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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Simulation Argument in the NYT

An article in yesterday's New York Times discusses the possibility that our world was created as a hobby or as an experiment by members of some more technologically advanced civilization.  It's the sort of late-night-type discussion you probably had in college.  The twist comes from a discussion with the-always-insightful Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University:

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors. [emphasis added by AK]

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

Of course, there are lots of caveats, and Bostrom later offers his gut feeling that there's a 20% chance that we're living in a computer simulation.  So, how do you live in a world where you might be part of a computer simulation? I suppose you live according to whatever the simulation has established for you.  (Do simulated humans make choices the way that we think we do?)  Here's some advice from the article that you will likely find less-than-entirely persuasive:

A more practical question is how to behave in a computer simulation. Your first impulse might be to say nothing matters anymore because nothing’s real. But just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real.

(Cross-posted here.)

Posted by Adam Kolber on August 15, 2007 at 08:15 AM | Permalink


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You may be interested in the discussion your post generated over at Concurring Opinions after Frank Pasquale took it in a different direction: http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2007/08/the_world_as_th.html#c356574

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 17, 2007 11:54:10 AM

"What's the argumetn for that point of view? What exact meaning of "real" is being invoked here--authentic? genuine? important?"

Well, the paper talks about substrate-independence, which is the concept that consciousness is independent of what type of physical substance produces it. So I would assume he means that consciousness in silicon is literally the same (and thus as real) as that which is now in carbon-based brains.

Posted by: John Marshall | Aug 16, 2007 1:56:59 AM

I'm going to take issue with the comment "just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real." What's the argumetn for that point of view? What exact meaning of "real" is being invoked here--authentic? genuine? important?

I think the real agenda of people like Bostrom is to get us to understand ourselves as a pattern of thoughts and reactions to the world--a kind of behaviorism that I critique in this post.

The speculation about a "prime designer" reminds me a lot of intelligent design as well. Tierney's piece reveals to me a lot more about the human need for the sacred than it gives me a sense of whether we're all just butterflies dreaming that we're men. (20% chance? Nice example of quantificationism.

Finally, the attempt to stir up doubts about one's autonomy is yet another fusillade in the familiar rhetorical effort to break down barriers between man and machine, with all the familiar ideological agendas that effort implies.

In short: conversations like the one Tierney is trying to start are essentially unresolvable, and it's difficult even to begin to see how they enhance our understanding of the world. But they certainly do have an effect on how we understand ourselves, and those alterations in self-understanding can be quite helpful to certain groups and harmful to others.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 15, 2007 2:56:47 PM

So basically, do you take the red, or the blue, pill?

Posted by: Katie McNabb | Aug 15, 2007 1:03:53 PM

I think this is part of the plot of an under-rated, relatively obscure movie from 1999, The Thirteenth Floor (http://imdb.com/title/tt0139809/).

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 15, 2007 12:54:42 PM

I liked this story better when it was called "The Last Question," by Isaac Asimov.

This is just another move towards divinizing technology. These theories do little more than make good filler when the Times has space leftover from its Rove biopic.

Posted by: Jay | Aug 15, 2007 12:03:47 PM

Actually, I find the advice entirely persuasive, but I know I have an idiosyncratic view about this, even among philosophers. Think of it this way: as long as there's no way you can discover whether or not you're in a simulation, what *difference* could it possibly make to you? It's sort of like the old chestnut, how do you know that there aren't undetectable gremlins in your refrigerator? Answer: you don't, and you never will, because as long as they are truly undetectable, there would be no sign of their presence. Or if you want the pop culture take, that's why Joe Pantoliano's character tells Agent Smith "I don't wanna remember nothing" before he betrays his comrades -- because as long as he has no knowledge of anything outside the Matrix, the Matrix is what's real to him.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 15, 2007 12:00:46 PM

I thought Descartes covered this in the Meditations.

Posted by: Daniel S. Goldberg | Aug 15, 2007 11:18:35 AM

Are the computers "with more processing power than all the brains in the world" those who are "advanced humans" or "posthumans"? If so, such a science fiction thought experiment strikes me as philosophically otiose. After all, human beings are not (largely or exclusively) defined by their "processing power," and I have a mind, not just a brain, so I can't imagine how we might christen such super-computers as in any way (even figuratively) human, be it advanced or post-....

Still, perhaps it does little harm to indulge in such musings, provided we are clear as to their fictional, utopian or fantastical character.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 15, 2007 9:48:53 AM

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