In the handout, I had grouped the questions into four groups. They helped think up names for each of the groups: Self-Knowledge, Existence/Metaphysics, Ethics and Epistemology.
I realized that they hadn't quite understood the importance of the "counterquestions" that I had discussed last time. So we returned to the question "How do I know I'm not a robot?" And we considered the various problems that could interfere with our knowledge if we indeed were a robot. I drew a picture of the eye and the "wiring" behind it. Inside our minds, there could be a program, filter, distortion, substituted image, pixels, but also we could be affected by opinions, feelings, passions and the unconscious. And outside our minds there could be fake, unreal, illusions, magic, we could be affected by drugs, religion, folk stories, media - newspapers, radio, TV, internet. I gave a personal story about how I was affected by the media.
Then I noted that the question "Would it make any difference?" does not depend on any sensory knowledge. It allows us to know nothing, and yet be constructive: "You tell me what a robot is... maybe I am a robot, and maybe I am not...."
We considered Justas's similar question "How do we know we're not just a simulation or a computer program?"
First I showed how we can deal with a similar question, "Are there extraterrestrials in the universe?" I said, suppose there are. The universe is about 15 billion years old, and our Earth about 4.5 billion years old. If there are extraterrestrials in our galaxy, then they might very well have existed 1 billion years before us. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide and it's technologically possible to travel 1 light year in 10,000 years. This means that in 1 billion years it would be possible to colonize the entire galaxy. The conclusion is that either we are alone in our galaxy, or our galaxy is colonized by extraterrestrials who surely know that we exist. And, of course, they are unbelievably more advanced than us. Another way to think about this is that our level of technological sophistication is dramatically changing and not representative of anything we should expect of extraterrestrials, who are surely much more advanced, because we have just barely started. My point was that if we think soundly, then we can get a lot of understanding from just a few basic facts. And this also shows what it means to ask, "Would it make any difference?"
Similarly, we can consider Justas's question, "How do we know we're not are simulation?" and "What difference would that make?" Goda said that if she knew that we were a simulation, then nothing would matter any more. There would be no reason to be moral, to study, etc. I compared it to learning from a doctor that we only have 3 months to live. It became clear that her decisions were only based on pleasure. Other possible bases for behavior would be "the crowd", "boredom", etc. I noted that, in contrast, although God and Jesus are very important to me, but I try not to have my behavior depend on whether they exist or not.
I continued - Well, suppose we are a simulation. It takes energy to make a simulation. So the simplest simulation of our universe is just our universe itself. Otherwise, there must be some purpose to the simulation. But then the Simulator must care about the simulation and may care about us, too. So we can try to imagine, based on what we know about our universe and our lives, what the purpose of that simulation might be.
So I asked them, for next time, to think about what the purpose of the universe might be.
Also, because half of them are studying architecture and half of them are studying informatics engineering, so I wanted to tell them about architect Christopher Alexander. He studies, Why do modern buildings make us feel dead? but traditional buildings make us feel alive? And the answer is that modern buildings are built from blueprints, whereas traditional buildings are built by applying "patterns" locally, onsite, making optimizations all along the building process with regard to what makes us feel whole, alive, at peace. This turned out to be very relevant for software engineering because there are million dollar projects that fail because they never produce anything useful, because they are dysfunctional, because they are designed from "blueprints" rather than "patterns".
So then I noted we can ask: Do we think that our universe is built from blueprints? Or is it built from patterns? Does the Simulator know ahead of time how everything will come out? Or are they learning from the Simulation? What are they learning? etc.
At the very end I spoke with about 8 students about the book reviews they will give next Tuesday. I noted that they can do whatever they want because I won't be judging them. But I said it would be very good for our class if they thought of a Question that the Author was asking and explained what they thought about how the Author answered that question. So they liked that and it should go well.