Is He for Real? Are You?

Posted by Pete Shanks August 20, 2007
Biopolitical Times

This is a professional philosopher speaking:

"My gut feeling, and it's nothing more than that, is that there's a 20 percent chance we're living in a computer simulation."

Coming from an eight-year-old, this would be cute. We'd pat the little dear on the head and enjoy the silliness of a childish imagination.

Coming from an adolescent, it would be mildly worrying: Just how much time is the kid spending on the computer anyway, and is it really necessary to avoid the daylight completely?

Coming from a would-be science-fiction writer, such a concept would provoke a yawn and a rejection letter as standard and mindless as the idea itself.

To read this kind of thing in the New York Times, however, attributed to "Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University," is disconcerting. This fellow is paid to think. He's an affiliated researcher at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and directs the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute. He is also a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, on the Board of Advisors of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Bostrom's specialty is coming up with ludicrous premises and then explicating the inferences that can logically be derived from them in pedantic detail. His presentation on "Posthuman Dignity and the Rights of Artificial Minds" last year at Stanford was perhaps the finest example of academic humor since the Appendix to Carlos Castanada's first book -- or it would have been had it been intended as parody. Let us indeed postulate that "procreators have a pro tanto moral reason to select to create, of the possible beings they could create, the one that is expected to have the life most worth living." Not to mention the importance of "non-discrimination with regard to substrate."

But a "gut feeling" of a "20 percent chance"? If I were paying this guy to think, I'd want a refund. Unless perhaps I was just doing it for the laughs.