Thursday, 19 February 2009

Cogito ergo sum?

You may be familiar with the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep on which the film Blade Runner was based. Its central theme explored the moral premise of whether androids - the replicants in the film - that had developed consciousness could be regarded as any less human than their creators. I immediately thought of this when I recently came across an article on Wikipedia regarding the China Brain thought experiment. The experiment postulates that consciousness need not be dependent on biological synaptic activity within a brain but could exist in a similarly organised structure with analogous interconnected synaptic elements. In fact in the thought experiment this synaptic activity is mimiced by the individual Chinese communicating to each other by telephone.

While the implications of this discovery were still taking root in my mind I got a call from my twin brother. James it transpired, was already familiar with the premise of non-biological consciousness from the work of Oxford Professor of Philosophy Nick Bostrom and put me onto a paper of his entitled Are You Living In A Computer Simulation. The paper has been around since at least 2001 but its implications are simultaneously profound and banal: profound in the sense that if you accept the proposal that we are individual elements in an ancestor simulation run by by an advanced post human society there are significant implications (for example, are the physics we observe in our universe 'real' or a limited representation of the truth); banal in the sense that it changes nothing about the way we live our lives now. Does it matter that we ourselves will never reach the post human stage: once we have consciousness, are we any less 'real' than Dick's replicants? It would be puerile for example to suggest that a person who was suffering could take consolation from the fact that their pain was simulated. Personally I am inclined to disbelieve the simulation argument. Not because of any rational rebuttal to Professor Bostrom but for the purely emotional and egotistical implication that do so would imply my existence was somehow less than the post human who created it. Truly I am like the publican who eyes the Pharisee askance: the ego and rational thought are poor bedfellows.

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