—Animism as Embodied and Embedded Activism
“The simulation’s leaking.”
Two of my friends sit at my kitchen table, comparing notes on a person they have just discovered they both know, in their very different social circles, on opposite sides of the country. It’s a crazy coincidence, and I can see why the idea of living in a simulation is an attractively dystopian explanation for the uncanny, mysterious, or synchronistic. That said, I don’t find the simulation story to be a very compelling narrative for making sense of my life beyond joking around about it. The idea that I might be living in a simulation seems to rest on unexamined notions that qualify perception as brain-centered, hierarchical, and mechanistic, and which cast me in a passive role. Instead, I experience my selfhood as a sense of agency, surrounded by communities of others who also have agency, and this sense of a coextensive self deeply shapes my ethical considerations. I am the fundamental determining factor in my own reality, though far from the sole shaper.
In this article, I’ll use somatics, radical embodied cognition, ecological psychology, and my personal practice of nondual animism to root out the unexamined use of dualistic philosophical paradigms including Cartesian dualism, traditional cognitive science, and the ideas that underpin popular interpretations of the simulation argument.
The Simulation Hypothesis
In his 2003 paper, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University examines this probability. His tripartite proposition is as follows:
“This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”
Bostrom bases his trilemma on predictive models of the enormous amounts of computing power that will be available in the future (or are already available to posthuman societies who are running simulations, of which we are the ancestors being simulated). Maybe these posthumans are generating hi-fidelity ancestor simulations of us just for shits and giggles, or entertainment, a kind of dystopian reality TV. Or maybe they’re studying us – personally I empathize with wanting to witness an ancestor simulation of our paleolithic forebears, mainly because I want confirmation that the cooperative ethics of Sex at Dawnare foundational to human nature. As if living in a simulation weren’t already trippy enough in an ultra-dorky way, Bostrom takes it further: if we are living in a simulation, we could be living in stacked or nested simulations, because the simulated folks that the posthumans have generated could have become so advanced that they’ve also generated ancestor simulations. The simulated inhabitants of these realities (potentially us) don’t realize that they only exist in a simulation, and imagine themselves to be real (whatever that means) but in fact have no physical form (so I guess being “real” presupposes having a physical form, in this case).
Somewhat related and equally unpalatable for me is the specious science fiction of silicon immortality: uploading consciousness onto some kind of digital platform to cheat death. Both of these ideas rest on the theory of substrate independence, that consciousness arises due to organization rather than specific physical material. Substrate independence comes from traditional cognitive science, and I’ll say more about it later. To be fair to Bostrom, I’m mostly refuting the sensationalism around the simulation argument more than his specific ideas; I find him to be pretty relatable in his care and attention to detail, and I find that many misread his trilemma as proof that we are living in a simulation.
Maybe it’s my ego (and the identity I’ve formed through a lifetime of dance, yoga, meditation, movement inquiry, psychedelic experimentation, and time spent outside in nature) that rejects the notion that I could still be me if I were a digital copy of myself in silicon rather than carbon, or a brain inside a vat. Each of these examples has taught me, in its own way, how to feel myself, and others, and the world around me, and has given me insight into the wide range of experiences of myself that are possible. The edges of what seem to be me are somehow simultaneously distinct, and permeable and expansive. Could I really still be me if there were tech plugged into my peripheral nervous system, a disembodied neural network in a neuron-granular simulation run by a posthuman intelligence?
In my personal practice of accepting my own not-knowing, it’s important to me to allow for these possibilities, even if the simulation hypothesis is scientifically unsound because it’s unfalsifiable. This means it is not a scientific hypothesis because it makes no predictions about reality which can be disproven by experiment. And, as important as it is to me to acknowledge my own not-knowingness, it may be more important for me to anchor my beliefs in how they feel in practice rather than in theory. This is how I exercise choice in what I believe. It is also how I situate my philosophy in relation to everything around me in a way that feels coherent, and so far it seems to be garnering the results and relationships that I want in my life. What I choose to believe is shaped by my experience and has the power to shape my experiences, in relationship, as an ongoing symbiotic process. In a culture that is founded on stripping us of our power, I’m going to tell myself the stories that take my power back and affirm that I never gave it away in the first place.
Many thinkers have speculated on an approaching “singularity,” a result of accelerating technological progress, but it was first used in its contemporary context by mathematician and polymath John von Neumann. Singularity defines a theoretical point in the future when our current geological era, the Anthropocene, will be radically disrupted by the explosion of technology and human-driven change that are its defining characteristics. The theoretical post-Anthropocene era will be defined by artificial upgradable intelligent agents, magnitudes smarter than humans, intervening in consciousness. Generally, singularity hypotheses fall into two categories, machines taking control and transhumanism, or technological augmentation replacing biological evolution. Von Neumann is quoted as saying that “the ever-accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life… gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
It is possible we are approaching the event horizon of this singularity, though I don’t believe it is absolutely irreversible. I observe feelings of powerlessness in myself and others, and resignation in accepting the forward march of technologies we don’t understand. In part this is because we don’t fully recognize our part in shaping the direction of human civilization. Proceeding as if something is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The dizzying and seemingly unstoppable technological juggernaut is driven by tech and by capitalism, and by our unconscious opting-in in the aggregate, without enough consideration of whether proceeding blindly forward in AI and ASI development is compatible with the survival of the human species.
Technocapitalism and Alienation
Human civilization is, after all, an emergent property of all of us in the aggregate, throughout time. Some of our perceived lack of agency has an experiential basis; most technology is beyond our individual control. We are alienated from the means of production of most, if not all, of what we consume. Forget fire, food, and clothing. None of us individually know how to build a mouse (like, a computer mouse), a smartphone, a laptop, a VR gaming console. I can no longer even fully repair my car, so much of its tech is beyond my rudimentary programming abilities. We also don’t fully understand our economic system. Capitalism is beyond our control, or so it seems. Even the people who shape it the most and benefit the most from it couldn’t predict that the aggregate of their actions would cause something like the 2008 crash. Thus they couldn’t take responsibility for it either. The dizzying fragility of globalized capitalist structures is manifesting before our eyes yet again as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus. To be honest, lately I’ve been wondering if Bostrom’s first proposition in the trilemma is the most likely outcome.
I like using the term technocapitalism to underscore the co-arising of technology and capitalism, and their ability to drive one another forward through their false veil of inevitability and suppression of imagination, engendering feelings of powerlessness in the populace. Confronting and reshaping technocapitalism in the aggregate, however, may be within our grasp. While my knowledge is incomplete on an individual scale, in sum as a species we created our technology, and our technology can’t self improve, yet (though proponents of the simulation hypothesis would argue that the moment of singularity has long come and gone and I myself am in a simulation run by self-improving ASI). We choose unconsciously to engage in the capitalist system, and we can choose to consciously disengage from it, little by little, reshaping its direction in the aggregate.
Technocapitalism is an emergent property of humanity, the mood of the global hive, and this mood also informs and constrains the stories we tell ourselves and the agency we feel we have or lack. Each of us as cells within the system can choose to be a different way, eventually changing the overall mood and structurally rebuilding the global community on the local level. We can practice walking in the other direction, as sociologist John Holloway calls it. And no, this doesn’t sound easy to me either. A lot of people won’t want to do it. But to foreclose on the possibility because we refuse to imagine alternatives is what got us where we are, and is the definition of self-limitation.
Cartesian Dualism is Nonseparate from Judeo-Christian Dualism
There is also something veiled in our language that strips us of agency and is perhaps even the very mindset that has allowed technocapitalism to find footholds and flourish in the first place. It may seem new or even futuristic, but it’s actually an old idea that has led to myriad abuses of power. The theory that an omnipotent, omniscient, superintelligence beyond our understanding is generating a simulation in which we’re enmeshed is structurally hierarchical, patriarchal, and theological. It assumes a maker or designer that generates me and the illusory world around me for its own amusement or study, or for no purpose at all. Transhumanism (in the form of enhanced biology or silicone immortality) sounds a lot like a secular, science fiction yearning for the afterlife. Ray Kurzweil, one of the better known singularity enthusiasts, seems to have an almost religious fervor for becoming non-biological. He, and Bostrom, and others, believe that enhanced or transcended biology will vastly extend us beyond our current “severe limitations,” as if how we are as humans is somehow impoverished and needs to be improved upon. Though Kurzweil tries to distinguish his ideas from traditional monotheism, I think they are philosophically very similar, if we substitute his use of the word “mind” for “soul.” Furthermore, Kurweil sees the potential expansion of human consciousness throughout the cosmos, augmented and extended via technology, as “the universe waking up,” as if consciousness were uniquely human, and somehow also in need of technology to travel far enough to pervade an inert, passive cosmos. I question this human cosmic primacy and the need for tech as a vehicle. While Bostrom acknowledges the theogony inherent in his trilemma, he also falls prey to its contextual imprint on his language and suppositions. If I choose, consciously or unconsciously, a paradigm which includes a maker or a designer, I’m more likely to see everything as made or designed.
This language is inherited from the dualism of monotheism, and particularly from Christianity, whether we consider ourselves believers or not. Even the language I often hear used to describe our bodies and the process of evolution tend to nod culturally toward having been made, and poorly at that, for example, “our knees are badly designed,” or, “we’re not made to live as long as we do.” Hierarchical values are also implicit in much of the language around our bodies, including our nervous systems. For example, information flowing from my brain and central nervous system to the rest of my body commonly gets called “top-down,” and sensory information (about the environment within me or outside of me) flowing from the rest of my body into my central nervous system and brain gets called “bottom-up.” I suppose if I’m walking or running or sitting upright this is literally true, but what if I’m in a headstand? Or lying under a tree, watching the sky? After all, nerves are simply bundles of neurons, differently named because of their grouping and location. This hierarchical language makes it seem more plausible that we could be brains in vats, because it over-privileges the role of the human brain and central nervous system as a director and manager, rather than an embedded part of a larger whole. I would argue that our brains have arisen in the first place due to our increasing complexity over time (which isn’t evolutionarily a good or a bad thing, just a thing), rather than the other way around. This approach to understanding reality is something more like ecological perception:
During later evolutionary periods in which organisms with neural systems arise, brains come to augment the more fundamental embodied agent with a neuronal-connectivity-based extension… the brain should be understood as ‘taking a back seat’ to the body, serving the body by facilitating more complex coordination.
In the simulation hypothesis, there are ancestor-simulations (which we might all be a part of), and solipsistic simulations, me-simulations, “of the life of only a single mind,” in which there are only two sentient entities, the unimaginable omnipotent intelligence (alien, ASI, or both, whether an individual or a civilization) and the experiencer (me) who has a monopoly on subjectivity and yet isn’t in control of their reality. A simulator built to observe how everything plays out in the universe I am experiencing sounds like solipsistic daddy issues that I’m only too happy to leave unclaimed. The meddlesome, vengeful, abusive God of the Old Testament has been replaced with an emotionally absent 21st-century caregiver. Is this detached creepiness actually how we’ve internalized our dependency on technocapitalism and our resulting lack of agency? Is it an escapist romanticization of a proliferating culture of surveillance, as information itself becomes the new form of capital? In end-times consumer culture, the prospect of living in a simulation is the ultimate escape.
Let’s look a little deeper at where the mechanistic languaging around our bodies comes from. On the surface it might seem to be as much a product of how we discuss science and technology and the human ability to shape the world, as it is a product of religious storytelling. But if we look closer, we find that science and technology (and the eventual idea that I could be having the experiences I’m having as a brain inside a vat) are also products of the same dualistic and mechanistic worldview.
The philosophy of Cartesian dualism underlies the Western Age of Reason and the birth of modern medicine and science. René Descartes believed mind and body to be absolutely separate, and he is most well-known for his aphorism, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). It’s interesting to note that an early version of the simulation argument was theorized by Descartes, when he conjectured that a demon might be creating the illusion of an external reality by controlling our senses. “It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false,” he famously stated. For Descartes, “body and being [were] separate domains.”He enshrined his dualistic worldview when he sought sanction from the Pope to study human anatomy through dissection. The Church would have considered dissection to be heresy, were it not for the mind-body dichotomy. Mind and spirit and their elevation were the purview of the Church, and nascent 17th century medicine and science claimed the utterly separate territory of the body, reducible to the sum of the biomechanical functioning of its distinct parts.
Mind-body dualism arose bundled with a mechanistic view of our bodies because Descartes studied horology, the making of watches and clocks, and saw the bodies he dissected through this mechanistic framework. We’ve inherited this dualistic language in our understanding of anatomy, and this informs how we experience our bodies, our selves, and our environment. To come full circle, the history of clocks and time is one of control. People have to get up for church and for their jobs, ignoring their biological schedules in adherence to liturgical or technocapitalist time. As mechanistic technology has given way to digital tech, computational models are now used to describe human cognition. We’ll circle back to this later.
Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, Ecopsychology, and the Outfielder Problem
In the computational theory of mind, cognition and consciousness together from an information processing system that is not analogous to, but is literally considered to be computation. These computational models have dominated cognitive science since its inception in the 1950s. Cognitive science is cross-disciplinary and investigates cognition in people and animals, as well as computation in computers and mathematical systems. Its core concept is that “thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures.” The problem with this view of how we are in the world is that it doesn’t account for the moment-to-moment ongoingness of my relationships with others and the context within which we are embedded. It presumes that my brain uses representations of the objects, people and entities around me, and the context in which it is enmeshed, to calculate outcomes so that I may act and react in the world. It presumes that my brain is a kind of centralized intelligence within my body, a top-down executive officer, separate and somehow resourceful enough on its own that it can (or I can, by way of it) think my way in and out and around and through all that I experience. It ignores the immense information processing capabilities of my entire body and environment. Indeed, if I am not separate from my environment, then I don’t need to represent it in the first place. This is yet another manifestation of Cartesian dualism, monotheism, and a monopoly of subjectivity, featuring an internalized top-down decision-maker, distinct from any context.
The fatal flaws in the computational conception of cognition are often illustrated by The Outfielder Problem, which describes an outfielder catching a fly ball. The physics of catching said fly ball are fairly straightforward on paper, or when the outfielder is unmoving and can simply calculate the necessary mathematics of projectile motion to determine where the ball will land. These computations or calculations are made using representative symbols, and in a process that is called simulation. The outfielder can then run in a straight line toward the ball to catch it. However, once the outfielder starts to move to catch the ball, calculating the projectile motion of the ball becomes much more challenging to do on the fly. If she miscalculates, she has to begin her calculation again if she is to successfully catch the ball, and can’t actually do this in real time. Instead, what she is using to catch the ball is more like eye-hand-environment coordination. Radical embodied cognitive science replaces complex mental simulation and centralized brain-down intelligence with decentralized, diffuse, emergent intelligence, distributed throughout the entity and their environment. That’s why a dog catches a frisbee so effortlessly (or so it seems, though I can’t actually know what it is like for the dog, I can only imagine what it would be like to catch a frisbee in my mouth as myself).
Embodied cognition is an “extended system assembled from a broad array of resources,” which includes my body (which includes my brain), and the environment. Therefore, I can extend the definition of the current buzzword “embodiment” to include the environment in addition to the first person experience. The simulation hypothesis explicitly rests on computational rather than embodied cognitive models of mind; indeed, in his simulation argument, Bostrom calculates maximum human sensory bandwidth as ~108 bits per second. To be fair, he also mentions that the environment could be included in this equation, but only seems interested in this inclusion to expand computational capacity, speculating on the processing power that would be needed to run the massive sim he proposes. This is rather different than acknowledging that self, mind, body, and environment are discernible yet coextensive.
The Map is Not the Territory
What is important about the computational model is that it doesn’t require a particular physical composition to work. It is substrate independent, of which Bostrom states,
It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.
Computational cognition models, the simulation hypothesis and silicon immortality rest on the assumption of substrate independence, that consciousness can arise if a particular organization is present, regardless of what material constitutes the organization. I’m quite sympathetic to this idea of emergent consciousness, regardless of substrate, because it supports the animist worldview I will share below. Though I dispute the computational model, substrate independence is wonderfully leveling, nonhierarchical even, and allows that consciousness may be manifoldly present. I don’t know what it’s like to be a rock, a laptop, a stick of butter, a dog catching a frisbee, a bat, or another human, but I can assume that there is something that it is like to be each of these entities. I can’t prove or disprove their subjective experience, and I cannot claim a monopoly on subjectivity. Each organism or entity has unique knowledge that it has gained from its experiences, and it has gathered this knowledge through interactions with others and its environment to construct meaning and in effect, write its own individual story. So while a computational theory of mind or the simulation hypothesis seem to work in theory, they add a layer I don’t need – I actually don’t require representative mental models to make predictions about the world in which I’m situated. I can be in relationship with actual entities around me, all with subjecthood and objecthood, and these objects are also subjects unto themselves, and I am also an object to them. The subjective qualities that I experience are the experience I am having, and what I experience also generates me in that moment, or generates the thing that I call myself, in relationship to everything else.
What is it like to be a Posthuman?
Rather than running a simulation in my mind to determine action, I respond in moment-by-moment relational coevolution, and so does everyone and everything around me. Maybe the fact that computational models are commonly used to describe our own cognition is still Cartesian at heart, simply the substitution of digital models and language for mechanistic models and language. Personally I find that the computational model leads me further astray from accurately describing my experience. The world these models describe seems too unintelligent, impoverished, and boring. I wonder, though, would posthumans find the idea of simulation to be boring and impoverished too, compared to the interactions they could have with the world around them? Or, if these posthumans are truly computational rather than neuronal in their information process, are they still not embedded in their context and in relationship with others around them? If they are posthuman, could their cognition be postneuronal, since being posthuman supposes a biological core, our neuronal arrangement as a precursor to whatever a posthuman will be? Will a posthuman find it more relatable to use the language of simulation, of computations or calculations made using representative symbols? What will it be like for a posthuman to be embodied? It is important to remember that discussions of consciousness in robotics and AI are ultimately grounded in their human antecedent. Must consciousness be carbon-based? Must it be biomimetic?
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, or two, or three, and sense your present moment felt experience. How does it feel in your body when you characterize yourself as a being without agency, in an echo chamber in which you are the only subjectivity, or in which you and your loved ones are in a nihilistic simulation? Could someone or something have programmed the substrate that gives rise to the unique consciousness that is you? Does the world around you seem inanimate, there to be used, or also suffused with intelligence, as you are?
Mechanistic language and the language of having been created rob all entities of the continual shaping of themselves (adaptation) in response to the ongoing changes in their environment and all other agents around them. It supposes centralization of agency and diminishes the distributed power of small and local events. This is how I would like to define intelligence, as locally distributed, each entity around me, seen and unseen, capable of compassion for me and worthy of compassion from me. We haven’t been designed, and we aren’t mechanistic like clockwork, and neither is the world in which we’re situated. This world is a complex interrelated system in which each seemingly separate part responds in some way to all other parts, and responds to their own responses, and responds to the responses that its own responses generate in others and the world around it and itself, and on and on and on. We are not finished and never will be, whatever “we” are. We are a process of change in response to our environments, inner and outer, as is everything else in our world. I choose this language because it more accurately fits my experience of being in the world and relating to my environment and others around me.
I can take it for granted that others have agency and subjective experience of their own, because my experience of the world is nondual. This means that just as they depend on my perception of them, I depend on their perception of me. We are co-created in each moment of relating to one another, in context and in an ongoing process. When I say this, I don’t mean that everyone is a unity, one and the same. I mean that things are distinct and yet can’t exist without their environment or context, their component parts, their antecedents, and their perceiver. In a given moment, I, the subject, am perceiving an object, let’s say a flower, but this division is only present in how I put language to a moment that has passed, in my construction of linear time. In writing a linear narrative about my moment of perception, I’ve compressed the fullness of my nondual experience through the limited form of dualistic language. In the moment, there is only perception, a form of relationship.
The Universe is Already Awake
Animism is an organically arising nondual practice for reclaiming my agency, and acknowledging the potential agency and sentience of all beings around me. Each node on Indra’s Net shines with the light of subjectivity. I acknowledge all entities as active participants in the process of co-creation with me. Situating myself in the belief that all people and entities around me – the flowers and plants, cats, humans, and mountains, laptops, bookshelves and VR consoles, the planets and archetypes and moods and spaces – are beings of agency and awareness, creates a world in which I’d prefer to live. It makes me more aware, more humble, more respectful, and more compassionate. Believing I am in a simulation does not.
Animism is my organically arising nondual practical metaphysics, a reclamation of agency and relationship, and feels like returning home to my wiser, freer, childhood self. So while I’ll allow for there to be a possibility that I’m living in a simulation, or that I’m a simulation myself, I don’t personally find it very interesting to entertain this idea for very long; it doesn’t help me better understand myself or the people around me. And, if I am in a simulation anyway, what can be determined about me? Could it be said that those who are outside looking in have a more objective perspective on what it is like to be me? In science, greater objectivity is prized as being a more accurate view of a phenomenon – in this case, me. But if someone is looking in on me from the outside, they can only know what it’s like to be themselves, observing me. They cannot know what it’s like to be me, and they cannot know themselves fully if they think they can understand my subjective experience. And anyway, if we are living in a simulation, can I not exercise my agency within it? Must it limit the mystery and malleability of my experience of being myself? I would prefer to believe that the simulation itself is also better described through the relational and resource-full language I’ve proposed. Which means that if it exists, it is embedded in its context and coextensive with the whole. It simply isn’t anything on its own, as I am not, and you are not. Our context shapes us and is shaped by us. In the moment, there is only perception, a form of relationship.