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Is this the real life or just fantasy?
December 2018 / January 2019


Creating the illusion of life: The Mechanical Turk, above, actually contained a well-hidden human chess master


Towards the end of the Second World War, when physicists in America were working on the Manhattan Project, they used computer simulation to model the process of nuclear detonation. Now simulations are everywhere, from astrophysics to climatology, economics to healthcare, and as computers get ever more powerful there is talk of simulating parts of the universe itself. Some philosophers even ask whether our own universe might not be a simulation, and as one journalist wrote in the New York Times some years ago:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

The argument for “certainty” is statistical, like the belief in other intelligent life, and the argument for simulation is partly driven by our loose understanding of quantum theory. Indeed, as the physicist Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” But computer simulation, based on current technology, is no answer, though the question of how our world came into being is a good one.

In the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish,  it arose from a watery monster, replicated in the Hebrew Bible as “the deep”. The monster was slain, earth and the firmament formed from her body, and the clay of the earth mixed with the blood of a sacrificial god to form humans. The Hebrew Bible takes a more abstract view, its six days of creation ending with God creating humans, after which Adam names the animals, in Hebrew of course. Even at the end of the 19th century, when cuneiform tablets were being read and deciphered, one scholar insisted that the writing on early tablets from Uruk must be a form of code because it wasn’t remotely related to Hebrew. Biblical fundamentalism was continuing to cause confusion, despite the findings of Darwin, but others recognised the language for what it was — Sumerian, which had died out as a spoken tongue before the lifetime of Abraham.

Meanwhile, advances in technology began to make otherwise sensible folk believe we might create life ourselves (Frankenstein), or superior mental abilities as in the Mechanical Turk, a brilliant but fake chess-playing machine in the 18th century. Now they have moved from mechanical wizardry to computers — not even quantum computers — to create the world we live in, while philosophers still grapple with the nature of reality, as they were already doing in Plato’s cave, or Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum.

Well before the advent of computer simulations the question of reality was often expressed as a philosophical puzzle about being part of someone’s dream, and whether we could tell if we were. This is expressed well in a play (as yet unstaged) by Ben Brown, The Language Game, depicting Wittgenstein, Russell, Francis Skinner, and G. E. Moore, who delivers a lecture. Drawing on Moore’s own writings, his character starts by asserting some obvious things: he is clothed, standing up and speaking, and goes on to say:
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