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At Scientific American: Why we live in a simulation

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Given that this item was published April 1, we are pretty sure it’s a hoax but (“We must never doubt Elon Musk again”), curiously, Khan notes:

There is nothing in philosophy or science, no postulates, theories or laws, that would predict the emergence of this experience we call consciousness. Natural laws do not call for its existence, and it certainly does not seem to offer us any evolutionary advantages. There can only be two explanations for its existence. First is that there are evolutionary forces at work that we don’t know of or haven’t theorized yet that select for the emergence of the experience called consciousness. The second is that the experience is a function we serve, a product that we create, an experience we generate as human beings. Who do we create this product for? How do they receive the output of the qualia generating algorithms that we are? We don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, we do create it. We know it exists. That’s the only thing we can be certain about. And that we don’t have a dominant theory to explain why we need it.

Fouad Khan, “Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation” at Scientific American

That’s all true, actually. And no need to trouble Elon Musk in this matter.

Note: There is a name for the belief that we are living in a simulation, the Planetarium Hypothesis. And Elon Musk is onside:

Hat tip: Ken Francis, co-author with Theodore Dalrymple of The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd

12 Replies to “At Scientific American: Why we live in a simulation

  1. 1
    William J Murray says:

    Interesting article, and it makes some good points, but it is riddled with ideological assumptions, mistakes and bad logic.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    If this is a simulation, it’s not a very good videogame for the players. Most videogames involve conflict. A gamer who decides to make all the nations move in rigid holocaustal unison to imprison and bind and gag and kill all of their people isn’t going to have much fun. His game is going to end fast without any need for levels or points or back-stories.

  3. 3
    doubter says:

    …it (consciousness) certainly does not seem to offer us any evolutionary advantages.”

    Though I am certainly not a Darwinist, I have to admit that consciousness would seem to have definite evolutionary advantages, albeit that there is a total absence of any plausible undirected naturalistic materialistic mechanism for this evolution.

    With consciousness (subjectivity, the existence of an experiencing perceiving “I” with emotions), an organism has a distinct advantage over a complex robot in survival and reproduction, since the conscious organism has an automatic motivation to observe the environment, fuse sensory inputs in consciousness, plan ahead, avoid obstacles and very importantly, to try to do what is necessary to experience pleasure and avoid pain. The latter (pleasure and pain) having been evolved to maximize survival. Without consciousness there are no such things as pain and pleasure. The pain and pleasure principle (which requires consciousness) would seem to be a clever means of motivating the animal towards survival and well-being and away from actually or potentially damaging behaviors.

  4. 4
    Querius says:

    Eukaryotic microorganisms are extremely successful and supposedly are far more evolved than most other organisms on the planet. They react to environmental stimuli, so are they conscious?

    -Q

  5. 5
    doubter says:

    “…so are they (eukaryotic microorganisms) conscious?”

    Probably not. Mere behavioral reaction to stimuli could most likely be an automatic reaction of a very complex machine. Amongst multicellular animals suggestive signs of consciousness seem to be restricted to creatures with significant sized brains, starting with fish and progressing to more complex and advanced reptiles and mammals.

    Interactive dualism would suggest that consciousness is a quality or element of existence that comes into existence in the physical world as soon as the development of suitable vehicles for pre-existing consciousness in another realm of existence to come into and manifest in bodies, requiring a suitable central brain. The evolution of bodies and brains suitable for physical manifestation of consciousness would be coupled with progressive development of the necessary physical neurological machinery, and with the growing adaptive advantages of consciousness in surviving and living in the physical world.

  6. 6
    Fasteddious says:

    The article’s author displays a singular lack of imagination when he(?) says, “There can only be two explanations for its existence”. Surely he has heard of God as a possible explanation? But I suppose in his worldview, that is outside the pale. There are many similar “science” articles that blithely ignore the logical possibility of God (or other supernatural identity) as a potential agent of action in the world. And then they call theists narrow minded?

  7. 7
    Querius says:

    Doubter @5,
    Do organisms with small brains experience consciousness and/or pain? How about fish or mice? Do they experience both pain and consciousness or just one or the other?

    Do you have any neurological support for experiencing pain or whether something is conscious or not?

    -Q

  8. 8
    doubter says:

    Q.
    “Do you have any neurological support for experiencing pain or whether something is conscious or not?”

    Even in principle, neurological data can’t establish the existence of consciousness. Behavior can give clues, such as whether an animal shies away from something that causes it pain impulses going into it’s brain, but these are just clues, not proof. That’s related to the ongoing mystery of what consciousness really is – the “Hard Problem” defines the problem by pointing out what it certainly can’t be (anything material). And the famous “Turing test” for consciousness really isn’t that, since no such test can distinguish between a conscious self-aware human and a very complex and cleverly designed zombie robot.

    So we don’t really really know at what point in evolution the first whisps of consciousness emerge. We can just guess, based on behavior. There must be some point in level of organization of animals where simple mechanical automatic reactions and behavior give way to some form of primitive awareness, but we just don’t know for sure what that point is. The existence of some degree of subjectivity or conscious awareness in an animal is in its very nature unobservable and immaterial yet real, as much true in humans as in animals.

  9. 9
    Tom Robbins says:

    A simulation, by definition is Intelligent Design. I believe they come up with these bizarre “theories” because they can’t possibly say their is a supreme intelligence (can’t even call it GOD). BUT WAIT… who made the first simulation and where did they come from? This is a higher power by definition… Things indeed seem designed in the entire universe, and some believe it all goes away if you just postulate that it was constructed by a higher mind. You know what – I think life is kind of a simulation – or God’s 3D work of art – call it whatever you want, it is engineered by a higher power.

    I do choose to call my higher power God, but for some reason this is not allowed, but bizarre theories that all suffer from “who made the maker”, like “the aliens did i”t, by logical arguments, and going back before the aliens, posits a GOD. They may feel comfortable calling their god an alien, but their wild theory does nothing to remove a mind that is all knowing.

  10. 10
    es58 says:

    A simulation, by definition is Intelligent Design.
    Exactly
    So what could be more contradictory, hypocritical and presposterous than an academia that could allow this concept in the court of public opinion while somehow simultaneously declaring ID to be an outcast in the same universe?

  11. 11
    Tom Robbins says:

    Es58 – you summed it up so very well! I have never been accused of being concise 🙂

  12. 12
    Querius says:

    Doubter @8,

    Even in principle, neurological data can’t establish the existence of consciousness.

    Do you have any references for this assertion? What’s the principle you’re referring to?

    Behavior can give clues, such as whether an animal shies away from something that causes it pain impulses going into it’s brain, but these are just clues, not proof.

    But one can certainly program stimulus-response behavior such as SRI’s early free-roaming robot that searched for an outlet to plug into and screeched with increasing volume when blocked.

    That’s related to the ongoing mystery of what consciousness really is – the “Hard Problem” defines the problem by pointing out what it certainly can’t be (anything material).

    Yes, I agree. The argument was once stated as boiling down to whether a brain is an organic computer or an organic transceiver. Some other researcher (whose name escapes me) once speculated that the spirit of a human within the body of a gibbon would not do much worse than a human.

    And the famous “Turing test” for consciousness really isn’t that, since no such test can distinguish between a conscious self-aware human and a very complex and cleverly designed zombie robot.

    Agreed. An early example is “Eliza” in the mid 1960’s and nowadays we have chatbots and virtual assistants that can be pretty convincing. I’ve speculated that some of the more predictable trolls here might be generated programmatically . . .

    So we don’t really really know at what point in evolution the first whisps of consciousness emerge.

    There are a lot of assumptions in the above statement. In quantum mechanics experiments, conscious observation, choices, mathematical probabilities, and information seem to be more fundamental than mass-energy or space-time. Currently, there’s no evidence that anything other than human choice and observation can collapse wavefunctions. Particularly compelling is the Quantum Zeno Effect and Quantum Erasure.

    We can just guess, based on behavior.

    I don’t think such guesses are reliable. For example, can you tell whether the moves in a chess game were generated by a human or a program?

    There must be some point in level of organization of animals where simple mechanical automatic reactions and behavior give way to some form of primitive awareness, but we just don’t know for sure what that point is. The existence of some degree of subjectivity or conscious awareness in an animal is in its very nature unobservable and immaterial yet real, as much true in humans as in animals.

    Yes, but why do there need to be “must” and “emerge” assumptions if consciousness is more fundamental than what we consider material as Professor Vladko Vedral suggests?

    -Q

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