In August 2023 the Center on Privacy & Technology will host a virtual mini-seminar entitled, No, We Don’t Live In A F%#*ing Simulation.
The seminar will break down, and take down, three distinct but interrelated ideological artifacts of the digital era which are increasingly appearing in tech company propaganda: the simulation hypothesis, long-termism, and the imminent threat of artificial general intelligence (AGI).
The course will be co-taught by David N. McNeill, a philosopher and former professor at the University of Essex and Deep Springs College, and Emily Tucker, the Privacy Center’s Executive Director.
The seminar will take place over zoom on August 21, 22, and 23 from 1:00pm-2:30pm ET each day. Enrollment is open to anyone, but places will be limited in order to make active engagement possible for everyone.
There will be a short reading list, which participants will receive one month before the start of the course via email, and which will be important for seminar conversations.
The deadline to apply was July 15 but the course may be offered again. Stay tuned for future offerings.
If you set digital foot on the internet these days, it won’t be long before you are forced to encounter a current fad in pseudo-philosophy known as the “the simulation hypothesis.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that it is likely that we human beings are nothing more than bits of code in a computer simulation — or at least, that there is no way to prove that we are not living in a computer simulation.
For proponents of the simulation hypothesis, among them many a tech billionaire, sloppy terminology is key to plausibility, as for example in their use of the terms “simulation” (they treat using a computer to study how a mathematical model of a physical system responds to randomly generated inputs as essentially the same as using a computer to play Grand Theft Auto V) and “hypothesis” (which a supposition that by its own lights is unfalsifiable cannot be).
In order to make the simulation hypothesis appear to hold together, its defenders ignore or mischaracterize the technical and scientific reasons for doubting the models they offer of human cognition and language, and present their own techno-futurist hunches as if they qualified as valid starting points for probabilistic reasoning. If you want to follow along, you have to accept these elisions unquestioningly, along with any number of unsupported assertions about, for example, the ease with which the human consciousness can be replicated in a computer.
Many of the same people who propound and defend the “simulation hypothesis” are also behind “longtermism,” the exceptionally well-funded “ethical stance” which has become a dominant force in philanthropic and academic spaces over the last decade. “Longtermism” sells itself with the seemingly benign maxim that the lives of future human beings matter as much as those alive today. Less benign are its actual arguments (e.g. trying to convince us to worry less about the climate crisis and more about self-aware superintelligent robots) and the speculative ‘solutions’ it offers (e.g., ‘uploading’ our brains to the ‘cloud’ and space-colonization).
In spite of the ink spilt by people with advanced degrees on these concepts, the “simulation hypothesis” is cognitively empty. Neither a scientific hypothesis, nor a coherent philosophic theory, it is the simulation of an argument–what used to be called sophistry. It does nothing to help us think about the nature of reality. It only serves to weaken our sense that the difference between reality and dissimulation matters after all, and to distract us from the real threats posed by increasingly sophisticated, and automated, corporate control of information. If you want to really think about these issues, this course is for you.
No, We Don’t Live In A F%#*ing Simulation is a three day seminar in which participants will learn to identify, critique and escape from the particular sophistry represented by the simulation hypothesis and its pseudo-philosophical cognates. There will be a short reading list for each day of the course, including representative samples of ‘simulation’ and ‘long-termist’ fabulism alongside actual arguments from contemporary science and the history of philosophy. Each session will consist of a 45 minute lecture, followed by a 45 minute discussion period. We will keep the group to between 25 and 35 participants to make in depth conversation among the whole group possible.
David McNeill is a philosopher and scholar of the history of European philosophy, now working as an independent researcher and writer. He formerly served as the Robert Aird Chair of Humanities at Deep Springs College, prior to which he taught for ten years at the University of Essex in the UK. The broad focus of his work is the relation between practical and theoretical reason. He is the author of An Image of the Soul in Speech: Plato and the Problem of Socrates (Penn State University Press, 2010), and his peer-reviewed publications include articles on ethical deliberation, human autonomy and social freedom, engaging a range of thinkers from throughout the history of philosophy and political thought. Since 2020 he has been working on projects in the philosophy of law and philosophy of mind. His current working paper “The Shape of Citizenship: Extraordinary Common Meaning and Constitutional Legitimacy” (co-authored with Emily Tucker), argues that constitutional principles must be understood as deliberative principles of political association and communal self-determination. Professor McNeill is currently working on a book project that shares the title of this seminar.
Emily Tucker is the Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, where she leads a research and advocacy program dedicated to exposing and mitigating the impact of surveillance technology on historically marginalized communities. The Center has published groundbreaking studies on law enforcement use of face recognition, and government surveillance of immigrant communities. Her individual scholarship and popular writing critiques carceral technology from an abolitionist perspective. Her current working paper “The Shape of Citizenship: Extraordinary Common Meaning and Constitutional Legitimacy” (co-authored with David McNeill), argues that constitutional principles must be understood as deliberative principles of political association and communal self-determination. Tucker also serves as an adjunct professor at the Law Center, where has taught a range of courses addressing the impact of digital-era technologies on democratic society, including the Surveillance & Civil Rights fieldwork practicum. Before coming to Georgetown, she worked for over a decade as a movement lawyer, supporting grassroots groups to organize, litigate, and legislate against the criminalization and surveillance of poor communities and communities of color. She is a 2021 Soros Justice Fellow.