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At Big Think: The simulation hypothesis is a dangerous illusion



  • The simulation hypothesis states that we are living in a simulation created by a technologically advanced species. 
  • If we are living in a simulation, so are our simulators. Only the First Simulator — namely, “God” — has any agency. 
  • The real problem we face is the reality we live in, which is reaching disastrous levels of self-destruction. It is our duty to address that reality — not escape from it.
simulation hypothesis
Credit: andrush / Adobe Stock

Marcelo Gleiser writes:

The matrix of our reality is glitching. At least it seems to be, given the absurdity of current events. It sometimes seems as if some joker from the future, or perhaps an alien kid, is fooling with the fabric of society to see where it will all break down. From politics to pandemics to war, it feels like nothing is going right.

Calvinism with a modern twist

So, yes, if we do live in a simulation, our puppet masters are truly evil creatures. What kind of rank social experiment is this? Perhaps we do not live in such a simulation, however. Maybe humanity just needs to overhaul its moral standards before it self-combusts in a puff of rage. 

To most people trying to make a living, pay bills, or fight an illness, it sounds ridiculous to spend time considering that our reality is not “real” but is instead a highly sophisticated simulation. Someone close to me recently told me on this topic, “I wish smart people would focus on real-world problems and not on this nonsense.” I sympathize with this view, even though I use simulations in my own scientific research. To blame the current mess on powers beyond us sounds like a major cop-out. It is not too different from the age-old aphorism, “it’s God’s will.” It is not our fault, it is not our responsibility; “they” are doing this to us. 

The key difference between God and a simulation (at least in this narrow context) is that God is presumably infallible, while simulations can have glitches. Well, the argument that we live in a simulation has some glitches of its own. 

Only the First Simulator is free

One such glitch is that there is no reason to stop the simulation at one super-advanced posthuman (or alien) species. It could very well be that our simulators are being simulated by even more advanced simulators, and those by even more advanced ones, ad infinitum. Who is the First Simulator? 

This reminds me of the “turtles all the way down” concept of Anavastha in Indian philosophy, where the world rests on an elephant that rests on a turtle that rests on a turtle, and so on. In the West, we might refer to this as infinite regression, or the problem of the First Cause. This offers at least some sort of comfort, given that the First Simulator must enslave all of our simulators. Only the First Simulator is truly free. Sound familiar?

A dangerous illusion

The simulation argument messes with our self-esteem. It concludes that we have no free will, that we are just puppets fooled into thinking we are free to make choices. To believe this is to give up our sense of autonomy. After all, if it’s all a big game that we cannot control, why bother? “Let the world go to hell, as it is now. We can’t change it anyway.” 

This is the danger with this kind of philosophical argument — it threatens to actually turn us into what it is claiming we are, so that we abdicate our right to fight for what we believe in and to change what must be changed. Let us make sure that we do not confuse philosophical arguments with our very real socio-political reality, especially not now. We need all the autonomy we can muster to protect our freedom of choice and to grow morally so we can salvage our project of civilization. Killing our own is the lowest kind of savagery we can sink to. Our reality is not a simulation. It simply reflects our failure to evolve morally as a species.

Big Think

If evolution is the answer, then we can’t be blamed. If God is the answer, then the stakes get higher: our choices matter in the end, with accompanying responsibility. But with God, hope also enters the picture, and meaningless non-existence need not be our end.

....how do you know that any other person is actually human and not a (very) advanced robot, or even a simulated signal stream tapped into your brain?
The problem isn't quite that bad. All computers' data processing consists entirely of numerical and logical computations of various sorts using algorithms of various sorts. Consciousness (and qualia) are inherently noncomputable and non-algorithmic, so computers fundamentally can't generate qualia, that is, subjective consciousness, awareness. Since qualia are the essense of consciousness, we can conclude with 100% certainty that computers (and AI systems) simply cannot ever even in principle become conscious. So, all we have to do is determine if what appears to be another human person is actually AI-based, and if so we absolutely know that it is not conscious. Of course then the core problem is where we can't determine if the other "entity" is an AI, or not. If that is the case, then we are stuck. But it should be relatively easy to determine whether it is an AI system or flesh and blood. There is one possibility of being able to actually check if the AI is conscious. That is finding a human psychic sensitive who can attempt to telepathically communicate with the robot system. If he/she verifiably reports communication with the soul of the robot system, it must actually be conscious. There also seems to be a possible mechanism by which an AI could become conscious - this would be positing dualism, in which a conscious disembodied immaterial human soul becomes associated with an AI system. Of course, the problem then is how the freely-willing soul could influence the programmatic deterministic entity. There is no good solution other than that the soul psychokinetically changes physical logic gates in the computer to effect its will. doubter
Doubter: I entirely agree with you that the AI will not actually experience qualia. However, if the simulation is well done, it will appear to have qualia in the sense that someone interacting with the AI would think that it has those experiences. Since no one can experience another person's qualia, how do we know they are actually having those experiences? It is only through "theory of mind" that we assume other humans have the same sort of qualia we experience, so we attribute their reactions and responses as indicative of qualia. If the simulated qualia appear the same to another person as the real thing, then what is the real difference? In a similar vein, how do you know that I am not an advanced AI rather than a human person? Even further, how do you know that any other person is actually human and not a (very) advanced robot, or even a simulated signal stream tapped into your brain? It is only our life experience telling us no such entities exist (yet) that allows us to assume the other entity is indeed human. You may turn around the Turing test and ask, "How could you prove to me that you are indeed human?" Please don't try - I'll make that assumption - but it is an interesting thought experiment. Cheers. Fasteddious
"...an AI could be easily programmed to simulate having qualia; interpreting an excess of certain wavelengths “seen” in an image as “redness”, and reporting it as such. Or interpreting certain input signals outside their normal levels as “pain” and reacting accordingly. " You don't seem to comprehend what qualia are, which are the elements of inner subjective conscious perception. In a totally different and higher category of existence from computation, programmed in an AI or otherwise. Such programmed computation of the intensity of "redness" for instance, and programmed responses to the signal, don't come within a light year of creating the inner subjective experience of perceiving the color red. Your programmed AI detecting and responding to light wavelengths in a certain frequency range, or responding appropriately to damaging or noxious effects , isn't at all actually experiencing red or experiencing pain - it is just a mechanism making programmed responses to certain stimuli. No consciousness. In fact, the basic problem is that absolutely no one understands what is the essence of consciousness. doubter
I don't buy some of the reasons given for why the world cannot be a simulation. For example, an AI could be easily programmed to simulate having qualia; interpreting an excess of certain wavelengths "seen" in an image as "redness", and reporting it as such. Or interpreting certain input signals outside their normal levels as "pain" and reacting accordingly. I do agree that no current AI or readily foreseeable one is close to effectively simulating all such qualia, not to mention other human consciousness attributes. However, I don't see qualia as a no-go for AI. Also, given the drift of physics from matter, to fields and waves, to information and probabilities, surely physical "reality" could, in principle, be simulated. Moreover, given that the signals the brain actually receive bear little resemblance - mapping yes, but not resemblance - to the external reality (whatever that is), it is not difficult to envisage the "brain in a vat" scenario, where all inputs and outputs at the brain are simulated signals from some super computer. The actual bandwidth (or bit rate) of inputs to the human brain is actually quite low, even less than a typical HD video link. (E.g. aside from the fovea, your perception of the visual field is at low resolution.) I don't actually believe we are living in a simulation, but it is fun to speculate about it. In particular, it allows all sorts of weird things like "save game" feature, temporal stasis and resets, miracles, the Calvinism mentioned in the OP, and various philosophical matters. It also allows one to get a better grip on some difficult concepts like fine tuning, the nature of time, creation, etc. Here is one look at some of this: https://thopid.blogspot.com/2019/01/our-simulated-world.html Fasteddious
There has been a lot of work done in this area. The analogy of an iterative computer calculation/simulation makes sense of a lot of otherwise mysterious phenomena, in particular, quantum mechanical phenomena. Ross Rhodes makes some key points on this, summarized in his paper A Cybernetic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics at http://www.mysearch.org.uk/website1/pdf/615.1.pdf. Just one part of this analysis is examination of the way electromagnetic waves are not really waves in any sort of medium, but behave exactly as if they are waves of calculation.
In the 1920s it was shown that objects -- everything from electrons to the chair on which you sit -- exhibit exactly the same wave properties as light, and suffer from exactly the same lack of any medium. One way to resolve this seeming paradox of waves without medium is to note that there remains another kind of wave altogether. A wave with which we are all familiar, yet which exists without any medium in the ordinary sense. This is the computer-generated wave. Let us examine a computer-generated sound wave. Imagine the following set up. A musician in a recording studio plays a synthesizer, controlled by a keyboard. It is a digital synthesizer which uses an algorithm (programming) to create nothing more than a series of numbers representing what a sampling of points along the desired sound wave would look like if it were played by a "real" instrument. The synthesizer’s output is routed to a computer and stored as a series of numbers. The numbers are burned into a disk as a series of pits that can be read by a laser -- in other words, a CD recording. The CD is shipped to a store. You buy the CD, bring it home, and put it in your home entertainment system, and press the play button. The"music" has traveled from the recording studio to your living room. Through what medium did the music wave travel? To a degree, you might say that it traveled as electricity through the wires from the keyboard to the computer. But you might just as well say it traveled by truck along the highway to the store. In fact, this"sound wave" never existed as anything more than a digital representation of a hypothetical sound wave which itself never existed. It is, first and last, a string of numbers. Therefore, although it will produce wavelike effects when placed in your stereo, this wave never needed any medium other than the computer memory to spread itself all over the music.
From How the Peer-to-Peer Simulation Hypothesis Explains Just About Everything, Including the Very Existence of Quantum Mechanics, by Marcus Arvan, at https://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1765 :
"In my recently published article, “A New Theory of Free Will” , I argued that several serious philosophical and empirical hypotheses – hypotheses which have all received and continue to receive serious discussion by philosophers and physicists, and which may all turn out to be true – jointly entail that we are living in the functional equivalent of a peer-to-peer (P2P) networked computer simulation. Not only that, I argued that this P2P Hypothesis explains the very existence of almost all of the most puzzling features of our world: 1. Quantum indeterminacy and measurement problems. 2. Quantum entanglement. 3. The apparent irreducibility of conscious experience to physical objects, properties or functions. 4. The intuition that our personal identity, as conscious subjects of experience, is irreducible to any form of physical or psychological continuity. 5. The apparent “unreality of time” in the objective physical world, along with our subjective experience of the passage of time. 6. Our experience of ourselves as having free will despite our experiencing the physical world as causally closed under the laws of physics."
Exactly what is explained by the Simulation Hypothesis that cannot be explained without it? EvilSnack
Gleiser's arguments against the simulation hypothesis are well taken, like the no free will one, but he is fundamentally mistaken in that the simulaton hypothesis he is refuting is impossible from the start due to basic principles. Since all computers' data processing entirely consists of numerical and logical computations of various sorts using algorithms of various sorts, computers fundamentally can't generate qualia, that is, subjective consciousness, awareness. This is because qualia or basic subjective awareness and perception (along with the other properties of consciousness and mind) are the essence of consciousness but are non-algorithmic and noncomputable. So we can conclude that computers, including any possible programs implemented on them, simply cannot ever even in principle become conscious. Robert J. Marks has pointed this out. So we can't possibly be living in, as part of, a digital hyper-simulation, due to the good old Hard Problem of consciousness, and the related fact that no matter how advanced the computer, it's entire processing necessarily consists of executing programmed algorithms, but human consciousness, thought and sentient awareness are non-algorithmic. Gleiser evidently hasn't figured this out yet. However, this still leaves open the possibility that we as conscious beings are the outside "users" of the physical reality simulation. In other words, we could be in a simulation, but in such a way that there is a higher frame of reality that is responsible for our lower physical frame and we are "users"/"players" in the lower frame but ultimately belong to the higher spiritual one which is our home. But of course this version of the virtual reality simulation notion (with ideas derived from contemporary virtual reality computer game technology) is not popular amongst the predominantly reductionist materialist simulation believers. This version of the simulation hypothesis doesn't look to be subject to most of Gleiser's objections. doubter

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