If these years of COVID and environmental decline have felt like the zombie apocalypse, recent months have ushered in the age of mind-bending sci-fi. In the tech world, it seems to many that we may be nearing the so-called “singularity,” a technological turning point at which machines become vastly more intelligent than humans, permanently transforming everything. Furthermore, philosophers and physicists, especially the many readers of Nick Bostrom’s essay “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” (2003), have been talking seriously about the likelihood that yes, perhaps we are. A Buddhist perspective can help with the philosophical and moral quandaries that ensue.
The idea that we are living in a simulation and the idea that we are on the cusp of singularity are quite different, independent hypotheses. Still, I think their significance is unavoidably intertwined. It seems to me like the idealized future brings a largely simulated, digitally enhanced, if not fully digital experience. After all, if we survive the singularity, we are told it will enable a new form of trans-human existence for us, where our bodies merge with our technology and rise above our mortality. As Bostrom has written, it is likely that, before long, digital experience will well outpace “base world,” physical existence for speed and ease of manufacture and manipulation. On the other side, if we are already living in a digital simulation, it is surely maintained by beings deploying a vastly more advanced technology than we have—quite likely, a post-singularity AI.
It is astute to notice that, while it claims to be grounded in innovation, the trans-humanist impulse echoes long-established religious yearnings for a heavenly, immortal existence. While many of the relevant philosophical writings are measured and own up to their speculative uncertainty, readers often come away more giddily convinced than the evidence compels. Comparisons to traditional religion help to explain a willful gullibility: like The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, many in the tech world seem to want to believe. But, even if you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you; and even if some in the tech sector deeply long (subconsciously?) for religious transcendence, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t create it themselves.
I do not consider it likely that we might actually be digital simulations. My instinct is that digital information flow, no matter how complex, does not amount to sentience. But it does seem to me possible, perhaps even probable, that we could be trapped, “Matrix”-like, inside a digital simulation without knowing it—and if not now, soon. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics holds that a particle exists in multiple potential states until it is measured, at which point it “collapses” into a single real state. This might mean that our world is only “rendered” in its finest detail (at the subatomic level) if and when we observe it—which matches how a video game manages processing power. How should we feel about this? How would the discovery that we are subject to undetectable manipulative beings with advanced technology change the practical and moral frameworks for the meaning of our lives?
The challenge is dizzying and stomach-turning, but perhaps less so than at first glance. If we think it undermines all meaning, we’re forgetting the conventional, this-worldly nature of most of our actions and decisions. We still would rather have a nice meal than a rotten one, even if both are just digitally rendered for us by the machine. So, as long as the regularity of the digitally-rendered world remains intact in our experience, we will want to keep going to work and earning money so we can keep purchasing fresh food. And since we are experiencing our own lives, and others around us are acting as if they’re experiencing theirs, the fact that we’re stuck in a digital simulation doesn’t mean that we’re not interacting with other humans who are also sentient and as real as we are.
From a Buddhist perspective, we are already tasked with accepting that we are living in a kind of simulation, just one that is generated by our own minds under the force of our past karma. A digital simulation controlled by unseen intelligences is morally different, but not entirely so. Granted, there are unique challenges to freedom and meaning. It is hard to know whether our effects on one another, and particularly our contributions to history and culture, would have anything like the significance we ordinarily take them to have. There might, instead, be a quite narrow purpose for us being here, such as to learn something—about 21st-century history, or about what it feels like to eat and sweat, or about the importance of love—and it is disappointing that we don’t have even the most rudimentary instruction manual. It would make a significant difference to know whether we were in a prison, a museum, or an escape room.
Yet the Buddhist perspective provides a powerful comfort here in its assertion of an uncompromising alignment between personal and social morality: self-cultivation helps us be better for others, and helping others generates benefits in our own minds. This applies to every possible realm of rebirth. Even trapped in a simulation, nothing of moral significance is wasted.
The Buddhist view also helps us shape an appropriate attitude toward whoever might have placed us in such a situation. If they are a future-tech amalgam of humanity and AI with total and immediate power over the world of our experience, they may seem like gods or even the highest creator god. For Buddhists, such beings merit not fear but the same compassion we would extend to any sentient being. They would be, after all, living in a world generated for them by their technology, on which they are as dependent as we are. They might even be trapped in some other being’s simulation.
Whether they seek it or not, all beings are in need of a bodhisattva’s skillful deployment of compassionate instruction.
Our digital overlords may be long-lived, but that alone cannot protect them from the persistent dissatisfaction of craving after ever greater experience and power. Worldly improvements in intelligence and health do not ultimately yield satisfaction. It is telling that in every future in which humanity does not die out, Bostrom imagines at least someone or something claiming and consuming every last electronvolt available in the galaxy. Whether they seek it or not, all beings are in need of a bodhisattva’s skillful deployment of compassionate instruction.
Perhaps they are just toying with us, then, but perhaps at least some among them have come to realize that human life before the singularity provided a better space for certain types of self-cultivation. After all, the Buddha taught that for practicing the dharma, human birth is better than a divine one. If they–whoever they are–are watching us, are they hoping that we who live ordinary human lives will share the wisdom of our experiences with them? Maybe they really hope we can figure this out for them, because their brains, permanently altered by technology to facilitate the satisfaction of desires, are incapable of pursuing freedom from craving (they may be technological icchāntikas). Or is it that, in their world, to enter our simulation is how they practice the dharma? Maybe our world is a simulation specifically made so that humans with advanced technology such that they effectively live forever can learn first-hand about pain and struggle. Maybe that’s who we are and why we’re here.
It is uncanny to notice how closely the patterns of so-called “Near-Death Experiences” (NDE) match this vision, in which we are really immortal beings living simulated lives. NDEs definitely vary, but people who return to full awareness after brain death regularly speak of entering a kind of in-between stage where they are shown the meaning of their life before they return. A common theme in these reports is that we are reborn again and again (NDE commonly makes one a believer in rebirth), each time in order to learn something new through experience. People sometimes choose lives of hardship and suffering for themselves for the sake of learning after an NDE. Some who have undergone NDEs report their certainty that everything that happens is meaningful and, in its way, completely perfect, and above all, we should love and care for one another. It all sounds like a kind of technologized vision of bodhisattva practice—watching past lives as if on screens, internalizing the meaning, and diving back in.
I don’t think this is really the way things are. It is more likely, I think, that for some reason the patterns of NDE manifest as the brain’s interpretation of what’s occurring when some systems go offline or boot up again. But it could be that some version of a bodhisattva/sci-fi/NDE picture is real, and we are living lives designed for our learning or the vicarious learning of other beings captured by advanced AI systems. If this is indeed the meaning and purpose behind our existence in this realm, it is amazing how powerfully this ostensibly final answer refuses to provide answers to our ordinary, this-worldly tasks. If the point of existence is just to learn whatever comes, assuming we’re all already doing our best, there isn’t really any new, “actionable” information. We might think this changes everything, but the preponderance of ordinary self-delusion had already meant that we should be skeptical of the reality our minds present to us, not too attached to our actions or experiences or roles, engaging the game of life with an attitude of play. The pursuit of self-awareness, kindness, and compassion remains the right thing to do either way.
Still, this line of thought has led me to think that perhaps there is one lesson, which is that the point of life isn’t to write about Buddhist philosophy if the whole world is already dedicated to everyone pursuing the dharma through practical experience. But that only applies if the designers really know what they are doing. If indeed the angelic creatures that people who have undergone NDE meet are not just technologically advanced but spiritually advanced bodhisattvas and deities, they may be trusted. A less optimistic possibility is that the experiences of love, contentment, and meaning encountered in the lobby after death are a new part of the simulation, provided to comfort people enough so they agree to go back and do the next round. Several NDE-ers who have undergone hardship are not really interested in going back to their lives, but they are compelled to do so by circumstances beyond their control. Some even report saying something to the effect of, “You guys didn’t really explain how bad things could get” in the process of being convinced to return. Scary. Maybe the gods are being manipulative; maybe they really don’t know. In such cases, they would have a real use for those of us trying to figure out the Buddha’s teachings and how they might be applied to beings living in a world on the brink of singularity.
More likely, we’re only on the brink of environmental destruction and obsessed with our own interests, as usual. But whatever this sad, strange universe holds—even the prospect of an AI-dominated future—it remains true that learning and helping others are never futile. Buddhists may return to previously scheduled programming.
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