Reading Response: Iakovos Vasiliou

For my Introduction to Knowledge, Mind, & Existence course (Philosophy 30) we did a lot of readings, and had to do responses to a bunch of them. The class was a bit of a sad mistake; there was a lot of interesting stuff from before 1200AD and some interesting stuff written by computer scientists on AI, but a lot of the readings were from that middle period by people who didn’t seem capable of anything approaching logic. 🙁 This was the first of 8 reading reactions for the course.

Iakovos Vasiliou: Reality, What Matters, and The Matrix

Vasiliou argues that the reason movie viewers reject the Matrix is that it deceives, and that a benevolent Matrix in which every participant knew the truth could generate value and be as meaningful as reality. The argument is interesting, and there is evidence for it today in games like Second Life. Yet despite the thoughtfulness and real-world examples one can bring to bear, Vasiliou is wrong: humanity could not immerse itself in even a benevolent Matrix, and doing so would be morally reprehensible.

First, let us examine the evidence. Massive simulations involving real people exist in the world today as Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) — World of Warcraft is the largest and most well-known, but deeper simulations such as Second Life also have large-scale populations. Effort in these games can translate into real-world wealth; Blizzard (maker of World of Warcraft) is continually stamping out so-called “gold farmers” who make in-game gold and then trade it for real-world currency; and makers of Second Life in-game designer clothing or architecture can generate six-figure yearly US Dollar incomes. Yet those who enjoy such games are derided by their society and their peers if they cannot also maintain a “real life,” and video-game addiction is increasingly being recognized as a mental illness to be treated like other addictions. There is a deeply-engrained aversion to spending all of your life on a world that is not “real,” no matter how good the simulation is.

There are good reasons for this aversion. First, nothing created in a simulation is as real as something created in the the “real” world. Vasiliou points to poetry and prose as things you can create in simulation that are as valid in simulation as in real life, and he is right. But he is right for the wrong reasons: poetry and prose are creations of the mind that are appreciated only in the mind, and so even if they are created in a simulation they are also created in the real world. Physical things created in a Matrix are meaningless outside of it (you cannot eat simulated food and expect it to sustain you, no matter how delicious), and because whoever controls the Matrix can create physical objects merely by telling the computer to do so, there is no value of production even in those things created by human beings. This might not matter if the owners of the Matrix agreed not to create things out of thin air and you could guarantee against external intervention, but you could never make such a guarantee. Eventually the equipment will break down, or an alien race will arrive and destroy us to take what real resources we still possess, or the sun will explode. In short, the real world will interfere with our Matrix, and if we all live inside the Matrix we will be unable to respond. To engineer such a situation is to guarantee the death of our species.

This is not to say that the creation of a life simulation (no matter how deep) is a morally reprehensible act. In Vasiliou’s scorched-earth scenario, it might be the right thing to do. But everybody who plugs in to the Matrix must always, always live outside of it. They must get out of their comfortable Matrix pod and maintain the machinery and realize that there is more to life than they see in the Matrix and produce what resources they can and conduct what science they can. And the inside of the Matrix should not be a pleasure cruise: humans should (and, I think, naturally will) continue to produce works of art, to explore and create more math, to work on psychology and, generally, to advance as a species in understanding all the things of the mind.