Against skepticism, Epistemology

Against simulation

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.

Against skepticism, knowledge

Tolerance and knowledge

Although it really has nothing much to do with NKS, whenever discussing skepticism the moral argument for it comes up. I don’t find those convincing, and I think I should explain why.

Part of the attraction of arguments from epistemic weakness comes from a set of moral claims commonly advanced for them, or against the imagined contrary position of epistemic dogmatism. I don’t consider those common moral claims remotely sound, and their association with epistemic weakness is too loose to bind the two together. Roughly, people think it is intolerant to claim to know, sometimes about specific issues and sometimes anything at all, and more tolerant or nicer somehow to refrain from such claims. As though knowledge were inherently oppressive and ignorance, freedom.

At bottom I think this is a post hoc fallacy, a loose association arising from flip diagnoses of what was wrong with chosen bete noirs. So and so believed he knew something and look how awful he was, ergo… Ergo not very much. Your favorite bete noir probably also thought that 2 and 2 are 4, and never 5 nor 3. This won’t suffice to dispense with the addition table and make arithematic voluntary. Evil men had noses. This doesn’t make noses the root of all evil. Believing you know things is as normal as having a nose.

For that matter, I can comb history and find any number of convinced skeptics who were personally as nasty as you please, or even as intellectually intolerant on principle. Al Ghazali will argue from the impotence of human knowledge that philosophy should be illegal and the books of the philosophers burned. You won’t find any skeptical argument in Hume that he didn’t anticipate by centuries. But in his cultural context, it was the theologians that were the skeptics and philosophers who believed in the possibility of (human) knowledge. As this context makes clear, you need a reason to challenge entrenched convention, and if human thought cannot supply one you are left to the mercies of convention. Convention can reign without making any epistemic claims; it suffices to destroy all possible opposition.

There is a more basic problem with the idea that tolerance requires epistemic weakness. It misunderstands the reason for tolerance, and because of it will narrow its proper domain of application. The real reason for tolerance is that error is not a crime, but instead the natural state of mankind. Tolerance is tolerance for known error, or it doesn’t deserve the name. Imagine some Amish-like sect that wants to opt out of half of the modern world, and believes demonstrable falsehoods, but keeps to itself and bothers no one. What is the tolerant attitude toward such a group?

People can think what they like. You can’t require truth of them as a moral matter, because it is rarely available at all, for one, but also because truth can only be grasped internally, as a freely offered gift. You can’t make someone else think something, and it is a category error to try. Minds are free, and individual. All you can do it offer a truth (or a notion or thought), for someone else to take or leave. In the classic formulation of the age of religious wars in Europe, a conversion obtained by duress simply isn’t a conversion. Yes men err, and sometimes their errors issue in actions that are crimes. But no, you cannot eliminate the possibility of crime by first eliminating error. You couldn’t eliminate error even if you had full possession of the truth (which you don’t, to be sure). Persecution isn’t made any better if the doctrine for which you persecute is rational – it remains persecution. (The historian Ignaz Goldhizer made this point in a convincing Islamic context, incidentally).

Human beings are falliable and they are mortal. They have short lives full of personal cares, trials, and difficulties, whose incidence and urgency are peculiar to each individual. They are born in utter ignorance and dependent on their immediate fellows for most of their categories and systems of thought. They grope for knowledge because they need it in practical ways, they attain bits and pieces of it in scattershot fashion, with more found by all combined than possessed by any specific subset among them. Most knowledge stays distributed, particular, and operational – not centrally organized, general, or theoretical.

You can’t require conformity to some grand theoretical system of men in general without violence to half of them. Equally you can’t deny them the possibility of knowledge without maiming them all; humility for export isn’t a virtue. Real tolerance is a patient acceptance of these facts, a charitable and kindly view of our mutual difficulties. We offer one another such knowledge as we have found, and recipients freely take it or leave it, after judging for themselves what use it may have in their own lives. If instead you try to force everyone to acknowledge that they don’t know anything, one you are wrong because they do know all sorts of things, and two you are exactly requiring the sort of grand theoretical conformity you are pretending to be against. You end up making disagreement with your epistemological claims some sort of crime. In this case, that disagreement isn’t even an error, let alone any crime.

So at bottom, my objection to arguments in favor of epistemic weakness on the basis of its supposed tendency to further moral tolerance is that it has no such tendency, and that it misses the point of true tolerance. Which isn’t restricted to a response to ignorance. It isn’t (just) the ignorant who require tolerance, it extends to people who are flat wrong, but innocently so. The moral requirement to practice tolerance is not limited to people unsure of themselves, but extends to people who are correct and know it. The real principle of tolerance is simply that error is not a crime.

Against skepticism

Skepticism, certainty, and formal truth

The great vice of philosophy in our time is its infatuation with arguments from epistemic weakness. What might have started as careful attention to distinct categories of real knowledge has fallen into a flip dismissal of the possibility of knowledge of any kind, or restricting it to the narrowest possible compass. The contrast to the staggering achievements of our technology is blatant; never have practical engineers known so much with such precision and assurance, while both academic and popular thought loudly declare their inability to do so, on principle.

Raise the problem of knowledge with a contemporary skeptic and he will dodge knowledge in favor of “certainty” in less than a minute. When pressed he will retreat further to “absolute certainty”. He won’t be able to point to a single instance of what he means by this, however, since his desired conclusion is that it does not exist. One can in principle lay down definitions that turn out to have no domain, but generally speaking this means “so much the worse for that definition”. A distinction that doesn’t distinguish one real existing thing from another real existing thing, leaves something to be desired.

What he is really trying to distinguish is not elements of his world, but his world from what he imagines about other peoples’ worlds. He sees things inside “doubt brackets”, but the content of the world is independent of those brackets. He imagines that someone else is “seeing” certainties everywhere, despite their not actually being present. Since the contents are the same (even as far as their operational, probabilistic or betting characteristics), this amounts to castigating other people for not putting his preferred doubt brackets around all of their own thoughts. (I’ll address the moral claims often advanced for such positions in a later post).

He is of course free to bury every thought in his head in layer after layer of such brackets. But he isn’t content to do this – he demands others encumber their internal notation system in a similar fashion. At bottom this is merely rude. No doubt subjectively he is earnestly trying to save others from the tarpits of their dogmatism. Perhaps he experienced his doubt-bracketing insight as liberating or humbling and wants to share it. But soon he will be diagnosing imaginary vices and errors in anyone who refuses the rituals of his church of the extra brackets, whose sacramental efficacy he never doubts.

Occasionally one finds the less social type of skeptic who instead adopts the passive role and dares anyone to argue him out of his fortress of solitude. “Prove I know something”, he says. It is trivial to show he believes things, and does so with all the operational characteristics of knowledge, but he insists he doesn’t know them. Since at bottom this isn’t a real distinction (“real” meaning, in the good scholastic fashion, “independent of what anyone thinks of it, not a matter of opinion”), who cares? As a rational animal it is his business to know things, and if he declares bankruptcy it is his own affair. One can still notice how his position suffers all the defects Popper diagnosed in hermetic thought-systems of a more dogmatic stripe. He thinks that nothing being able to shake the certainty of his self-denial of knowledge is a strength; in fact it proves to a demonstration that said self-denial makes no contact with reality.

An older role for the distinction between knowledge and certainty used it as a real distinction, specifically dividing empirical knowledge from formal knowledge. Mathematical facts and logical syllogisms counted as certainty as well as knowledge, while empirical facts were knowable but not certain. This has much to recommend it, but is slightly too blunt for the realities it is trying to capture. The reason is, there are formal truths that effectively have the epistemic status of empirical facts, that just happen to be this way rather than that, but are “leaf like” formal facts, unconnected to broader (prior) formal truths they follow from. Gregory Chaitin has shown this using cardinality arguments. Roughly speaking, there can be more true mathematical statements within a domain or system, than ways to derive them from a limited set of prior axioms. But at least it is a real distinction.

At the level of method, I think we expand the realm where we treat things as “empiricals” still more. In NKS we are frequently making conjectures about whole categories of formal systems, well before we can have deduced enough about them to turn our knowledge of them into anything like logical certainty. Not because they aren’t at bottom purely formal systems, but because the scale of deductive work involved exceeds anything practical, not just for us but for our computers, or even for any forseeable computers running for even astronomical time. Relative to the state of our knowledge at the time of the conjecture, these have the methodological status of empirical facts.

I would claim that is the only relevant knowledge to “rate” such truths or claims, by. There is no mythical mind of God for which all logical truth, no matter how involved, is immediate and simple. For any finite mind or computational system of any description, some purely formal truths or propositions have the epistemic character of empirical facts. What we have previously thought of as the formally certain is actually a special subset of the formal, the simple or computationally reducible.

Against skepticism, there are simple and computationally reducible formal facts that can be known with certainty, in the good scholastic sense of certainty. Against the idea that the domain of certainty exactly coincides with the formal (as distinct from empirical), there are subsets of formal propositions that for all practical purposes are like empiricals, instead. Meaning, we address the latter with an empirical toolkit of conjecture and experiment and induction, of categorization based on phenomenal characteristics, applicable theorems or models, and the like. The domain of application of empirical method is broader than the scholastic distinction supposed, but there is a domain of application of pure deduction, and it does attain certainty where it applies.