Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

flintstoneNOTE: I have some new upcoming events in Cleveland, Ohio and Seattle, Washington. See below!

Yesterday in the discussion after zazen, one of my regular customers brought up the idea that maybe we’re living in a computer simulation. Then, after I went home, I went back to reading Chuck Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong? and I got to a chapter in which he discusses the idea that maybe we’re living in a computer simulation. Now I’m typing this on a (simulated?) computer. So maybe that’s what I should write about.

The so-called “simulation argument” is a current favorite topic of discussion among people who smoke lots of marijuana. Which means it’s extraordinarily popular where I live, in the stoner capitol of Southern California, the Silver Lake/Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Most people cite an article entitled Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? as the origin of this argument. The article was written by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher who teaches at Oxford. It was published in 2003 in an issue of Philosophical Quarterly.

The first paragraph of the article is as follows. “Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea. The rest of this paper will spell it out more carefully.”

Which leads me to ask, “Is forebears really a word?” I just looked it up and it is. I’ve heard the word before but never seen it spelled out. Why are our ancestors called bears? I thought they were monkeys.

Be that as it may, the simulation argument is one of those arguments that you can’t think your way out of very easily. It’s like, “If God is all powerful can he make a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?” If you accept the existence of God, it’s hard to come up with a logical answer.

The “theory of mind” that Bostrom refers to runs like this (according to his article), “A common assumption in the philosophy of mind is that of substrate independence. The idea is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

My non-Oxford philosopher interpretation of that is, consciousness could emerge in a computer just like in a human being if that computer were complex enough.

So consciousness isn’t some kind of ghostly entity that God sticks in your body like a cassette of the Beastie Boys, with your body being just a kind of super Boom Box to temporarily play it on. Consciousness is a part of the universe. Something like consciousness exists in everything. Certain animals have brains that are complex enough to process consciousness in a very detailed way and have conversations about its nature while smoking copious amounts of weed.

But we don’t own consciousness. We don’t produce consciousness. We are neither more or less conscious than anything else including rabbits, cockroaches, toasters or gardening implements. We’re just able to process consciousness in these big brains of ours in a way that rabbits and gardening implements can’t.

Therefore, if we made a computer that was sufficiently powerful, maybe it would be conscious in the way that we are.

I don’t find that idea entirely absurd. I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. The Buddhist theory of life, the universe, and everything has it that all things in this realm of ours are made of five elements; form, feeling, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

Only living beings can express the final four, at least in ways we can understand. Though it’s possible that things we conceive of as “non-living” express these aspects in their own ways. At any rate, there’s nothing in Buddhist theory that says you couldn’t have a conscious computer. (Not that I take everything in Buddhist theory as true just because it’s Buddhist theory. It also makes sense to me.)

Yet I don’t find the simulation argument at all compelling. I don’t believe it and I don’t see any reason to even consider it as a real possibility. Maybe that’s because, even if it were true (and it’s not), I can’t see how it changes anything or even explains anything very significant.

There’s an old koan that might help explain why. Here’s my mutilated version from Don’t Be a Jerk:

Gensa Shibi was a disciple of Master Seppo Gisan. Gensa was known for his hard practice and stubborn dedication.

But after a while studying with Seppo, Gensa figured it was time to go meet some other teachers. He packed his bags and started walking toward the temple gate.

Just then he stubbed his toe on a big rock. There was blood all over the place and it hurt like nobody’s business. Gensa thought, “Some say the physical body doesn’t exist, where then is this pain coming from?” He returned to the temple.

Seppo, his teacher, saw him and asked, “What’s up, Mr. Hard Practice?”

Gensa said, “My trouble is I can’t be fooled.”

Seppo said, “Who doesn’t know this deep down? But who else besides you can say it out loud?”

A little bit later in Dogen’s essay on this koan a monk says, “”The whole Universe in ten directions (meaning “all directions”) is one bright pearl. What use is understanding?”

My teacher Nishijima Roshi’s comment on this is, “The whole Universe in ten directions is just one bright pearl, and even if we want to make our efforts to understand it intellectually, it is perfectly useless. This is because the Universe, or Reality, is something real, which ultimately can never be understood intellectually. Although many excellent philosophers and excellent scientists have made enormous efforts for many years, it seems that Master Shibi was cleverer when he said, ‘The whole Universe in ten directions is one bright pearl.’”

The problem for me is not whether or not the simulation argument is a good explanation. Even we are living in some futuristic version of The Sims®, we still have the same much more basic problem. In the koan this problem is illustrated by Gensa stubbing his toe.

Gensa has apparently figured out some kind of intellectual rationalization for the existence of himself and the universe. He expresses this as, “Some say the physical body doesn’t exist.”

This is a fairly typical thing for Buddhists to believe especially after meditating a lot. Your relationship to the physical body often undergoes such a drastic change that you can end up believing it doesn’t exist. Or at least you end up thinking that the way you understood the physical body was so entirely wrong it makes perfect sense to say it doesn’t exist. This is because it becomes abundantly clear that what you thought existed doesn’t.

They didn’t have computers back in his day so Gensa doesn’t go on to postulate that he is a simulation. He just leaves it at that.

So Gensa gets way out there philosophically but then — OWWWWIIIEEE! — he stubs his toe. At that moment, whether or not his body exists is irrelevant — even if he would have imagined he was really a computer program. Something hurts! Maybe it’s not the something he imagined it was ten or twenty years ago before he did all that meditating. But it still hurts.

He expresses his new understanding by saying, “I just can’t be fooled.” Not by any explanation, including the explanation he believes in.

So whether or not we are living in an Xbox owned by some teenager in the year 4956 who programed it to perfectly simulate the most hipsterfied section of LA circa 2016 is ultimately irrelevant. It might be fun to think about after a visit to the dispensary. But it doesn’t solve the ultimate problem.

And, anyhow, believing we are computers is just another in a long line of trendy metaphors. See this article for more about that.

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!

July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA

July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing

July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop

September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion

September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat

September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat

September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat

October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University

October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat

October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab

October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat



Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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