

People have long suspected that something has been going on behind the scenes, whether it is the machinations of gods or of algorithms. Before Bostrum’s high-tech speculations, we had Plato’s allegory of prisoners in a cave whose only knowledge of the world was shadows thrown up on a wall by firelight. Descartes’ quest for philosophical certainty included an argument that this world might be nothing more than the conjurings of an evil demon. The virtual world that Bostrum postulated is merely the latest iteration of a scenario that is sometimes called “the brain in a vat.” Suppose a disembodied brain were suspended in a vat of nutrients and hooked up to a supercomputer programmed to feed it sensory impulses from a simulated reality. (Movie fans will note more than a casual resemblance to the Matrix films.) The point is that a brain in a vat has no way of knowing it is nothing more than a brain in a vat, because it is wholly dependent on the evidence of its own senses, which are plugged into a computer simulation.

St. Paul, on a visit to Athens, chided the locals for worshipping statuary. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands,” he told them. He then quoted the Greek poet Epididemas: “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” Are we, in effect, brains in a vat, sentient beings suspended in the mind of God? Or is that just a cover story programmed into a computer simulation developed by an advanced civilization? In which case the God of our world may be, in fact, a bored nine-year-old girl cured up in bed with her laptop, and her avatar may be the animated creature I mistake for my granddaughter.

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