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Interview: Eric Schwitzgebel on “Out of the Jar”

– Tell us a bit about “Out of the Jar.”

A philosophy professor discovers that he is an AI in a simulated environment run by a sadistic teenager who insists on being called “God.”

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I’m interested in skeptical epistemology (for example, how confident can we be that we aren’t in a sim right now?), in theories of consciousness (are there conditions under which sim characters could actually have conscious experience?), and in the extent to which we have moral obligations to any conscious AIs we might create in the future.

– How does your experience as a philosophy professor inform your fiction writing?

Contemporary academic philosophers don’t write much fiction, but many of the greatest philosophers in history have worked partly in the medium of fiction: Plato, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, for example.  Detailed examples and vivid thought experiments have always played a central role in philosophical thinking, even among more typically expository philosophers.  Fiction and thought experiment, by engaging the imagination and the emotions, add richness and specificity to philosophical thinking.  The human mind is much better suited to thinking about examples than about abstract formulae.

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Out of the Jar?”

This is my first full-length published story, so for me, the research was all on the fiction-writing side – trying to get a feel for the SF genre, especially trying to get a better understanding of how the writers develop plot and character.  I read tons of SF stories in “Best of” anthologies, Asimov’s, F&SF, Clarkesworld, etc.

– What might you want a reader to take away from “Out of the Jar?”

I want the reader to think about the moral relationship between the gods who create worlds and the sims (or other types of beings) that they create.  Literally, I think, you can call the creator of conscious sims a “god” from the point of view of the sim (see my blog post “Our possible imminent divinity[PGS1] .”  What obligations would you as a god have to your sims?  Also, I’d love it if the reader thought a bit about her attitude toward the repetitive blissful harp-playing of “Heaven 1c”, though I don’t explore that issue much in the story.

– What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story that pits the value of eternal looping joy against the value of a normal human life.  I’m working on a couple of stories that explore the bizarre philosophical implications of an infinite cosmology in which there are infinitely many duplicates of you living out every possibility.  I’m working on a story that considers the Singularity from the perspective of someone with doubts about whether consciousness can really be instantiated rather than merely mimicked in computers.  I’m working on a story featuring a group mind composed of a billion individual humans.  Et cetera!  Maybe not all of these will work out, but I’m having fun.

In expository philosophy, I’m working on the issues of group consciousness[PGS2], radical skepticism[PGS3] (including dream skepticism, sims, and Boltzmann brains), robot/AI rights[PGS4], the moral behavior of ethics professors[PGS5], a theory of jerks and sweethearts[PGS6], and a position I call “crazyism[PGS7] ,” which is the idea that something that seems crazy must be true, but we have no way of settling which among the crazy alternatives is actually correct.  In this connection, I want to explore crazy-seeming ideas like that we might all be parts of God’s mind or that we are AIs for which space is just a feature of our programming environment rather than a fundamental feature of things in themselves (“Kant meets cyberpunk[PGS8] ”)

– Anything else you’d like to add?

The part in the story about demons being allergic to almonds – I made that up.  Please don’t rely on it as part of your summoning technique.

“Out of the Jar” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of F&SF.










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