Consciousness and Compassion in Our (Simulated) Universe

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What is consciousness anyway? Should it make us more compassionate than we are?

News that the universe we live in may actually be just a simulation “Star Trek” Holodeck style brings into question, well, pretty much everything. It’s certainly an argument for agnosticism. But it’s also fodder for discussing our behavior, and specifically, how we define compassion. And whether or not it even matters.

The New York Times reports that in one possibility, we live in a computer simulation that’s based on the laws of mathematics, “According to this theory, some highly advanced computer programmer of the future has devised this simulation, and we are unknowingly part of it. Thus when we discover a mathematical truth, we are simply discovering aspects of the code that the programmer used.”

If it sounds like all the talk about circular time that’s in HBO’s “True Detective,” that’s kind of the point. “If such simulations are possible in theory,” notes the Times, “in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one.” Statistically speaking, of course. And what is the real world, anyway?

So, are we the result of the singularity Ray Kurzweil said we’re heading for? Has it already happened somewhere in the future and we’re being reverse engineered from a computerized point somewhere else in time? Could we be unreal in the most real sense? If we’re just living in a mathematical computer program, should that change how we think and feel?

That brings up the pretty big question about consciousness and compassion. And whether or not we have any obligations to “it” as it’s expressed through all life–and those seemingly inanimate things–here on earth. Because if consciousness is in essence, being manufactured from another point in time, it doesn’t just impact humans. It’s affecting everything on earth right now. One of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths states that all life is suffering. That would seem to be the case regardless of whether or not we’re “real.” Regardless of where we originate from or where we go. To live is to suffer. And that’s cause for compassion.

Christof Koch writes about this, specifically panpsychism, in the article “Is Consciousness Universal?” in Scientific American:

All species—bees, octopuses, ravens, crows, magpies, parrots, tuna, mice, whales, dogs, cats and monkeys—are capable of sophisticated, learned, nonstereotyped behaviors that would be associated with consciousness if a human were to carry out such actions. Precursors of behaviors thought to be unique to people are found in many species. For instance, bees are capable of recognizing specific faces from photographs, can communicate the location and quality of food sources to their sisters via the waggle dance, and can navigate complex mazes with the help of cues they store in short-term memory (for instance, “after arriving at a fork, take the exit marked by the color at the entrance”). Bees can fly several kilometers and return to their hive, a remarkable navigational performance. And a scent blown into the hive can trigger a return to the site where the bees previously encountered this odor. This type of associative memory was famously described by Marcel Proust in “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Other animals can recognize themselves, know when their conspecifics observe them, and can lie and cheat.

But for most humans on earth, the animal kingdom is still seen as something at our disposal. We view consciousness from seated atop an illusory pyramid, when it appears it’s more likely that we’re actually just a blip along a straight line of (infinite) options. We have dominion, presently, because we’re the bully in the ecological schoolyard who thinks lunch money gives us eternal power.

Of course, making the case for unilateral compassion is daunting if reality isn’t what we think it is. If we live only because a mathematical digitized equation says we do, keeping giant whales in captivity or pigs in cramped cages for bacon doesn’t really matter in the big picture.

Except that it does.

“Whether it is a brain, a tree, a rock or an electron,” writes Koch, “Everything that is physical also possesses an interior mental aspect. One is objective—accessible to everybody—and the other phenomenal—accessible only to the subject.”

I defer to the film-making genius (seriously) of Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg in “This is the End” – where making an ethical and compassionate choice instantly elevates you to the eternal party in the sky. It’s just that simple: kindness trumps callousness, regardless of where we end up when we’re through with our human bodies.

But what about lions and sharks and Nile crocodiles, you say. They must kill in violent manners to survive. And what about defending ourselves, even against the ruthless attack of mosquitoes or wasps or fire ants? Certainly killing in the name of survival or self-defense appears to be justified. Even when it’s to prevent a mosquito from biting you on your ass. Still though, a “lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination,” said philosopher and author Alan Watts. “For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit—-to the “conquest” of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature.”

We’re becoming desensitized to nature, and therefore, behaving unnaturally. But isn’t that natural, too?

In further explaining panpsychism, Koch writes that any system “that possesses some nonzero amount of integrated information experiences something. Let me repeat: any system that has even one bit of integrated information has a very minute conscious experience.”

To say a rock doesn’t feel isn’t as factual as simply saying that we can’t ever really know if that’s the case because we’re limited. We’re limited by our definitions of consciousness and our perception of reality. Because we can’t know what it’s like to be a rock. Really. The same can be said for the computer I type on. It’s clearly smarter than I am in most every logical way and yet I deem it a tool, a prop that’s unintelligent until I give it direction. (But  judging by how uncooperative it’s been ever since my daughter was born, I could go as far as to suggest that’s not the case, and that it’s even experiencing a bit of sibling rivalry. But I digress.)

Where consciousness begins, so does the quest to understand where it comes from. Perhaps we’re part of the future after it happens. Perhaps we’re all just seemingly separate points of consciousness experiencing every single possible viewpoint. Perhaps we’re the result of the Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Mormon or Hindu or Scientology or—insert your religious preference here—creation story. Perhaps we’re all something simply too impossible to understand.

But there is one truth in all of these scenarios: that we are all part of something. We’re all experiencing some form of consensus reality, and compassion would seem to be the most vital tool in our survival. Because we’re not lions. We’re not sharks. We’re not (apparent) characters in computer games. We’re humans who deeply understand the consequences of our actions. We can choose not to acknowledge the deep suffering a cow or a chicken or a mink experiences for our benefit, but we know it’s still happening. A true sign of consciousness is being aware of things we cannot or choose not to see directly at the present moment. Where we are, or how we got here, don’t matter in this equation–and it certainly doesn’t matter to those creatures we choose to have (or not have) compassion for.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.