I want to trash the idea that we are living in a computer simulation. I will specifically examine Bostrom’s argument that either advanced civilizations don’t run simulations, or most civilizations go extinct, or we are living in a simulation. I will show that anyone who believes his argument is forced to believe in the flying spaghetti monster as well, and in any other item of superstitious nonsense that anyone wishes to impose upon the credulous. He reprises Pascal’s wager, misuses the notion of a Bayesian prior, and falls into cardinality pitfalls as old as Zeno. In passing I will slander Hanson’s more limited claim that at least it is not impossible that we are living in a simulation, explain a few philosophy background items for the Matrix, and defend instead a robust form of the Kantian transcendental deduction – we are living in the universe, which is actual and not an illusion; even illusions live in the actual universe.
First the form of Bostrom’s argument. He claims that one of the following is true, he does not decide which –
(B1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(B2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history;
(B3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
The form he desires for the conclusion of this supposedly necessary triparition is, “It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor – simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”
Notice, on the surface he does not claim to argue independently that any of the three is more plausible than the others, let alone that all three hold. But in fact, he really comes down for B1 or B3, offering the alternatives “we are in a sim or we are all going to die”, and his money is on the “sim” answer.
The idea is either civilizations generally die out, are uninterested in simulation, or we are in one already. The first B1 is meant to be his catastrophe-mongers “out” and a possible resolution of the Fermi paradox (why aren’t the super smart aliens already here? — they are all dead, they routinely destroy themselves as soon as they have the tech to do so). While he is personally quite given to apocalyptic fantasies of this sort, the “very likely” in the phrasing is a give-away that he regards this is less plausible than B3. Some, sure, nearly all, not so much.
The second he actually regards as extremely implausible. On an ordinary understanding of human interests, if we can we probably would, and B2 requires an “extremely” modifying unlikely, as even a tiny chance that a society with the means would also add the desire is sufficient to generate astronomical numbers of sims. B3 is meant to be plausible given a denial of B1. Why? He counts imaginary instances and decides reality is whatever he can imagine more instances, of.
The primary fallacy lies there, and it can be seen by simply imagining a wilder premise and then willfully alleging a bit more cardinality. The flying spaghetti monster universes are much more numerous than the simulations, because the FSM makes a real number of entirely similar universes for each infinitessimal droplet of sauce globbed onto each one of his continuous tentacles. These differ only in what the FSM thinks about each one of them, and they are arranged without partial order of any kind. The sims, on the other hand, are formally computable and therefore denumerable and therefore a set of measure zero in the infinite sea of FSM universes. My infinity is bigger than your infinity. Na nah nana na.
This shows the absurdity of counting imaginaries without prior qualification as to how plausible they are individually. Worse, it shows that we have here just another species of Pascal’s wager, in which a highly implausible premise is said to be supported by a supposedly stupendous but entirely alleged consequence, which is supposed to multiply away any initial implausibility and result in a practical certainly of… of whatever. The argument in no way depends on the content of the allegation – simulation, deity created universe, dreams of Vishnu, droplets of FSM sauce. It is merely a free standing machine for imposing stupendous fantasies on the credulous, entirely agnostic as to the content to be imposed.
As for B1, well we are all going to die. Sorry, welcome to finitude. Doesn’t mean the civilization will, but we aren’t the civilization, we are mortal flies of summer. Theologically speaking it may be a more interesting question whether we stay dead, or whether the Xerox corporation has a miraculous future ahead of it, post human or not, simulated or lifesized. But one can be completely agnostic about that eventual possibility without seeing any evidence for simulation-hood in the actuality around us.
Hanson, a much lesser light, breathlessly insists instead that at least the simulation hypothesis is not impossible. This truly isn’t saying very much. According to the medievals, the position one ends up in denying only the impossible but regarding anything else as equally possible is called Occasionalism. Anything possible can happen and it is entirely up to God, the occasionalists claimed. They denied any natural necessity as limitations on God’s transcendent freedom. Logic and math could be true in all possible worlds, but everything else could change the next instant as the programmer-simulator changed his own rules. This anticipated Hume’s skeptical denial of causality by at least five centuries. The modern forms add nothing to the thesis; I’ll take my al-Ghazali straight, thank you very much.
The immediate philosophical background of these ideas and their recent popularization in the Matrix is the brain in a vat chesnut of sophmore skepticism, and its more illustrious predecessor, Descartes’ consideration in the Meditations whether there is anything he can be certain about. Descartes posits an evil genius deliberately intent on deceiving him about everything, and decides that his understanding of his own existence would survive the procedure. This evil genius has metastasized in the modern forms. As an hypothesis it actually has gnostic roots (caught between a world they despised and a supposedly just omnipotence, they required an unjust near-omnipotence in the way to square their circle), though come to that an occasionalist God would fit Descartes’ idea to a tee. Descartes himself, on the other hand, is quite sure that no intentional deceiver of that sort would deserve the more honorable title.
Why is the evil genius evil? Why is the brain-in-a-vat manager managing brains in vats? Why are the alien simulators studiously absent from their simulations? And why do their make believe realities feature so little of the harps and music and peaceful contemplation of which imaginations of paradise abound, and so much of the decrepitude and banal horror of actual history? No, they don’t need batteries – no civilization capable of such things would have material exploitative motives. One might allow for a set of small measure to discover things; beyond that the sim managers presumably actually have preferences and are fully capable of realizing them. Naturally you should therefore pray to them for a benign attitude toward your own trials and tribulations. The flying spaghetti monster appreciates a fine sauce.
The original Matrix at least kept up the dualism between a technological mask over a theological world and a theological mask over a technological world. The sequels couldn’t maintain it and collapsed into their own action movie absurdities, but the ability in principle to maintain the dualism is a better guide to the argument’s actual tendency. Which is superstition for technopagans.
Against those signs of contemporary intellectual flacidity, a Kant argued on essentially Cartesian grounds that we could arrive at an at least minimalist piece of information about the actual world beyond our interior of experience – that it exists and is real and structures the possibilities of experience. We need not go so far as to accept his characterization of space and time as necessary forms of intuition to see the soundness of this point. Even illusions happen in some real world, and “universe” refers to that ultimate true ground, and not to any given intervening layer of fluff.
Every robust intelligence starts from the actuality of the world, from feet firmly planted on the ground, not airy fantasies between one or another set of ears. The impulse to look everywhere for fantastic possibility instead is a desire for fiction. If you don’t like the truth, make something up. It is a power-fantasy, but shows remarkably little sensitivity to the question what any intelligent being would want to do with power of that sort. The morals of such pictures are a farce, from the gnostics on. But it is enough to notice that the entire subject is a proper subset of historical theology.