For our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!
Technologist, off-world colonizer, and Simpsons character Elon Musk is merely the most recent to articulate the radical idea that we are living in a vast computer simulation run by future versions of ourselves. The “simulation argument,” developed by philosopher Nick Bostrom, argues that, given the nature of computer power and its presumed ability to affect and even replicate human consciousness, it is overwhemingly likely that we are within one of millions of such simulations. We’re Sims and we don’t know it!
The claim is striking both for its logical elegance and for its ability to rattle the cage of ordinary mortals. Like debates about free will and determinism, the simulation argument takes our unique sense of self, our hopes, desires, and halting actions, and renders them null. No wonder the scenario is old, even if the computer-based argument is new. The gods toy with us as wanton boys play with flies.
In current circumstances, the simulation argument dovetails with a worry born of more practical struggles in the world of politics. If your previously rock-solid reality as a unique consciousness is undermined by this contingency, then why not by others? The tricky cross-currents of identity politics, where conflicting claims of status and value hinge on race, orientation, ability, or history, might prove to be the birthplace of a world without individuals.
Technologists will tell you the post-human future is inevitable, maybe already here, and that they joyously await the Singularity (where non-human intelligence outstrips our slow biological brains). Most of us are more cautious, not least because we know that the future is always unevenly distributed, and that adapt-or-die cheerfulness of tech-boosters too often conceals drastic structural inequalities.
There are human limits that are not about mortality but are a function of human relations. Claims of political status based on identity have always been advanced to challenge structural asymmetries: exclusions driven by skin colour, differences in genital arrangement, by differences in desire. This is the rankest stupidity. There is a tangle here as intersectionality advocates well know. If your claims to status are based on reversing this kind of discrimination, you run the risk of making the difference itself— rather than the claim to status—the political focal point. Identity politics aims for a day when all individuals are valued in themselves, but those aspects of unique individuality that have been systematically denigrated can become barriers to the achievement of individual value.
Imagine, then, a world in which people do not define themselves by their various clusters of traits, or get to claim privileges based upon them. It would also be a world where some cluster of traits was no longer cause for discrimination or violence. In metaphysical terms, the problem here is not the differential treatment of traits, but the fact that traits are clustered in the first place, forming individuals who are supposed to be both different and the same.
The political threshold here is the persistent idea of the individual as unique and self-identical.. Born in struggles against hierarchy and religious intolerance some four centuries ago (in the West at least), the social-political individual has led a rocky life. It has borne property rights and generated social revolution, but has declined into mere consumer preference or Twitter-Instagram presence.
In a world without individuals, the uniqueness of my consciousness would not signify much, nor would its possibilities ever be constrained by being tied to a stable identity. The “I” of my personal narrative would acknowledge its own fictional status, a minimal ordering principle as it runs one experiment in human living after another. Discrimination would be rendered incoherent.
In a post-individual world, we would really be running the simulations ourselves, using bodies and the material world as test-benches. This would be a post-human world, unrecognizable to most of what currently counts as human life. These are the real metaphysical stakes of loosening the moorings of selfhood. The simulation argument forces imagination to confront its own mysteries, but it does little to advance the issue. Meanwhile, we seem trapped in a different kind of snare, one that is not speculative at all.
The human present is mired in prejudice and evil, apparently basic circumstances against which the best efforts of identity-based empowerment have been only moderately successful. The human future seems to promise more of the same, only with the kicker that we will find new, possibly worse ways of extending inequality by heeding “what technology wants.”
Is there another way? Could we fashion a world where differences really were transcended, where nobody was worth more or less than anyone else, where the ultimate value wasn’t individual identity but the multiplicity of unlikely meat-minds, windowless mirrors each reflecting all the others, making things up?
Oh, probably not. But let’s continue to dream! It is, after all, one of the things we humans do pretty well.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of This Magazine. His most recent book is the essay collection Measure Yourself Against the Earth.