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Personetics

I finally tracked down the short story I remembered from "The Mind's I" edited by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. Part of the reason I had trouble locating the story when first skimming through the book was that the details were not quite as I remembered them.

The story is "Non Serviam" by Stanislaw Lem, which can be found in his collection "A Perfect Vacuum." The conceit of "A Perfect Vacuum" is that it is a collection of reviews of imaginary books, so "Non Serviam" serves as both the title of the review and the title of the imaginary book, supposedly written by a Professor Dobb, in which Dobb outlines the science of personetics. Personetics is the science of creating artificial personoids inside a computer. Dobb's personoids do come to argue theology, and in the end of the story, Lem quotes Dobb as saying the following:


Imagine for a moment that I attach to my [computer] an enormous auxiliary unit, which will be a "hereafter." One by one I let pass through the connecting channel and into the unit the "souls" of my personoids, and there I reward those who believed in me...while all the others...I punish....


That idea gripped my mind, but even more so did this one, just a few sentences later in the same paragraph:


The bills for the electricity consumed have to be paid quarterly, and the moment is going to come when my university superiors demand the "wrapping up" of the experiment – that is, the disconnecting of the machine, or, in other words, the end of the world....


For some reason, I had remembered the voice of the narrator slightly differently, which, as I noted above, is why I didn't find the story right away. I know that the idea that we live in a simulated world is an old one that has been explored time and time again. But Lem's story, which I must have read when I was eleven or twelve years old, was my first exposure to the idea, and it kept me thinking for a long time.

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Have you seen 1/0? I'm reading the archives and we're approaching the End of The World.
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December 2016

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