This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #76, on the subject of Intelligent Simulation.
I saw a news item a few hours ago (I linked it from my Facebook page at the time) reporting on the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The headline was that Neil DeGrasse Tyson expressed the opinion that there was a “very high” chance that the universe was just “a simulation”.
Tyson is not alone in his opinion, although it is not the dominant opinion among scientists. However, the essence of it, that the world we perceive is not real but is a programmed simulation of a reality (something like The Matrix) is not considered to be as ridiculous as it sounds to laymen. According to the report, Tyson says he would not be surprised if the universe was designed by someone.
I hope he did not use those actual words. He is cited for defending the notion that the world we know might be a simulation, and thus that someone else is responsible for its existence. That certainly would mean that someone designed it, and frankly whether or not it is a simulation, I agree with the conclusion (expressed long ago by many, notably William Paley) that someone (at least very probably) designed it. The reason I hope Tyson did not say those words is for his sake, because he is constantly arguing that “Intelligent Design”–the theory that the universe was created by an intelligent being who had a purpose for the act of creation–is nonsense. He hosted the second Cosmos television series in large part to refute any notion that anything like God or a god might be responsible for the creation of the universe.
Yet now it seems he wants it both ways: it is not possible that there might be a creative omnipotent divine being who designed and fashioned the real universe as it is, but that same universe might be an unreal simulation of a reality created by a vastly superior being of some sort, and we might be the equivalent of computer simulated intelligences within it. How can the one be impossible and the other highly likely?
This warrants further consideration.
At the base of the issue of whether the universe is a simulation is the fact that it is probably impossible to prove it is not. The characters in the video game do not know that they are characters in a video game, and could not possibly reason their way to the conclusion that there is a reality beyond them (Tron notwithstanding). I have discussed this some in my (hopefully forthcoming) book Why I Believe:
When I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen, several friends and I created “The Great Meditators Society”, which is probably a silly name for a silly group of young teenagers trying to be intellectual. Our greatest discussion considered the fact that we could not prove that the world around us existed, that is, that what we thought we knew, even our conversations with each other, were not completely illusory. It might be, we concluded, that we exist as a floating non-corporeal consciousness—that is, one of us has such existence—and that there is some other being who creates the illusion of a universe and of interactions with other persons, giving us all of our sensory information very like a dream.
If you want me to prove that God exists, it cannot be done; I cannot even prove that you exist. This we realized as teenagers. My experience is better if I assume the illusion to be true, but a good artificial intelligence driving a direct-to-mind virtual reality would provide the same outcome. Cooperation with the rules of the illusion makes the game more enjoyable, but this does not prove the reality of the perceived world. (I should mention that The Matrix would not exist for decades, and was not part of our discussion.)
We of course were unaware that we were rehashing intellectual ground much more ably covered by others, particularly Rene Descartes. This was the starting point for his major treatise, in which he went beyond us to doubt his own existence, but then found a basis to believe that he, at least, existed in the one statement he made which is known by most people, “I think, therefore I am.” That then becomes the starting point for his own exposition of the ontological argument, possibly the earliest and certainly the most basic of the formal arguments for the existence of God, propounded earlier by Athanasius.
Yet with our own efforts at creating artificial intelligence, we are forced to ask whether being able to think demonstrates existence. Descartes recognized that the proof of his own existence was not in itself proof of his self-perception–that is, he could still be simply one mind interacting with a simulation created by another mind. He argued beyond that to the existence of God and thence to the existence of the perceived reality, but not everyone accepts his argument. It could be a simulation.
Yet it cannot be a simulation without the existence of someone–the programmer, the simulator, the Intelligent Designer. Paley’s Watchmaker is more necessary if the universe is not real than if it is.
Fundamental in the discussion at the scientific level is the idea that we are gradually discovering the rules, that is, how the universe “works”. The thought is advanced that if we can indeed determine how it works that increases the probability that it is a simulation, since it means that we could create an identical simulation given sufficient technology to implement it. I find this ironic. In the foundations of western science is the fundamentally religious tenet that a rational intelligence (the Greeks called it the Logos, “word” or “reason”) designed the universe and created us as similarly rational beings, and thus that sharing to a lesser degree the same kind of rational mind that was responsible for the creation of the world we ought to be able to grasp to some degree how that world works. Now the science that is based on the assumption that the creator of reality is a rational being in the same sense (to a greater degree) as we are is being turned on its head to say that if we can prove that reality follows rational rules we increase the probability that it is not real. To some degree, we would be completely unaware that the world followed rational rules had we not begun with the assumption that it was rationally designed to work by rules which were rationally discoverable. How does demonstrating the truth of the assumption invalidate it?
It is certainly a connundrum for Tyson. If the world might be a simulation, then it must be intelligently designed. Every scrap of evidence that supports the notion that someone designed our world as a simulation as equally supports the notion that someone designed it as a reality.
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