Simulated Mental Health

Would living in a simulation be a safe or an unsafe thing? Could it be bad for our mental health, for example? Are there any hidden glitches that we ought to know about? One way to reply to questions like this is to say that life in the simulation of life is the reverse of mental health – we could say that this state of being (the simulated state of being) is the perfect antithesis of mental health. It’s a great disaster, it’s the way not to do things…

Why this should be the case (why living a second-hand version life isn’t a healthy thing to be doing) might be considered too obvious to need pointing out, but we will make the argument all the same (if only for the sake of the exercise). The only reason we would want to live in a simulation of reality would be if we imagined – for some reason – that there was some kind of advantage to it, clearly, and so we can start by asking what exactly that advantage could be. Why would we imagine that ‘living a simulated life’ could be an improvement on the real thing?

One reason could be if the simulation were to contain more possibilities (or perhaps more interesting possibilities) than what is being simulated; it might – in other words – represent an upgrade. Maybe we could even be immortal and live as gods! Maybe we could cheat death… If we are prone to optimistic, utopian-type thinking then we might well have ideas like this in our heads. Instead of being used to somehow liberate humankind from the sorrows and limitations of our present existence the technology of simulation could of course be turned to the opposite purpose and used to oppress humanity even more than it is being oppressed already. There is an undeniable tendency for new technology to be used for malign rather than benign purposes, as has often been pointed out, and so this is definitely a possibility worth considering. If we’re not careful then we could end up in a ‘Matrix-style scenario’ where reality is being controlled in order to control us; this is after all exactly what’s happening now, even with the relatively low level of technology that we currently possess.

The higher the technology the greater the potential it has for abuse; when the technology to create super-realistic simulations comes on stream, then what exotic possibilities for abuse will this engender, we might ask? And as we were suggesting earlier, we don’t actually have to wait around too long to get an answer to this question – even in the absence of any super-advanced technology the potential for simulations of the world to be ‘used for ill’ has come into play. This kind of thing has been around for a long, long time – it’s been around for many centuries before the advent of the first printed circuit board. What we’re talking about here is better known as ideology (or belief) – the ideology or belief we adhere to defines the world for us just as effectively as any coding would. Ideology is coding – it is a comprehensive set of instructions telling us how to see the world (and which we then internalise and experience intense irrational loyalty towards).

Our beliefs condition our perceptions – we see what we’re supposed to see and we’re blind to anything else. We only see what our beliefs allow us to see and so then this proves to us that our belief system – whatever that might be – must be ‘the right one’. Beliefs tautologically prove themselves – any viewpoint that we adopt will tautologically ‘prove itself to be true’. Ideologies are simulations, therefore; belief structures are simulations and so if we want to look at the question as to whether simulations are harmful to our mental health or not then all we have to do is consider how we have got on with our beliefs, our ‘compulsory social conditioning’ over the centuries. All we need to do is consider therefore is whether this ongoing business of ‘having beliefs’ has been good for our mental health or whether it has been to our detriment.

This is not a question we ever stop to ask ourselves however – we most emphatically do believe that the blinkered way of looking at things that we have adopted is good for us. We most emphatically believe that the worldview to which we are adhering to is the right one, which automatically implies that it must be beneficial to us. In the case of a fundamentalist type of religion, our understanding is invariably that we will obtain our reward for choosing the right path in heaven whilst all those people who have not made the right choice (for whatever reason) will suffer eternal damnation as a consequence of their disbelief. This is – needless to say – very from being what we might call ‘an objective viewpoint’ – it’s actually the most biassed viewpoint we could ever have possibly have! It’s ridiculously biased… The fact that we have been inducted into whatever belief system it is that now has the claim on our loyalty means that we’re obliged to take the position that ‘our belief is the correct one’ – anything we might have to say on this subject automatically becomes quite meaningless therefore. All we are – in this case – is ‘a mouthpiece for a bias’, ‘a spokesperson for a prejudice’.

When we are inducted into the particular ‘simulation of reality’ that is created by our system of belief then we lose any chance of having an autonomous viewpoint – a viewpoint that is actually ours. Instead of autonomy we now have heteronomy (which is where everyone adheres to the very same way of looking at things). On the one hand, therefore, this shows how ideologies can be used (by those who are in a position to take advantage of such an opportunity) to control or exploit people, whilst on the other hand, the mechanism by which autonomy is replaced by the situation where masses of people are utterly dependent upon an unquestionable external authority can clearly be seen as a crisis in the mental health of everyone concerned. There is no greater crisis in mental health than the situation in which personal autonomy is subsumed within collectivism – this is ‘the loss of who we really are’, which is no small thing! It is treated as a small thing, to be sure, but that is of course no more than ‘societal whitewashing’. As Kierkegaard writes in The Sickness unto Death,

A self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.

This consideration – the consideration of ‘losing who we are without realising it’ – brings us to the very crux of the matter. The detrimental thing about living in a simulation is simply that there is no freedom whatsoever in it. As drawbacks go, this isn’t just punitive, it is total, it is ‘all-encompassing’ and as a result we’re cut off from everything that really matters. We’re alienated both from ourselves and the natural world. This is the ‘sickness’ that Kierkegaard is referring to, the sickness that befalls us when we live only ‘on the outside’, only in the ‘consensus reality’.  

Most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit… There is so much talk about wasting a life, that only that person’s life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life’s joys or in sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self.

Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

By ‘self’ Kierkegaard doesn’t mean the ‘socially constructed ego’ (or ‘identity’) therefore, but rather ‘the essence of who we are’, which is something entirely independent of any artificial societal context (which is what Kierkegaard calls ‘spirit’ in the quote given above). A simulation isn’t (needless to say) ‘an independently existing reality’ – there is of course nothing in it apart from what the designer, the artificer, has put into it. It can be regarded as being nothing more than an extension of the designer’s agenda or will. Although we tend to be favourably inclined towards the idea of ‘simulating our own reality’ and are intellectually excited by the notion (even to the point of seeing it as a way in which humankind can escape the eventual heat death of the universe, or ‘escape from the limitations of our physical mortality’, which is another well-known trope in modern science fiction) this is only because we don’t really get what simulations are. We don’t get it at all! Psychologically speaking, we might say, a simulation is an act of pure aggression. ‘Aggression’ – in this sense of the word – means that we are wholly subject to some extrinsic will, some extrinsic source of order. To control another person is an act of aggression, to tell someone else ‘who they are’ or (‘what the world is’) is aggression. All judgement is aggression (because we’re imposing our thoughts on someone else).

When we live in a simulation then everything about us is determined by that simulation. Our core understanding of what is real has been supplied to us by another, by an external source of authority – we’re ‘taking it all on trust’, in other words, and this core understanding what is real (which we have taken on trust, as we’ve just said) lies behind everything we think, everything we do, everything we hope for or fear. The totality of our existence is determined by this borrowed / unexamined way of understanding things. This picture of reality determines everything about us and yet it is an artificial imposition that has nothing to do with us (and which is – into the bargain – completely untrue, completely fictitious). There is no ‘true picture’ (or ‘true model’) of reality, only thought’s simulations, and thought’s simulations are – when it comes down to it – only ‘thought in disguise’. As the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna says,

All philosophies are mental fabrications. There’s never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.

In order for there to be freedom in a simulation there would have to be truth, and – by definition – there isn’t any! In order for there to be freedom there would have to be ‘something there that is independent of the simulation’ but there isn’t. There isn’t anything ‘independent’ in a simulation. That’s the whole point of the exercise, after all; anything independent of the system straightaway gets labelled as error (and is promptly gotten rid of on this account). If I have designed a simulation and I find something in it that I haven’t specifically put there, then – by definition – whatever it is that I’ve come across has got to be error. It absolutely has to be a ‘meaningless random fluctuation’ – there’s nothing else it can be! My ‘getting rid of anything that doesn’t fit my plan’ (anything that doesn’t ‘accord with my agenda’) is the quintessential example of what we are referring to as ‘aggression’. Aggression is where I take away ‘the freedom things have to be different to the narrow way that I have defined them as being’. If a simulation isn’t aggressive then there’s simply no way it can get to exist…

When we indoctrinate someone (so that our view of the world becomes their view) then this is an act of pure violence, this is an act of outright aggression. What they might happen to think doesn’t count for anything, whilst what we think is ‘all-important’. We don’t – as a rule – see this as violence; we don’t see it as violence because we know we’re right! It doesn’t really matter what we believe, therefore – it doesn’t matter what we believe because we’re always going to be right. We’re going to be right no matter what. We’re always right and this is the benefit that we are given; this is the ‘incentive’, so to speak, that prompts us to buy into the belief system in the first place – we are provided with this immense sense of validation, this immense feeling of certainty, the iron-clad certainty that ‘we are right and everyone else is wrong’. This is the ‘benefit’, but we pay for it and the price we pay is also immense – we have had to give away all of our freedom. We aren’t even allowed to keep a crumb of it – we have had to give away the freedom that we had to be ‘who we really are’ so that now we are compelled to be ‘something else’ (something else that we’re not, and never could be). We are compelled to be the puppet of some mechanical external authority which – at the same time as compelling us in everything we do and everything we think – is also compelling us to believe that we are free when we absolutely aren’t.

Were we to come back to the question we started off with, then we would have to conclude that ‘living within a simulation’ (as opposed to ‘living freely’, as opposed to ‘living in an unsimulated way’) is most emphatically not beneficial for us, mental-health wise. If we were to define mental health as being ‘a function of our essential independence from thought’ (i.e., independence from our ‘ideas about things’) then since being subsumed within the conditioned or mechanical realm of everyday life means that we have zero independence from thought (means that we are thought!) this shows that we simply don’t have any mental health. Our mental health is completely missing, it’s completely missing since our ‘mental well-being’ and ‘intrinsic freedom’ are two ways of talking about the same thing. Instead of mental health, what we have is abject slavery. Instead of mental health, what we have is what Jung calls ‘Soul Sickness’, we have what Kierkegaard refers to as ‘The Sickness unto Death’. In the absence of the real thing, the very best we can hope for is ‘the two-dimensional appearance of mental well-being’.

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