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Has 2020 really been real? Or are we all living in a co…


As a minimal definitional requirement, the script for a real-world TV series should be written well. If so, then a man who appeared as a wrestler on ‘WWE’ and has joked about grabbing women by their genitals could never be elected president of the US (nor would someone who did a cameo on ‘Gossip Girl’ be tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East). Such plot twists are the preserve of badly written soap operas.

In a damning sign of the times, one of the most profound things anyone has recently told me was intended as a joke.

We were discussing philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? Bostrom argues that one of three propositions must be true: either (1) most posthuman civilisations go extinct; or (2) most posthuman civilisations are not interested in running computer simulations of their ancestral history; or (3) we are living in a computer simulation.

Despite popular interpretations of his argument, it is worthwhile noting that Bostrom does not argue that (3) is the case. Actually, Bostrom explicitly states that given “the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3)”. In other words, there is about a one-third chance that we are living in a computer simulation.

An implicit assumption in Bostrom’s paper is that the only kind of evidence that would justify a reapportionment of probabilities is what our own civilisation ends up doing. For instance, if we end up developing technology so dangerous that a slight slip-up might cause our extinction, it seems sensible to add credence to the extinction scenario. Bostrom’s probability distribution accordingly relies on the assumption that we are, in fact, stuck in a dark forest of ignorance; that there is currently no evidence to suggest that one or the other eventuality is any more probable than any other.

Which gets me back to the joke. Its profundity lay in the observation that we already have evidence that suggests one eventuality over the other: the 2016 election of Donald Trump. According to my interlocutor, it provides compelling evidence that option (3) must be the case.

The implied argument, as I understood it, was a kind of reductio ad absurdum: for suppose that we are actually living in base reality. If so, then a man who has appeared as a wrestler on WWE and has joked about grabbing women by their genitals could never be elected to the highest office of the most powerful country on Earth (nor would someone who did a cameo on Gossip Girl be tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East). Such plot twists are the preserve of badly written soap operas.

As a minimal definitional requirement, the real world should be written well. In base reality, there is a real risk that a mistake at the highest levels of government – say, accidental nuclear war or a failure to take climate change seriously – could result in human extinction. It seems a reasonable expectation, therefore, that the world won’t write itself into a corner. (If this is right, incidentally, then Bostrom was wrong to assume that the extinction scenario and the simulation scenario are statistically independent: an increase in the probability of extinction leads to an increase in our credence of simulation).

But Trump was elected to the Presidency of the United States, and Jared Kushner was tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East. The former star of The Apprentice becomes President of the United States: a plot twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan.

When I first heard this quip, I did not take it to be a serious argument. But events have a way of catching up to perceptions. In June 2016 the United Kingdom, against all expert advice, voted to leave the European Union. And the same argument that has been applied to the election of Trump can be applied mutatis mutandis to Brexit: if we were living in base reality, then people would not vote to leave the most prosperous single market on Earth. Prudent conservatism would win out, and the people would listen to what the experts told them. But then, on 23 June 2016, Britons did vote to do just that.

And then, of course, the world went ahead and well and truly jumped the shark. Covid-19 is manifestly a badly written piece of plot contrivance. Who could believe that a virus, less than a single micron in diameter, could thwart all the ingenuity of humankind, thereby collapsing the global economic system? If anything is, then Covid-19 is evidence that God, the great computer scientist in the sky, grew tired of their simulation and, like the gamer who, bored of the way the game is meant to be played, started experimenting with the physics engine and discovered that it is utterly broken.

Trump, Brexit, Covid-19: what unites all these is that they would not have happened had the world been a rational (read: physical) place. A cinema-goer, watching all of this, might be expected to walk out in protest: yes, Mx Screenwriter, Trump being elected once was a good gag – you really got me good – but very nearly twice!? Your fictional world has lost all plausibility.

There is another interpretation of these events, though I leave it to the reader to decide whether it is a better one. They have happened not because the world is not real, but because we treat it as if it isn’t. Humans are deeply and dangerously nonchalant. We decide who or what to vote for not as expressions of deep political ideals, nor even of naked and rational self-interest, but often of irate contempt. What else can explain the 2016 election of Trump but hatred – of elites, of Hillary Clinton, of liberals, Mexicans, Chinese, of – most insidiously of all – expertise itself?

The same is true, of course, of Brexit: Britons were not motivated by economic self-interest (for, if they were, they would surely have listened to the experts who near-unanimously agreed that it would leave them poorer off), but by disdain – of European bureaucrats, Polish immigrants, and, again, of elites.

It would be folly, of course, to ascribe exactly the same psychological factors to Covid-19. But there is nonetheless a psychological explanation for our failure to deal with it: we think that the world conforms to our perceptions of it. In the modern world, this is more or less an acceptable form of belief: our ontology has expanded to include stock markets, the economy, and the limited liability corporation. The problem is that humans are not discerning, and we assume that the rules that apply to non-physical entities apply to physical ones as well. Covid-19, to our surprise, cannot be defeated by just not thinking about it.

The election of Joe Biden, then, should be celebrated for one simple reason: reality feels real again. DM




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