“Virtual uncertainty” (Living in computer simulation)


There is an idea out there (and I mean, waaaay out there) that we’re all just computer simulations living in a virtual universe. While this is a contemporary notion, similar ideas have been floated for millennia. The Ancient Greek cave allegory speculated that what to us is the real world is actually just distorted shadows cast by the genuine objects.

Then in the 17th Century, Descartes argued against the notion of his nonexistence by famously noting, “I think, therefore I am.” The French philosopher said this at a time when fellow ruminators were pondering if persons were actually demonic illusions. Of course, Descartes was merely providing evidence of his existence, not proving evidence of precisely what he was. Having independent thought would seem to preclude Descartes from being an illusion, but he could still be a conscious entity created by a demon. A similar idea is that we are all just creatures in a deity’s daydream. Our thoughts prove we exist, but don’t necessarily prove what we are. These ideas have been discussed ad nauseum in geek circles and in college classrooms, so today an updated version teaches that living persons are plugged into a simulated world. We have The Matrix to credit/blame for this.

The notion rests on a number of untestable assumptions. It goes something like this: The universe has several billions stars. Some stars have planets. Some of those are surely Earth-like. Since intelligent life arose and eventually invented computers on Earth, intelligent life has therefore arisen and invented computers on other Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars. On some of these planets, computer simulations would have also arisen. Finally, since there’s only one real universe and potentially untold numbers of simulated ones, the chance of us experiencing a simulation is much more likely than us experiencing reality.

The unfalsifiability of these claims and the total lack of evidence for many of them would be enough to brush off the entire concept. But three paragraphs ending in an abrupt dismissal makes for a pointless blog entry, so let’s continue.

One of the more prominent proponents of the simulated existence hypothesis is Elon Musk. One would think that a self-made billionaire who may soon be running the planet’s first space tourism company would be content to think he has created this reality rather than having a pleasant illusion foisted upon him. But he said the chances that you, I, and he are experiencing reality is one in billions. Musk pointed out that in 40 years we have gone from Pong to Battlefield, which looks almost like the real thing. By extension, it is assumed that this advancement will continue until a virtual reality indistinguishable from actual existence comes to be. Or rather, has already taken place in what to us is the future, and to our descendants is a present in which they are controlling persons plugged into their cutting-edge machines.

Agreeing with this assertion is University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum. In a Scientific American article, Clara Moskowitz explained Bostrom’s line of reasoning thusly: “They would probably have the ability to run many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones rather than the original ancestral minds.”

Embracing this idea, Musk said, “We should hope that’s true because otherwise if civilization stops advancing, that could be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization, so maybe we should be hopeful this is a simulation. We will create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.”

Musk’s first two sentences comprise an appeal to consequences fallacy and have no bearing on whether we are leading computer-simulated lives. He then closes with a false dilemma. Mankind could continue to plug away and progress without inserting subjects into a virtual reality world. For example, inhabiting other planets or achieving immortality through DNA manipulation would be two scenarios in a distant future that would satisfy the goal of maintaining our civilization and species.

Proponents point out the universe often seems to run on mathematical laws and that perhaps this is not by chance, but has been fine-tuned by those running the simulators. This is similar to when Young Earth Creationists argue that this apparent fine-tuning indicates that God did it. The point is no more convincing coming from theoretical physicists since both ideas contain an inherent lack of testability.

In an article for skeptic.com, Pater Kassan wrote that the entire simulated existence notion is “remarkably anthropocentric.” He noted that the processes that took us from the advent of multicellular life to the invention of the computer required specific conditions and environmental factors, plus a significant amount of good fortune. This would not necessarily be repeated elsewhere, and even if it did, there’s no reason to suspect that artificial computerized universes would be something aliens would seek and develop. For all we know, intelligent extraterrestrials could be content to be subsistence farmers or maybe they prefer to plot extra-planetary malevolence, a la Zontar, the Thing From Venus.

But even if they did come up with computer-simulated universes, these machines would need be able to produce detail identical to our waking reality. Again, Kassan, who knows a lot more about this than I do: “Having to deal with petabytes of data nearly instantaneously, this imagined computer would have to be vastly more powerful than even the most powerful supercomputer now in existence, and would have to run a program vastly more complicated and less error-ridden than any ever written.”

But even this ultimate computer would be unable to emulate feelings of pain, pleasure, greed, fear, anger, love, eroticism, nausea, angst, boredom, and malaise. To convince someone that their artificial existence was genuine, computers would have to produce sensory stimulus such as optical illusions, revulsion at high-pitched sounds, and nervousness over a one-run game in the ninth inning of Game Seven. They would have to be capable of making the person hooked into them feel that they were variously healthy, sick, drunk, sleepy, fuming, lovelorn, worried about the future, and convinced they’ve gained too much weight. Alas, we have no evidence that computation leads to a conscious experience.

Pro-Matrix types (or their simulation) say all this can happen because brains and computers both process information and that computers can be programmed to process the same sort of information the brain does. This analogy is lacking because while computers possess, process, and display data, neurons inside brains don’t interpret signals they encounter, they merely act in the manner they have evolved to.

If we are in simulated computer universe, a note to whoever is controlling them: Switch me out with Musk.

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