The Programmer and Vis World: A Horror Parable

Why not write a post that is at once a thought experiment and a horror story?

Somewhere orbiting a distant star there is a computer laboratory of a hyper-advanced technological civilization. The computers in this laboratory are so powerful that they are capable of simulating entire worlds and their sentient inhabitants. These inhabitants don’t know that they are simulations, of course. As far as they know, they are just people living in a world. They have thoughts and lives and feelings of their own, just like you or me. You might think of their existences as being like that as persons in The Matrix, although if you really want a Hollywood equivalent it might be better look to The Thirteenth Floor, since these people have no physical bodies out in the “real” world; they are simply so much data and code in their virtual universe.

The laboratory is run by a Programmer, a being who has exhausted the other possibilities for pleasure in life and now cultivates a taste for enjoying watching other sentient beings rationalize their false beliefs. The Programmer has an ingenious plan. Ve creates an entire world simulation with people in it. The people who live in this world live according to the world’s physics, mostly. For the most part they take their chances in the world according to that world’s laws of natural selection. Some survive and reproduce, while others perish. Over time they become better adapted to their simulated environment. Over time of course their cognitive capacities improve in line with natural selection. The people in the simulation discover “science,” learning the laws of their world and learn how to apply their science to technologies to manipulate the world according to its rules. The better their science, the more accurately it encodes the actual workings of the simulated world they inhabit, the better they do, other things being equal. Not that the inhabitants are anything like flawless in their cognition. There’s a fair amount of random variation and noise in their ideas, just as there is in their simulated genes.

But the Programmer puts certain quirks into vis world, in accordance with vis purposes. One is that the world is designed to make its inhabitants experience various random forms of suffering. The ultra-complex code of the world throws in various disasters and miseries for its inhabitants. Perhaps it goes without saying that these actions are always undertaken by the Programmer’s code in ways far too subtle for the simulation’s inhabitants to notice that they are anything other than “natural” events in their world; however great their science, it is never equal to the programming. Wars, plagues, storms, volcanic eruptions, the depredations of wandering serial rapists and murderers and so on pop up in in the world with a fairly high frequency to blight the existences of its inhabitants. (Of course there’s plenty of more normal, garden variety unhappiness in this world as well, generated simply by the mechanisms of the world working themselves out as they will.) The other is that there’s a bit of a tweak in the way that natural selection works in the world. Inhabitants who carry around a certain Big Idea in their heads are “rewarded” with slightly higher inclusive fitness than those who do not. Not that this “reward” means that their lives go any better than anyone else’s. It just means that they leave slightly more descendants in following generations than others. The Big Idea is this: “The world we live in has a Creator who loves and cares for us.” This idea is only half true, of course. While the world does in a sense have a Creator in the form of the Programmer, it is simply not true that the Programmer loves and cares for the inhabitants of his simulation. Ve doesn’t care one bit about these inhabitants or their strivings and sufferings; to these he is completely indifferent. Ve’s only interested in ver recherch√© entertainment.

And naturally there is plenty of entertainment, as the suffering inhabitants of the simulated world create rationalizations to defend the Big Idea against the evidence of their own senses, and any inroads made by their science against it. Since the believers in the Big Idea outpopulate those who are not believers, they have the upper hand. The Big Idea never dies out or is even seriously challenged, but it does need to grow ever more sophisticated over time. The Big Idea is false, but will always be believed by most people as true, and it will grow and grow in complexity as the simulation is allowed to run longer and longer. The rationalizations have to do this as long as there is science and the possibility for intellectual mutation among the inhabitants of the simulation. Being good at science and being a mutant means questioning whether the stories we tell ourselves are true. Sometimes within the simulation this results in mutants being burned at the stake or confined to mental institutions, but much of the time the combat between the mutants and the believers stays at an a more purely intellectual level.

The Programmer who runs the simulation has full access to the simulants’ rationalizations, to their volumes of theology and philosophy, to their speeches and sermons, and to all the uplifting popular entertainment their various cultures generate. All these are neatly translated for the benefit of the Programmer and displayed on the screens in vis laboratory.

The Programmer smiles. Ve reaches for whatever the equivalent is of popcorn on his world, and settles down for a nice long read. The entertainment will never end.

Thanks be to God that we aren’t like those benighted sufferers in the Programmer’s simulation!

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