On the Simulation ArgumentPosted: September 15, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: The Simulation Argument | 5 Comments »
In the movie The Matrix, the main character, Neo, awakens from an artificial reality. He eventually discovers that most of humanity has been captured by a race of elite machines, who cruelly imprison human minds within an artificial reality known as the Matrix. The release of the movie back in 1999 hopefully provoked both philosophical and non-philosophical minds alike to question the true nature of reality, which I think is a positive thing.
How likely is it, then, that life as I know it is merely a Matrix-like computer simulation? I’m not exactly prepared to assign a specific probability to this scenario, but, as an ardent questioner of reality, I realize it’s possible. I’ve come to learn that not only is it possible, but it might be more probable than I initially realized, at least according to philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University.
In fact, if I decide to accept a few seemingly reasonable assumptions it is highly probable that I’m living in someone else’s computer simulation right now. Pardon my language, but how’s that for a Cartesian Mindfuck?
This claim may sound outrageous, but allow me to clarify, it’s actually logically sound. First, in order to understand Mr. Bostrom’s Simulation argument we must lay out a few key assumptions.
#1 The first assumption is that of ‘substrate independence’, which means that conscious minds could, in actuality, exist not only through biological neurons, but also on something like a silicon-based computer processor. (If we assume substrate independence, in essence, we admit that it’s theoretically possible to upload a human mind onto a sufficiently fast computer.)
#2 The second assumption is that we can estimate how much computing power would be needed to implement a human mind within a virtual reality.
Ok, now that those two assumptions are out of the way: enter the simulation argument.
The simulation argument suggests that one of the three following propositions is true (please note, however, it does not claim to demonstrate that we live in a simulation, but simply that one of the following three propositions must be true.)
#1 The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small.
#2 Almost no technologically mature civilizations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours.
#3 You are almost certainly in a simulation.
At face value, it’s pretty hard to argue that neither of these three propositions is true given the assumptions that were laid out.
Consider proposition #1. The question is: will humanity survive long enough to develop this technology that we assumed is feasible to develop or will we kill each other off first? Even if human technological development comes to a screeching halt, biological evolution does not. If humans manage to survive for a long enough time scale, then, eventually we’ll continue to evolve into some species of “posthuman”, who may develop the necessary technology to run the simulation if we are unable to. Anyway, we must also question the likelihood that our evolutionary cousins will not kill each other off before they have the technology to run supercomputer simulations.
Consider proposition #2. Perhaps our potential simulators see no reason to run a computer simulation of the past. Our betters may have an evolved ethical sensibility and would find running a simulation cruel. I hope this is true.
Consider proposition #3. If this proposition is true, is it likely that the creator of our simulation would be as compassionate as the creators of The Truman Show by eventually letting us know? I’m not sure. What I do know is that if we are indeed living in a simulation and are unaware of it, there is nothing we can really do except to continue living our simulated life as programmed, much like Truman did. Perhaps this explains some of the strangeness we perceive in this world.
So why haven’t I hit the panic button yet? The reason is because I don’t accept the first assumption. I don’t believe that human consciousness operates in a similar fashion to a computer. To put it simply, we don’t know diddly-squat about many of the complex intricacies of the human mind. We can’t even sufficiently define things like ‘consciousness’ and ‘sentience’, let alone recreate them in machines. Belief in transhumanism is merely a way to assuage the human fear of death. And, in that sense, it has become the New Religion.
1) Here’s a link to Nick Bostrom’s technical article about the Simulation argument “ARE YOU LIVING IN A COMPUTER SIMULATION?”
2) Here’s a link to a less technical piece about the Simulation argument, written by Mr. Bostrom, titled “The Simulation Argument: Why the Probability that You Are Living in a Matrix is Quite High“