Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.
In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.
Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.
Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.
If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.
Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.
While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.
Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.
Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.
If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?
It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.
It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects. In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation. The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.
It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.
As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.
Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation. The latest twist on this is that he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. This is, of course, the most recent chapter in the ancient philosophical problem of the external world. Put briefly, this problem is the challenge of proving that what seems to be a real external world is, in fact, a real external world. As such, it is a problem in epistemology (the study of knowledge).
The problem is often presented in the context of metaphysical dualism. This is the view that reality is composed of two fundamental categories of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff. The mental stuff is supposed to be what the soul or mind is composed of, while things like tables and kiwis (the fruit and the bird) are supposed to be composed of physical stuff. Using the example of a fire that I seem to be experiencing, the problem would be trying to prove that the idea of the fire in my mind is being caused by a physical fire in the external world.
Renee Descartes has probably the best known version of this problem—he proposes that he is being deceived by an evil demon that creates, in his mind, an entire fictional world. His solution to this problem was to doubt until he reached something he could not doubt: his own existence. From this, he inferred the existence of God and then, over the rest of his Meditations on First Philosophy, he established that God was not a deceiver. Going back to the fire example, if I seem to see a fire, then there probably is an external, physical fire causing that idea. Descartes did not, obviously, decisively solve the problem: otherwise Musk and his fellows would be easily refuted by using Descartes’ argument.
One often overlooked contribution Descartes made to the problem of the external world is consideration of why the deception is taking place. Descartes attributes the deception of the demon to malice—it is an evil demon (or evil genius). In contrast, God’s goodness entails he is not a deceiver. In the case of Musk’s simulation, there is the obvious question of the motivation behind it—is it malicious (like Descartes’ demon) or more benign? On the face of it, such deceit does seem morally problematic—but perhaps the simulators have excellent moral reasons for this deceit. Descartes’s evil demon does provide the best classic version of Musk’s simulation idea since it involves an imposed deception. More on this later.
John Locke took a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem. He rejected the possibility of certainty and instead argued that what matters is understanding matters enough to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Going back to the fire, Locke would say that he could not be sure that the fire was really an external, physical entity. But, he has found that being in what appears to be fire has consistently resulted in pain and hence he understands enough to want to avoid standing in fire (whether it is real or not). This invites an obvious comparison to video games: when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny, the fire is clearly not real. But, because having your character fake die in fake fire results in real annoyance, it does not really matter that the fire is not real. The game is, in terms of enjoyment, best played as if it is.
Locke does provide the basis of a response to worries about being in a simulation, namely that it would not matter if we were or were not—from the standpoint of our happiness and misery, it would make no difference if the causes of pain and pleasure were real or simulated. Locke, however, does not consider that we might be within a simulation run by others. If it were determined that we are victims of a deceit, then this would presumably matter—especially if the deceit were malicious.
George Berkeley, unlike Locke and Descartes, explicitly and passionately rejected the existence of matter—he considered it a gateway drug to atheism. Instead, he embraces what is called “idealism”, “immaterialism” and “phenomenalism.” His view was that reality is composed of metaphysical immaterial minds and these minds have ideas. As such, for him there is no external physical reality because there is nothing physical. He does, however, need to distinguish between real things and hallucinations or dreams. His approach was to claim that real things are more vivid that hallucinations and dreams. Going back to the example of fire, a real fire for him would not be a physical fire composed of matter and energy. Rather, I would have a vivid idea of fire. For Berkeley, the classic problem of the external world is sidestepped by his rejection of the external world. However, it is interesting to speculate how a simulation would be handled by Berkeley’s view.
Since Berkeley does not accept the existence of matter, the real world outside the simulation would not be a material world—it would a world composed of minds. A possible basis for the difference is that the simulated world is less vivid than the real world (to use his distinction between hallucinations and reality). On this view, we would be minds trapped in a forced dream or hallucination. We would be denied the more vivid experiences of minds “outside” the simulation, but we would not be denied an external world in the metaphysical sense. To use an analogy, we would be watching VHS, while the minds “outside” the simulation would be watching Blu-Ray.
While Musk does not seem to have laid out a complete philosophical theory on the matter, his discussion indicates that he thinks we could be in a virtual reality style simulation. On this view, the external world would presumably be a physical world of some sort. This distinction is not a metaphysical one—presumably the simulation is being run on physical hardware and we are some sort of virtual entities in the program. Our error, then, would be to think that our experiences correspond to material entities when they, in fact, merely correspond to virtual entities. Or perhaps we are in a Matrix style situation—we do have material bodies, but receive virtual sensory input that does not correspond to the physical world.
Musk’s discussion seems to indicate that he thinks there is a purpose behind the simulation—that it has been constructed by others. He does not envision a Cartesian demon, but presumably envisions beings like what we think we are. If they are supposed to be like us (or we like them, since we are supposed to be their creation), then speculation about their motives would be based on why we might do such a thing.
There are, of course, many reasons why we would create such a simulation. One reason would be scientific research: we already create simulations to help us understand and predict what we think is the real world. Perhaps we are in a simulation used for this purpose. Another reason would be for entertainment. We created games and simulated worlds to play in and watch; perhaps we are non-player characters in a game world or unwitting actors in a long running virtual reality show (or, more likely, shows).
One idea, which was explored in Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World”, is that our virtual world exists to test advertising and marketing techniques for the real world. In Pohl’s story, the inhabitants of Tylerton are killed in the explosion of the town’s chemical plant and they are duplicated as tiny robots inhabiting a miniature reconstruction of the town. Each day for the inhabitants is June 15th and they wake up with their memories erased, ready to be subject to the advertising techniques to be tested that day. The results of the methods are analyzed, the inhabitants are wiped, and it all starts up again the next day.
While this tale is science fiction, Google and Facebook are working very hard to collect as much data as they can about us with an end to monetize all this information. While the technology does not yet exist to duplicate us within a computer simulation, that would seem to be a logical goal of this data collection—just imagine the monetary value of being able to simulate and predict people’s behavior at the individual level. To be effective, a simulation owned by one company would need to model the influences of its competitors—so we could be in a Google World or a Facebook World now so that these companies can monetize us to exploit the real versions of us in the external world.
Given that a simulated world is likely to exist to exploit the inhabitants, it certainly makes sense to not only want to know if we are in such a world, but also to try to undertake an escape. This will be the subject of the next essay.
While attending a 9/11 event, Hillary Clinton seemed to succumb to the heat. It was later revealed that she had been suffering from pneumonia, something her campaign had failed to disclose. As would be expected, her critics rushed to claim that this is yet another example of her problematic obsession with secrecy. As should also be expected, those who have long been advancing the narrative of her ill health were given a fresh magazine of ammunition. Her supporters mostly responded by downplaying the incident.
Assuming she really does have pneumonia, her illness is not really a big deal. After all, if getting sick disqualified a person from being president, then there would be no one to fill the office. The real concern was, of course, about the failure to announce in a timely manner that she was sick. This ties into the damaging narrative that Hillary is needlessly and problematically secretive.
It could be countered that the decision was not based in this desire for secrecy but was a calculated move in response to Trump’s strategy of claiming Hillary is unwell. While everyone gets sick at some point, there was no doubt concern that Trump would exploit such an announcement and ratchet up his attacks. Hillary and her handlers probably thought they could bluff their way through the illness; something that might have worked.
While that approach has some appeal, there is the very reasonable concern that the failure to disclose this illness was, as noted above, just another example of Hillary’s problematic obsession with secrecy. Hillary also recently faced the backlash from Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. This was rightly presented as an example of an approach so often taken by the Clintons. After all, while any sensible person would expect that Bill would use his influence to help Hillary, doing this in such a blatant and clumsy manner did considerable damage. Given that Hillary is supposed to be such a savvy politician, it is interesting to consider why she engages in what seem to be so many self-damaging actions. While the discussion focuses on Hillary, it also applies to people in general. Poor decision making is a common affliction.
One possibility is that such behavior is in her nature—she is what she is, so she does what she does even when it harms her efforts to fulfill her ambition to be president. This is illustrated by the classic story of the fox (or frog) and the scorpion.
A fox was about to start his swim across a river when a scorpion called out to him, asking for a ride across. The fox, being good natured, wanted to help. But, he was worried that the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion assured him that he would be in no danger. After all, if he stung the fox, they would both drown and he certainly would not do something so foolish.
The fox agreed and the scorpion climbed up on his back. When the pair was half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. When the fox asked the scorpion why, he replied “it’s my nature” and they both died. Each thing is what it is and does what it does because of what it is. So, perhaps it is simply Hillary’s nature to engage in such behavior—she simply cannot do otherwise. This does raise many interesting questions about whether people have a nature or not and it certainly ties into the endless philosophical battle over free choice.
An alternative that avoids metaphysics is to take the view that Hillary is habituated into doing as she does. While habits can be very powerful, they are obviously weaker than having a nature. This is because, as Aristotle discussed at length, habits can be made and broken. But, habits can be rather hard to break, especially bad ones and it is quite obvious that people will stick with detrimental habits even in the face of continuous negative results. For example, most people have the habits of eating poorly and exercising too little or not at all. As such, they suffer needless and easily avoidable health problems. As another example, many people form habits involving damaging substances ranging from sugar to opioids. These do considerable harm, yet people persist in their habits. Hillary seems have learned the habit of secrecy and, like many habits, she seems unwilling or unable to break it.
A third alternative is that Hillary has consciously adopted secrecy as a strategy. People do often stick with failing strategies for various reasons. It is also worth considering that she actually has a winning strategy. While the revelations about her email and her pneumonia have cost her politically, it could well be that she has other secrets that have been effectively kept and that doing so has proven very advantageous for her. To use a sports analogy, a team that has a good strategy does not win every time. However, they win enough to make it rational to stick to that strategy. One interesting thing about the strategy of secrecy is that the public only knows about cases in which the strategy failed, not the situations in which it worked very well. So, what seems to be a bad strategy because of a few very visible failures might actually be very effective—who knows what secrets remain hidden and what damage they would do if they were revealed?
The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.
Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.
The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.
One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.
Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.
A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.
A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.
It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.
One of the oldest problems in philosophy is that of the external world. It present an epistemic challenge forged by the skeptics: how do I know that what I seem to be experiencing as the external world is really real for real? Early skeptics often claimed that what seems real might be just a dream. Descartes upgraded the problem through his evil genius/demon which used either psionic or supernatural powers to befuddle its victim. As technology progressed, philosophers presented the brain-in-a-vat scenarios and then moved on to more impressive virtual reality scenarios. One recent variation on this problem has been made famous by Elon Musk: the idea that we are characters within a video game and merely think we are in a real world. This is, of course, a variation on the idea that this apparent reality is just a simulation. There is, interestingly enough, a logically strong inductive argument for the claim that this is a virtual world.
One stock argument for the simulation world is built in the form of the inductive argument generally known as a statistical syllogism. It is statistical because it deals with statistics. It is a syllogism by definition: it has two premises and one conclusion. Generically, a statistical syllogism looks like this:
Premise 1: X% of As are Bs.
Premise 2: This is an A.
Conclusion: This is a B.
The quality (or strength, to use the proper term) of this argument depends on the percentage of As that are B. The higher the percentage, the stronger the argument. This makes good sense: the more As that are Bs, the more reasonable it is that a specific A is a B. Now, to the simulation argument.
Premise 1: Most worlds are simulated worlds.
Premise 2: This is a world.
Premise 3: This is a simulated world.
While “most” is a vague term, the argument is stronger than weaker in that if its premises are true, then the conclusion is logically more likely to be true than not. Before embracing your virtuality, it is worth considering a rather similar argument:
Premise 1: Most organisms are bacteria.
Premise 2: You are an organism.
Conclusion: You are a bacterium.
Like the previous argument, the truth of the premises make the conclusion more likely to be true than false. However, you are almost certainly not a bacteria. This does not show that the argument itself is flawed. After all, the reasoning is quite good and any organism selected truly at random would most likely be a bacterium. Rather, it indicates that when considering the truth of a conclusion, one must consider the total evidence. That is, information about the specific A must be considered when deciding whether or not it is actually a B. In the bacteria example, there are obviously facts about you that would count against the claim that you are a bacterium—such as the fact that you are a multicellular organism.
Turning back to the simulation argument, the same consideration is in play. If it is true that most worlds are simulations, then any random world is more likely to be a simulation than not. However, the claim that this specific world is a simulation would require due consideration of the total evidence: what evidence is there that this specific world is a simulation rather than real? This reverses the usual challenge of proving that the world is real to trying to prove it is not real. At this point, there seems to be little in the way of evidence that this is a simulation. Using the usual fiction examples, we do not seem to find glitches that would be best explained as programming bugs, we do not seem to encounter outsiders from reality, and we do not run into some sort of exit system (like the Star Trek holodeck). Naturally, this is all consistent with this being a simulation—it might be well programmed, the outsider might never be spotted (or never go into the system) and there might be no way out. At this point, the most reasonable position is that the simulation claim is at best on par with the claim that the world is real—all the evidence is consistent with both accounts. There is, however, still the matter of the truth of the premises in the simulation argument.
The second premise seems true—whatever this is, it seems to be a world. It seems fine to simply grant this premises. As such, the first premise is the key—while the logic of the argument is good, if the premise is not plausible then it is not a good argument overall.
The first premise is usually supported by its own stock argument. The reasoning includes the points that the real universe contains large numbers of civilizations, that many of these civilizations are advanced and that enough of these advanced civilizations create incredibly complex simulations of worlds. Alternatively, it could be claimed that there are only a few (or just one) advanced civilizations but that they create vast numbers of complex simulated worlds.
The easy and obvious problem with this sort of reasoning is that it requires making claims about an external real world in order to try to prove that this world is not real. If this world is taken to not be real, there is no reason to think that what seems true of this world (that we are developing simulations) would be true of the real world (that they developed super simulations, one of which is our world). Drawing inferences from what we think is a simulation to a greater reality would be like the intelligent inhabitants of a Pac Man world trying to draw inferences from their game to our world. This would be rather problematic.
There is also the fact that it seems simpler to accept that this world is real rather than making claims about a real world beyond this one. After all, the simulation hypothesis requires accepting a real world on top of our simulated world—why not just have this be the real world?
On an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.
In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.
In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.
One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.
However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.
Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.
It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.
As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).
These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.
While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.
Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.
I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.
Thanks to movies and TV shows such as the Time Machine, Dr. Who and Back to the Future, it is easy to picture what time travel might look like: a person or people get into a machine, some cool stuff happens (coolness is proportional to the special effects budget) and the machine vanishes. It then reappears in the past or the future (without all that tedious mucking about in the time between now and then).
Thanks to philosophers, science fiction writers and scientists, there are enough problems and paradoxes regarding time travel to keep thinkers pontificating until after the end of time. I will not endeavor to solve any of these problems or paradoxes here. Rather, I will present yet another time travel scenario to the stack.
Imagine that a human research team has found a time gate on a desolate alien world. The scientists have figured out how to use the gate, at least well enough to send people back and forth through time. They also learned that the gate compensates for motion of the planet in space, thus preventing potentially fatal displacements.
As is always the case, there are nefarious beings who wish to seize the gate for their own diabolical purposes. Perhaps they want to go and change the time line so that rather than one really good Terminator movie and a second decent one were made, there are many very bad terminator movies in the new timeline. Or perhaps that want to do even worse deeds.
Unfortunately for the good guys, the small expedition has only one trained soldier, Sergeant Vasquez, and she has only a limited supply of combat gear. While the other team members will fight bravely, they know they would be no match for the nefarious beings. What they need is an army, but all they have is a time gate and one soldier.
The scientists consider using the gate to go far back in time in the hopes of recruiting aid from the original inhabitants of the world. Obvious objections are raised against this proposal, such as the concern that the original inhabitants might be worse than the nefarious beings or the possibility that the time travelers might simply be arrested and locked up.
Just as all seemed lost, the team historian recalled an ancient marketing slogan, “Army of One.” He realized that this silly marketing tool could be made into a useful reality. The time gate could be used to multiply the soldier into a true army of one. The team philosopher raised the objection that this sort of thing should not be possible, since it would require that a particular being, namely Vasquez, be multiply located. That is, she would be in different places at the same time. That sort of madness, the philosopher pointed out, was something only metaphysical universals could pull off. One of the scientists pointed out that they had used the gate to send things back and forth in time, which resulted in just that sort of multiple location. After all, a can of soda sent back in time twenty days would be a certain distance from that same soda of twenty days ago. So, multiple location was obviously something that particulars could do—otherwise time travel would be impossible. Which it clearly was not.
The team philosopher, fuming a bit, raised the objection that this was all well and good with cans of soda, because they were not people. Having the same person multiply located would presumably do irreversible damage to most theories of personal identity. The team HR expert cleared her throat and brought up the practical matter of paychecks, benefits, insurance and other such concerns. Vasquez’s husband was caught smiling a mysterious smile, which he quickly wiped of his face when he noticed other team members noticing. The philosopher then played a final card: if we had sent Vasquez back repeatedly in time, we’d have our army of one right now. I don’t see that army. So it can’t work.
Vasquez, a practical soldier, settled the matter—she told the head scientist to set the gate to take her well back before the expedition arrived. She would then use the gate to “meet herself” repeatedly until she had a big enough army to wipe out the invaders.
As she headed towards the gate with her gear, she said “I’ll go hide someplace so you won’t see me. Then I’ll ambush the nefarious invaders. We can sort things out afterwards.” The philosopher muttered, but secretly thought it was a pretty good idea.
The team members were very worried when the nefarious invaders arrived but were very glad to see an army of Vasquez rush from hiding to shoot the hell out of them. After cleaning up the mess, one of the Vasquez asked “so what do I do now? There is an army of me and a couple of me got killed in the fight. Do I try to sort it out by going back through the gate one me at a time or what?”
The HR expert looked very worried—it had been great when the army of one showed up, but the budget would not cover paying the army. But, thought the expert, Vasquez is still technically and legally one person. She could make it work…unless Vasquez got mad enough to shoot her.
And this, my friend, may be conceived to be that heavy, weighty, earthy element of sight by which such a soul is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the world below-prowling about tombs and sepulchers, in the neighborhood of which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed pure, but are cloyed with sight and therefore visible.
While ghosts have long haunted the minds of humans, philosophers have said relatively little about them. Plato, in the Phaedo, did briefly discuss ghosts in the context of the soul. Centuries later, my “Ghosts & Minds” manifested in the Philosophers’ Magazine and then re-appeared in my What Don’t You Know? In the grand tradition of horror movie remakes, I have decided to re-visit the ghosts of philosophy and write about them once more.
The first step in these ghostly adventures is laying out a working definition of “ghost.” In the classic tales of horror and in role playing game such as Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder ghosts are undead manifestations of souls that once inhabited living bodies. These ghosts are incorporeal or, in philosophical terms, they are immaterial minds. In the realm of fiction and games, there is a variety of incorporeal undead: ghosts, shadows, wraiths, specters, poltergeists, and many others. I will, however, stick with a basic sort of ghost and not get bogged down in the various subspecies of spirits.
A basic ghost has to possess certain qualities. The first is that a ghost must have lost its original body due to death. The second is that a ghost must retain the core metaphysical identity it possessed in life. That is, the ghost of a dead person must still be that person and the ghost of a dead animal must still be that animal. This is to distinguish a proper ghost from a mere phantasm or residue. A ghost can, of course, have changes in its mental features. For example, some fictional ghosts become single-mindedly focused on revenge and suffer a degradation of their more human qualities. The third requirement is that the ghost must not have a new “permanent” body (this would be reincarnation), although temporary possession would not count against this. The final requirement is that the ghost must be capable of interacting with the physical world in some manner. This might involve being able to manifest to the sight of the living, to change temperatures, to cause static on a TV, or to inflict a bizarre death. This condition can be used to distinguish a ghost from a spirit that is in a better (or worse) place. After all, it would be odd to say that Heaven is haunted. Or perhaps not.
While the stock ghost of fiction and games is incorporeal entity (an immaterial mind), it should not be assumed that this is a necessary condition for being a ghost. This is to avoid begging the question against non-dualist accounts of ghosts. Now that the groundwork has been put in place, it is time to move on to the ghosts.
The easy and obvious approach to the ghosts of philosophy is to simply stick with the stock ghost. This ghost, as noted above, fits in nicely with classic dualism. This is the philosophical view that there are two basic metaphysical kinds: the material stuff (which might be a substance or properties) and the immaterial stuff. Put in everyday terms, these are the body and the mind/spirit/soul.
On this view, a ghost would arise upon the death of a body that was inhabited by a mind. Since the mind is metaphysically distinct from the body, it would be possible for it to survive the death of the body. Since the mind is the person, the ghost would presumably remain a person—though being dead might have some psychological impact.
One of the main problems for dualism is the mind-body problem, which rather vexed the dualist Descartes. This is the mystery of how the immaterial mind interacts with the material body. While this is rather mysterious, the interaction of the disembodied mind with the material world is really not anymore mysterious. After all, if the mind can work the levers of the brain, it could presumably interact with other material objects. Naturally, it could be objected that the mind needs a certain sort of matter to work with—but the principle of ghosts interacting with the world is no more mysterious than the immaterial mind interacting with the material body.
Non-dualist metaphysical view would seem to have some clear problems with ghosts. One such view is philosophical materialism (also known as physicalism). Unlike everyday materialism, this is not a love of fancy cars, big houses and shiny bling. Rather, it is the philosophical view that all that exists is material. This view explicitly denies the existence of immaterial entities such as spirits and souls. There can still be minds—but they must be physical in nature.
On the face of it, materialism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts. After all, if the person is her body, then when the body dies, then that is the end of the person. As such, while materialism is consistent with corporeal undead such as zombies, ghouls and vampires, ghosts would seem to out. Or are they?
One approach is to accept the existence of material ghosts—the original body dies and the mind persists as some sort of material object. This might be the ectoplasm of fiction or perhaps a fine cloud. It might even be a form of energy that is properly material. These would be material ghosts in a material world. Such material ghosts would presumably be able to interact with the other material objects—though this might be rather limited.
Another approach is to accept the existence of functional ghosts. One popular theory of mind is functionalism, which seems to be the result of thinking that the mind is rather like a computer. For a functionalist a mental state, such as being afraid of ghosts, is defined in terms of causal relations it holds to external influences, other mental states, and bodily behavior. Rather crudely put, a person is a set of functions and if those functions survived the death of the body and were able to interact in some manner with the physical world, then there could be functional ghosts. Such functional ghosts might be regarded as breaking one of the ghost rules in that they might require some sort of new body, such as a computer, a house, or a mechanical shell. In such cases, the survival of the function set of the dead person would be a case of reincarnation—although there is certainly a precedent in fiction for calling such entities “ghosts” even when they are in shells.
Another option, which would still avoid dualism, is for the functions to be instantiated in a non-physical manner (using the term “physical” in the popular sense). For example, the functional ghost might exist in a field of energy or a signal being broadcast across space. While still in the material world, such entities would be bodiless in the everyday meaning of the term and this might suffice to make them ghosts.
A second and far less common form of monism (the view that there is but one type of metaphysical stuff) is known as idealism or phenomenalism. This is not because the people who believe it are idealistic or really phenomenal. Rather, this is the view that all that exist is mental in nature. George Berkeley (best known as the “if a tree falls in the forest…” guy) held to this view. As he saw it, reality is composed of minds (with God being the supreme mind) and what we think of as bodies are just ideas in the mind.
Phenomenalism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts—minds never have bodies and hence can never become ghosts. However, the idealists usually provide some account for the intuitive belief that there are bodies. Berkeley, for example, claims that the body is a set of ideas. As such, the death of the body would be a matter of having death ideas about the ideas of the body (or however that would work). Since the mind normally exists without a material body, it could easily keep on doing so. And since the “material objects” are ideas, they could be interacted with by idea ghosts. So, it all works out.
While the truly classic werewolf is a human with the ability to shift into the shape of a wolf, the movie versions typically feature a transformation to a wolf-human hybrid. The standard werewolf has a taste for human flesh, a vulnerability to silver and a serious shedding problem. Some werewolves have impressive basketball skills, but that is not a stock werewolf ability.
There have been various and sundry efforts to explain the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) include specific forms of mental illness or disease. On these accounts, the werewolf does not actually transform into wolf-like creature. The werewolf is merely a very unfortunate person. These non-magical werewolves are certainly possible, but are far more tragic than horrific.
There are also many supernatural accounts for werewolves—many involve vague references to curses. In many tales, the condition can be transmitted—perhaps by a bite or, in modern times, even by texting. These magical beasts are certainly not possible—unless, of course, this is a magical world.
There has even been some speculation about future technology based shifters—perhaps by some sort of nanotechnology that can rapidly re-structure a living creature without killing it. But, these would be werewolves of science fiction.
Interestingly enough, there could also be philosophical werewolves (which, to steal from Adventure Time, could be called “whywolves”) that have a solid metaphysical foundation. Well, as solid as metaphysics gets.
Our good dead friend Plato (who was probably not a werewolf) laid out a theory of Forms. According to Plato, the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. As such, they are even weirder than werewolves. However, they neither shed nor consume the flesh of humans, so they do have some positive points relative to werewolves.
For Plato, all the particular entities in this imperfect realm are what they are in virtue of their instantiation of various Forms. This is sometimes called “participation”, perhaps to make the particulars sound like they have civic virtue. To illustrate this with an example, my husky Isis is a husky because she participates in the form of Husky. This is, no doubt, among the noblest and best of the dog forms. Likewise, Isis is furry because she instantiates the form of Fur (and shares this instantiation with all things she contacts—such is the vastness of her generosity).
While there is some pretty nice stuff here in the world, it is sadly evident that all the particulars lack perfection. For example, while Donald Trump’s buildings are clearly quality structures, they are not perfect buildings. Likewise, while he does have a somewhat orange color, he does not possess perfect Orange (John Boehner is closer to the Form of Orange, yet still lacks perfection).
Plato’s account of the imperfection of particulars, like Donald Trump, involves the claim that particulars instantiate or participate in the Forms in varying degrees. When explaining this to my students, I usually use the example of photocopies of various quality—perhaps arising because of issues with the toner. The original that is copied is analogous to the Form while the copies of varying quality are analogous to the various particulars. Another example could be selfies taken of a person using cameras of various qualities. I find that the cools kids relate more to selfies than to photocopies.
Plato also asserts that particulars can instantiate or participate in “contrasting” Forms. He uses the example of how things here in the earthly realm have both Beauty and Ugliness, thus they lack perfect Beauty. To use a more specific example, even the most attractive supermodel still has flaws. As such, a person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a blend of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful over time (time can be very mean as can gravity), this mix can shift—the degree of participation or instantiation can change. This mixing and shifting of instantiation can be used to provide a Platonic account of werewolves (which is not the same as having a Platonic relation with a werewolf).
If the huge assumptions are made that a particular is what it is because it instantiates various Forms and that the instantiations of Forms can be mixed or blended in a particular, then werewolves can easily be given a metaphysical explanation in the context of Forms.
For Plato, a werewolf would be a particular that instantiated the Form of Man but also the Form of Wolf. As such, the being would be part man and part wolf. When the person is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, her form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.
Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave as well as the light of the moon. So it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited in many tales with triggering the transformation from human to wolf. Perhaps since, as Aristotle claimed, humans are rational animals, the direct light of the sun means that the human Form is dominant. The reflected light of the full moon would, at least in accord with something I just made up, result in a distortion of reason and thus allow the animal Form of Wolf to dominate. There can also be a nice connection here to Plato’s account of the three-part soul: when the Wolf is in charge, reason is mostly asleep.
While it is the wolf that usually takes the blame for the evil of the werewolf, it seems more plausible that this comes from the form of Man. After all, research of wolves has shown that they have been given a bad rap. So, whatever evil is in the werewolf comes from the human part. The howling, though, is all wolf.
As a gamer and horror fan I have an undecaying fondness for zombies. Some years back, I was intrigued to learn about philosophical zombies—I had a momentary hope that my fellow philosophers were doing something…well…interesting. But, as so often has been the case, professional philosophers managed to suck the life out of even the already lifeless. Unlike proper flesh devouring products of necromancy or mad science, philosophical zombies lack all coolness.
To bore the reader a bit, philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like normal humans, but lack consciousness. They are no more inclined to seek the brains of humans than standard humans, although discussions of them can numb the brain. Rather than causing the horror proper to zombies (or the joy of easy XP), philosophical zombies merely bring about a feeling of vague disappointment. This is the same sort of disappointment that you might recall from childhood trick or treating when someone gave you pennies or an apple rather than real candy.
Rather than serving as creepy cannon fodder for vile necromancers or metaphors for vacuous and excessive American consumerism, philosophical zombies serve as victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness.
The dullness of current philosophical zombies does raise an important question—is it possible to have a philosophical discussion about proper zombies? There is also a second and equally important question—is it possible to have an interesting philosophical discussion about zombies? As I will show, the answers are “yes” and “obviously not.”
Since there is, at least in this world, no Bureau of Zombie Standards and Certification, there are many varieties of zombies. In my games and fiction, I generally define zombies in terms of beings that are biologically dead yet animated (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Traditionally, zombies are “mindless” or at least possess extremely basic awareness (enough to move about and seek victims).
In fiction, many beings called “zombies” do not have these qualities. The zombies in 28 Days are “mindless”, but are still alive. As such, they are not really zombies at all—just infected people. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are dead and re-animated, but retain their human intelligence. Zombie lords and juju zombies in D&D and Pathfinder are dead and re-animated, but are intelligent. In the real world, there are also what some call zombies—these are organisms taken over and controlled by another organism, such as an ant controlled by a rather nasty fungus. To keep the discussion focused and narrow, I will stick with what I consider proper zombies: biologically dead, yet animated. While I generally consider zombies to be unintelligent, I do not consider that a definitive trait. For folks concerned about how zombies differ from other animate dead, such as vampires and ghouls, the main difference is that stock zombies lack the special powers of more luxurious undead—they have the same basic capabilities as the living creature (mostly moving around, grabbing and biting).
One key issue regarding zombies is whether or not they are possible. There are, of course, various ways to “cheat” in creating zombies—for example, a mechanized skeleton could be embedded in dead flesh to move the flesh about. This would make a rather impressive horror weapon—so look for it in a war coming soon. Another option is to have a corpse driven about by another organism—wearing the body as a “meat suit.” However, these would not be proper zombies since they are not self propelling—just being moved about by something else.
In terms of “scientific” zombies, the usual approaches include strange chemicals, viruses, funguses or other such means of animation. Since it is well-established that electrical shocks can cause dead organisms to move, getting a proper zombie would seem to be an engineering challenge—although making one work properly could require substantial “cheating” (for example, having computerized control nodes in the body that coordinate the manipulation of the dead flesh).
A much more traditional means of animating corpses is via supernatural means. In games like Pathfinder, D&D and Call of Cthulhu, zombies are animated by spells (the classic being animate dead) or by an evil spirit occupying the flesh. In the D&D tradition, zombies (and all undead) are powered by negative energy (while living creatures are powered by positive energy). It is this energy that enables the dead flesh to move about (and violate the usual laws of biology).
While the idea of negative energy is mostly a matter of fantasy games, the notion of unintelligent animating forces is not unprecedented in the history of science and philosophy. For example, Aristotle seems to have considered that the soul (or perhaps a “part” of it) served to animate the body. Past thinkers also considered forces that would animate non-living bodies. As such, it is easy enough to imagine a similar sort of force that could animate a dead body (rather than returning it to life).
The magic “explanation” is the easiest approach, in that it is not really an explanation. It seems safe to hold that magic zombies are not possible in the actual world—though all the zombie stories and movies show it is rather easy to imagine possible worlds inhabited by them.
The idea of a truly dead body moving around in the real world the way fictional zombies do in their fictional worlds does seem somewhat hard to accept. After all, it seems essential to biological creatures that they be alive (to some degree) in order for them to move about under their own power. What would be needed is some sort of force or energy that could move truly dead tissue. While this is clearly conceivable (in the sense that it is easy to imagine), it certainly does not seem possible—at least in this world. Dualists might, of course, be tempted to consider that the immaterial mind could drive the dead shell—after all, this would only be marginally more mysterious than the ghost driving around a living machine. Physicalists, of course, would almost certainly balk at proper zombies—at least until the zombie apocalypse. Then they would be running.