Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Artificial reality

Some theologians use the authorial metaphor to model God's relationship to the world. God is like a novelist, the world is like a novel. Humans are like storybook characters. The physical environment is like the setting. History is like the plot. 

It's a useful metaphor–but a bit quaint. It could easily be updated to make it more flexible and realistic. I'm alluding to science fiction involving virtual reality and artificial intelligence. 

I don't mean that's realistic in the sense that it's possible. I just mean that for illustrative purposes, it is more lifelike.  

So let's play along with that scenario. God is like a video game designer who creates self-aware virtual characters. Unlike storybook characters, these characters are endowed with consciousness. They have an actual mental life. They can feel simulated physical pain or pleasure. They can experience the gamut of human emotions. They can reason. Deliberate. Suffer psychological pain. 

They are aware of their surroundings. Aware of fellow characters, with whom they interact. They make plans. Experience disappointment, and so on. 

Unlike a novelistic plot, which is static, events unfold in the video game in real time. A real past, present, and future. Stream of consciousness. 

This can illustrate different aspects of God's economic relationship:

i) The designer exists apart from the game. The designer planned the game. Created the characters. At that level, he caused everything to happen. 

ii) Yet the AI virtual characters aren't merely projections of the designer. They have actual, individual mental states that are ontologically distinct from the designer. They experience their world from the inside out. 

Each AI virtual character has its own first-person viewpoint, that's not equivalent to God's first-person viewpoint, or God's third-person viewpoint of the characters. These are irreducible perspectives. Each character knows what it's like to be himself (or herself). 

iii) They might cause things to happen the way we cause things to happen in dreams, by willing them to happen. Psychokinetic agents. And from their vantage-point, that might be indistinguishable from physical causation. 

iv) They could become aware of their designer's existence. Be cognizant of a larger reality, outside the world in which they exist. 

v) We can explore both determinist and indeterminist models. 

On an indeterminist model, the designer creates the initial conditions, but after that the game may take on a life of its own. Within certain parameters, the outcome is wide-open. 

On a determinist (or predeterminist model), the designer plans everything that happens. Every thought, word, feeling, and action. Everything unfolds according to plan.

In principle, characters might become aware of the fact that their actions are predetermined. That wouldn't have much impact on their action, because they don't know in advance what they are predetermined to do. They just do whatever they were going to do. Do whatever they were motivated to do, which turns out to be what they were predetermined to do. To the extent that knowledge of predeterminism affects their action by making them self-conscious about their next move, that is, itself, a predetermined reaction. So it doesn't change the outcome.

This, of course, raises familiar theodical issues. Are they still responsible for their actions?

A stock objection is that they can't be responsible unless they were able to do otherwise. Suppose we grant that contention for the sake of argument.

There are stories with alternate endings. There are stories in which the character did both. In that event, is he blameworthy if, in one case, he does something immoral?

What about the libertarian version? Unlike storybook characters, the virtual characters can suffer actual harm. One character can make another character feel simulated physical pain. Or induce anguish. 

Or "murder" the character. Erase him from the game. All his memories and aspirations are extinguished by another, malevolent character. 

But that raises questions about the designer's benevolence. Is it proper for him to permit one character to wield that kind of power over another? Is it proper for him to permit one character to harm another? Much less to cause him irreparable harm?

The value of an analogy depends on sufficient similarity to the thing it illustrates to be truly comparable, but sufficient dissimilarity to enable us to see the issue from a fresh perspective. If it's too much like the thing it illustrates, it lacks a point of contrast to contribute any distinctive insight into the original issue. 


  1. "Unlike a novelistic plot, which is static, events unfold in the video game in real time. A real past, present, and future. Stream of consciousness."

    Agreed. But this video game designer infallibly knows "the future" of the video game, even though events are unfolding in real time. He can then choose to reprogram a bit of the "present" in real time. This would, of course, change "the future" since events would now be different. After he changed the present, he also knew what the new "future" of the video game would be. There was never, ever a time when he did not know every event that ever happened or will happen in his video game.

    That fact does not change if he did not know, before he reprogrammed a bit of the present, what the future would change to. There would still never, ever be a time when he did not know every event in his video game. Before he reprogrammed a bit he knew all events, and after he reprogrammed a bit he knew all events. He always knew all events.

    1. That goes to the stock distinction between foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. We've been over that ground multiple times.

      Also, it doesn't follow that the video game designer infallibly knows the future on the indeterminist version.

    2. An actual video game designer wouldn't infallibly know the future on the indeterminist version, but I think you are taking your analogy too far. The video game designer is actually God, who knows the future.

    3. That's not based on the analogy. That's based on the fact that many of the most astute freewill theists deny that God knows the future.

      It's tiresome to keep tutoring you on the rudiments of freewill theism.