I think therefore we are not in a simulation



I love Elon Musk but when he talks about living in a simulation I have to disagree.

Check out the above video. Musk says,
"The strongest argument for us being in simulation is that 40 years ago, we had 'Pong'. Like two rectangles and a dot. That is what games were. Now, forty years later we have photo-realistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it is getting better every year. And soon we will have virtual reality and augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all then the games will become indistinguishable from reality. Even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is right now, then you just say okay let's imagine it is 10,000 years in the future which is nothing in the evolutionary scale. So given that we are clearly in our trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality and those games could be played on any set top box or PC or whatever and there would probably be billions of such computers and set top boxes, it would seem that it would follow that the odds that we are in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what is wrong with that argument? .... is there a flaw in that argument?"
 This argument is becoming popular. In addition to countless silicone valley titans like Musk,  I have heard it said by popular podcasters like Joe Rogan and social media personalities like Mike Cernovich.I have heard it argued by academics like, Nick Bostrom (Oxford).

Bostrom explains the idea in his 2003, "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation," like this,
Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race....
It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.
Therefore, if we don't think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.
Now... I should note that Musk and Bostrom appear to have two slightly different views of the simulation. Musk appears to be saying that we are real people living inside a computer generated environment. Bostrom appears to suggest that we are part of the computer program itself (created by some future race of humans). I think that Musk's view is slightly more tenable than Bostrom's but both have major philosophical problems. Those problems fall into two categories that I will discuss here:

1) Issues surrounding rationality of the human mind
2) Issues surrounding consciousness

Bostrom's simulation has problems on both issues. Musk maybe just the first issue.

Let's start with rationality.

Assuming Our Brains Work - On Rationality

There is an excellent book by Notre Dame philosopher, Alvin Plantinga called, "Where conflict really lies," in which Plantinga talks about the rationality of our brains. Humans have to assume our brains work. Comedian Brian Regan has a bit where space men go looking for intelligent life but only find unintelligent life. They get off the space ship, see aliens walking around with dumb looks on their faces who say, "2+2= Chicken!"

2+2=chicken is a good example of a brain that does not work. In contrast, when we humans say, 2+2=4, we assume that is a meaningful statement. We assume that our brains work well enough for that. And a lot of other things. We debate things. We reason things. We gather evidence. We draw conclusions. We assume that these are all valuable things to do. We think our brains work. We acknowledge limitations (sometimes we forget things, sometimes we misunderstand, etc) but to even attempt to learn, discuss or debate, we have to assume a certain level of rationality of our brains.

But Plantinga notes, this is impossible to prove. As soon as we use logic, reason, evidence or arguments to prove that our brains work, we assume the conclusion. If our brains didn't work, the logic, reason, evidence, and argument we make might be no more meaningful than 2+2=chicken.

There is no non-circular way to prove rationality.

So... is it rational to believe we are rational?

Plantinga says.... maybe.

He explains that it is rational to assume something if there not a good reason to doubt it. He uses this illustration (I paraphrase).


A man walking by a field and sees a white fluffy animal on the hill and thinks, 'that is a sheep.' He goes into town and sits down in the bar continuing to assume he has seen a sheep. At this point, he is perfectly rational. But suppose the farmer who owns that land happens to be sitting next to him and says, 'no, I don't have any sheep. I do have a big fluffy white dog though.'

At that point, for the man to continue to assume that the sheep was a sheep is irrational. The only rational way to continue to believe that he saw a sheep would be to go back to the field, climb the hill, and look at the animal.  It is possible it was a sheep but the assumption of sheep is no longer rational. 
In this illustration, the sheep represents rationality. And the farmer represents our world view (how we make sense of the world). Plantinga says that naturalism is a worldview (a farmer) who asserts that there is no sheep in that field. He explains that unguided evolution (no God, no Spirit, no Divine) is a farmer who owns no sheep. The universe is full of irrational beings. Trees, bacteria, fish, mushrooms, dogs, and spiders are all the products of natural selection and absolutely none of them are able to distinguish between 2+2=4 and 2+2=chicken. Not a single one. And that is because evolution does not select for rationality. It selects for survival. It is possible to imagine certain times when rationality might help survival but there are other times when rationality would hinder survival. If I see a lump in the forest, it is better for me to irrationally assume it is a bear and run away than to rationally evaluate it as the lump gets closer and eyes me for food. Most things evolution created survive very well without any rational thought whatsoever. Some things survive precisely due to irrationality.

In fact, if evolution made us rational, we are the only known product of the process to utilize rationality for survival. Possible. But hardly something you could assume. It is the sort of thing we would need to prove to beleive. Which is impossible. The farmer is saying, 'there is no sheep on that hill'  and we cannot go back to the hill.

In contrast, most religious world views have a farmer who either says nothing about the sheep or affirms that he does indeed own sheep. For example, the Christian worldview says that God is rational and created humans in his image. We are rational because God created us rational. Christians can merrily assume rationality and do so rationally. Our farmer owns sheep.

So, naturalism,  Plantiga argues, is in direct conflict with rationality. So, there is no rational way to argue for naturalism. It is fundamentally irrational.

Back to the simulation.

If we sincerely believe that we are part of simulation (that becomes our world view... our farmer), what does that do with our assumption of rationality? I think it can only undermine it. If nothing we see or feel or do is real. If we have no idea if the other players (humans around us) are true conscious souls or simply simulated bots. If we do not know (as Bostrom argues) if we are actually the bots ourselves. Then suddenly our farmer is saying that rationality can no longer be assumed. We might be doing things not because we want to but because a programmer made us. Maybe our programmer likes a world where 2+2=chicken. We have no way of knowing. We have no way of testing. The farmer says that there is no sheep on the hill and we can no longer assume there is.

To believe that we live in a simulation is fundamentally irrational.

On Consciousness
The second problem with the simulation theory is our own consciousness.

We humans are conscious. And we are conscious that we are conscious. Rene Descartes put this at the very center of knowledge. Everything else could be questioned. I could be a butterfly dreaming that I am a human. But one thing I know. "I think, therefore I am." It is impossible to deny this without self contradiction.

I think because of our almost universal acceptance of naturalism, we are inclined to just assume that somehow physical things can become conscious. Humans are just moist computers (as Scott Adams says) and we became conscious. Therefore it follows that electronic brains might become conscious at some point as well.

But even conceiving of how physical things might become conscious is an impossible thought experiment. Even hardened atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker acknowledge the greatness of the problem. Dawkins writes (referencing Steven Pinker's work),
 "In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it."
Many laypersons do not see what Pinker and Dawkins see. For the average person, a computer is a sort of magical thing. We see a box with a bunch of circuit boards and wires in it that produces really cool outputs. Ask your iPhone to marry you and the voice comes back, 'Let's just be friends.' That is a witty and funny thing. Almost human. Siri will be conscious soon.

Except, no she won't. Wires and circuits are not magic. Nor is a well written computer code.

Let me take away the 'magic' of your iPhone with a helpful analogy an electrical engineering professor gave me.  My undergraduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering and my university required me to take a couple of circuits classes just so I would not be totally ignorant. In order to explain to Mechanical Engineers how circuits worked, my professor suggested that we think of the flow of electrons through a circuit like water flowing through a complicated canal.

Voltage, he said, can be thought of as the water level. Amperage could be thought of as the water speed. Resisters can be thought of as sharp bends in the canal. Switches can be thought of as a high wall that stops the flow of water. And motors can be thought of as a mill being turned by the flow of water. It was an imperfect analogy but it was helpful to understand what the various parts did.

But let's take that analogy further. Let's suppose (and this is possible) we had a giant canal. Maybe a whole Minecraft sized planet and cover it completely with canals. You construct the canals to make a mechanical computer. There are switches and different paths through which the water can flow. You create a computer code with the canals. If the water flows one way, it flips on a light. If it flows another way, it flips on another light. You could, with various water levels, bends, and forks, create a river that functioned like a simple computer. Give it inputs, and it would give outputs. It really is possible if you had a big enough canal and the workers to modify it.

Now.... make that canal giant. Put it on some imaginary planet of almost infinite size. You could create a river-super-computer. Water flowing that flipped lights on and hit speakers to make pre-programmed noises. You could make that river like Siri. It could make jokes. It could tell you the time. It could tell you the weather forecast.

But... would that river and canal ever be conscious? Of course not. It is water flowing through a canal flipping on lights and noise-making machines. However cleverly you designed the river, it would still be water running through canals. It would never. Never. Be conscious. For that river to suddenly be able to think, "I am a river," would be something wholly un-mechancial. It would be magic. And rivers are not magic.

And neither are electrons.

It is not that we have not figured out the evolutionary step yet. It is that the step is in another dimension. Outside the physical. A step into the spiritual dimension.  This is why Dawkins and Pinker are stumped. The fact that humans are conscious is a magical thing. It cannot be explained by evolution. It cannot be explained by physical processes. We are a river of chemicals and electrons who are aware that we are a river of chemicals and electrons.

And now, let me go back to Bostrom's idea that we are a computer program created by some future being. I know that is not true. I know it is not true because I am conscious. Computer programs are a electron river. And rivers are not magic. I know it is not true because I think.

I think therefore I am not a simulation. 

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