Friday, May 21, 2010

Are we living in a simulation?

Are we living in a simulated reality? Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks so. He puts forth the following argument. One of the following three statements must logically be true: 1) Advanced civilizations can never develop simulated realities; 2) No advanced civilization would ever choose to develop simulated realities; or 3) Our own reality is almost certainly simulated.

There are a few circumstances in which Statement #1 could theoretically be true. Perhaps there are no other advanced civilizations in the universe. Perhaps advanced civilizations exist, but simulations are simply impossible. Or perhaps they are possible, but beyond the technological capacity of any species. I think Statement #1 is the least plausible of the three. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, even extremely pessimistic interpretations of the Drake Equation should have yielded at least one other advanced civilization somewhere in our universe. The technological barriers to creating a simulation seem very small. We already have rudimentary virtual reality technology, and there is no fundamental reason why we shouldn’t be able to create all-encompassing simulations within a few decades. Since we’re nearly able to create them already, it seems unlikely that there are no other civilizations in the entire universe that are a few mere decades ahead of us.

Statement #2 involves speculation into the motives of other civilizations, of which we can’t possibly know anything. However, we do know about our own civilization and what motivates us. If humans develop this technology within a few decades, we will almost certainly make use of it, creating thousands upon thousands of simulations for entertainment or research. Therefore it seems very likely to me that Statement #2 is false.

This leaves Statement #3. If we have concluded that Statements #1 and #2 are false, Bostrom reasons that Statement #3 must be true. Why? Because there will be an enormous number of simulated realities. The probability that we find ourselves in the one parent universe, as opposed to one of the many simulations, must be vanishingly small.

The Simulation Hypothesis fascinates me, because it is one of the few rationales for the existence of some form of a god which I, an agnostic, do not think is easily refutable. Let’s examine the common rebuttals of the simulation hypothesis to see how much merit they hold.

Some have questioned the assumption that there is one parent universe and many simulations. If there are many parent universes and many simulated universes, critics reason, then the probability that we are in a simulation would not necessarily be quite so high. But I disagree. What are the implications of many parent universes capable of sustaining life and technology? Presumably EACH of them would be running many simulations, and thus it would not affect the probability of our being in a simulation much at all.

The most serious problem I see with the Simulation Hypothesis is that it has no empirical basis, and falls apart under the scrutiny of Ockham’s Razor. There is absolutely no conclusive evidence that we are living in a simulation. There may be a few teasing clues (e.g. the quantum world behaves suspiciously differently when we aren’t watching), but nothing substantive. However, I can see no obvious flaw in the logic of the Simulation Hypothesis. This leads back to an old philosophical debate between empiricists and rationalists: Can we determine reality through sound logic, without empirical evidence? I tentatively plant my flag on the side of the rationalists. Scientists frequently adopt a rationalist mindset when interpreting the Drake Equation or formulating string theory (despite absolutely no evidence for extraterrestrials or strings), but switch over to empiricist mode for topics like philosophy or theology. This seems to be a product of cultural bias. In my view, while we should always seek out evidence wherever possible, sound logic is often a sufficient (if inferior) substitute.

At the end of the day, I tend to lean toward the conclusion that Bostrom is correct: We are probably in a simulation. What do you think? Let me know if/where you think the logic of the Simulation Hypothesis is flawed, or any other examples of clues that would suggest a simulated reality.

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