Rebirth of Reason


Is Reality a Simulation Game?
by Francois Tremblay

Various schools of thought have proposed the idea that our world is mere appearance, and that there is some kind of underlying mystical truth that can explain everything.

For example, religious mystics propose that it is the supernatural that is the true reality; meditators propose the absence of thought as a profoundly significant state of being; Idealist philosophers propose a "realm of ideas" which is the true reality; promoters of Near-Death Experiences propose that the NDE is the highter reality, and so on. Any idea or experience which diverges from daily experience is inevitably pointed to as the answer.

While not part of this extreme, a recent argument by Dr. Nick Bostrom (Department of Philosophy, Yale University) has made modest waves in the media. According to reports, Bostrom believes that we are in fact probably living in a computer simulation.

His reasoning is fairly simple. There will be a time when we are able to simulate sentient life on a large scale. If that is so, then there will be an enormous number of lives which will be simulated in the future. Eventually, it is not too far-fetched to think that this number will be far greater than the number of people who have ever lived.

This argument is based on two premises. First, it would require computational capacities which can scarcely be imagined at the moment, and second, it also assumes that artificial intelligence is possible. But we can assume that such capacities will surely exist in the future.

Given that the number of future simulated beings far surpasses the number of living beings, the argument goes, we must conclude that it is probable we are simulated beings as well. That is, it is probable that we are part of the simulations of the human species from the future; we are nothing but a reproduction of the state of Earth as programmed by the real, technologically-advanced humans.

At first glance, the argument seems statistically convincing. After all, while biological reproduction is limited, computational production of simulated beings is limited only by technology. But if one looks at the argument more carefully, it is very similar to the epistemological skeptics' "brain in a vat" argument.

The "brain in a vat" argument posits a situation where you are a brain in a vat of preserving fluid, plugged with electrodes which transmit information about the world "as if one were in reality," and adapts to desired movement as well. In such a situation, goes the argument, one could not make the difference with a person "in reality," and therefore it is not wise to reject such a situation as a possibility.

Likewise, the "simulated reality" argument posits a situation where we are fooled into thinking that we are "in reality" when we are really in a simulation. While the argument does not seek to attack our understanding of reality, it is still, at its base, an old skeptical argument in new garb.

As such, the two realist objections still apply. In any such situation, there are two possibilities: either the simulation is imperfect and there is a way to discover its true nature, or the simulation is perfect. If the simulation is imperfect and there is a way to discover its nature, then we shall eventually find it, and the hypothesis will be proven. If the simulation is perfect, then it is a redundant hypothesis which is of no practical value, since it cannot be proven or falsified, and explains nothing.

Actually, there is something else I must tell you. The argument I have refuted is not quite the one Bostrom made. Rather, he proposes three possibilities: "(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a 'posthuman' stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation (see www.simulation-argument.com)."

Proponents of skeptical arguments would choose the third option as most probable. I have argued elsewhere that I think the first option is the most probable (in my article "The hypothesis of sentient self-destruction"), and indeed the fact that we do not observe ourselves as part of a simulation so far does seem to confirm my hypothesis.

But whether I am right on that or not is irrelevant here: unless we have evidence of being in a simulation, the third option is simply badly formulated. Either we live in a computer simulation, or there is no point in even considering it.

I can think of two more objections to the "simulated reality" hypothesis, on theoretical grounds. One fact that seems problematic to me is that we are able to discuss this hypothesis. If this reality is controlled by people running a simulation, then why haven't they hard-coded obstacles to discussion of the simulation, or at least have seen that it was under discussion and stopped Dr. Bostrom's research?

My second objection is to the future existence, and destruction, of sentient simulations. I would like to think that a human government which lasts that long would also afford us enough freedom to protect our lives, if nothing else. In such a government, surely the destruction of sentience would be illegal (and in case you may want to argue that a simulated sentience would be inferior in its capacities, recall that we have already assumed that the simulated consciousness was functionally equivalent).

Of course, there is always a last way out: we can simply assume that the computational capabilities to create these simulations will be impossible, or that artificial intelligence on par with humans is impossible. However, I see no reason to make that assertion--and as we know, it is usually quite foolish to put limits on future technology.

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