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Philosopher: Sims Do Not Understand Simhood

Richard Johns explains how you can know for sure that you are not a sim

Recently, philosopher Richard Johns (left), whose work was profiled here at Mind Matters News in “A philosopher explains why thinking matter is impossible,” has now written a piece for Medium. In it, he explains why we cannot create a sim that is a conscious, rational being. He uses a dialogue between “Alice” and “The Programmer” to unpack the idea:

The dialogue begins with Alice returning from school to find a strange little man in her apartment. He seemed not to notice her entering the room, and remained seated comfortably in Alice’s favourite armchair, reading her own copy of Nick Bostrom’s “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”.

“Who the hell are you?” Alice shrieked. “What are you doing in my apartment?”

The man laid the article on his lap, and looked up at her. “Hullo Alice”, he said, completely at ease, as if they knew each other.

“An interesting paper,” he said in a matter-of-fact way, tapping the article with his index finger. “And his suspicion about living in a simulation was correct.”

Alice’s initial alarm at seeing the stranger gave way to curiosity. “How do you know my name? And what makes you think we’re in a simulation?” she asked.

“Ah,” he replied modestly, looking down at his lap. “I know both things because I’m the Programmer. This body,” (he gestured at himself) “is just my avatar in the simulation. Members of my species no longer have bodies in the conventional sense.”

Richard Johns, “No, We’re Not Living in a Simulation” at Medium

Sci fi for philosophers. How might Alice determine whether the strange little man is telling the truth? Hint:

… It’s a little like Descartes’ I think, therefore I am, in that there’s no contradiction in the idea that other people don’t exist, but the claim that I don’t exist entails the absurdity of a non-existent person being deceived.

Richard Johns, “No, We’re Not Living in a Simulation” at Medium

Dr. Johns’s academic paper is here.

Further reading: Why your computer will never talk to you. As a jokester recently demonstrated, even “shirts without stripes” is a fundamental, unsolvable problem for computers (Eric Holloway)


Nick Bostrom, “Are you living in a computer simulation? Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243‐255. (First version: 2001)

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Philosopher: Sims Do Not Understand Simhood