Misrepresenting The Simulation Hypothesis

24 Mar 2017 19:29


Now that there is yet another popular celebrity interested in the Simulation Hypothesis, I've been getting Google Alerts on this topic at the rate of about 3 per week, and they all include the name "Elon Musk". This is less informative than the other articles on this site, it's more of a rant than anything else; a complaint regarding all of the fluff articles posted since Elon Musk made his interest in the topic known to the public. I've deliberately avoided using the name "Elon Musk" in the title simply because I don't want to appear to be riding those coat tails.

The problem however, isn't that Elon Musk has an opinion on the topic, the problem is with all of the vastly uninformed articles that have sprang up as a result. It seems like everyone is jumping on the topic. I've been wanting to talk about the misconceptions posted in these articles for a while now but simply felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cover present in popular media. Instead I'm going to focus in on one article that popped up today March 24th, 2017, and then do my best to ignore the others.

The article I hold in contention is by Max Cohen and posted over at The Inquisitr.

The title of the article is misleading: "Do we live in a computer simulation? Why some prominent thinkers believe we do and why they're likely mistaken."

It's misleading because the author doesn't actually explain why anyone believes in the hypothesis. Nor does he adequately articulate why he thinks that they are "likely mistaken" so his title is either click bait, intentionally deceptive, or just poorly articulated. He also misrepresents the claims made by Nick Bostrom, as well as the origins of the idea when he says:

The simulation theory first entered the scene in a 2003 paper by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom.

It's amazing that a single comment like that could be riddled with so many errors, all at once. I'll list them:

1. It's not a theory. At best, it's a hypothesis. But there isn't enough data to yet support this as a theory. It's true that in popular media sources, it is referred to as a "theory", but that is often also clarified within the article. Here for example, on this site, it is clarified, even though the phrase is used contextually and within the URL, I still go to efforts to correct any misconceptions regarding the phrase, it is not a theory, at least not yet.

2. Nick Bostrom did not suggest this as a theory and he did not publish a theory. Nick is not a scientist, he is a philosopher and so he published an argument. An argument is very different than a theory.

3. Whether you call it a theory, hypothesis, or just an idea, it certainly did not enter the scene in 2003. This is not a new idea, anyone that has seen the Matrix, released in 1999, is well aware of the fact that this idea did not "first enter the scene" in 2003. In fact the idea that we live in a simulation is incredibly old. The philosophical debate between idealism and realism addresses it at great length and was sparked in 480 BC. And the idea was not isolated, it was well known in Greece and China for example, as expressed by in the writings of Zhuangzi in 369 BCE.

The main problem with this idea is that it takes too much for granted.

It takes nothing for granted. It is an argument in which one aspect of the argument is correct, and therefore the remaining 2 aspects must be wrong. It is a proposition of 3 choices, one of which must be true, this means that two of the propositions suggest that this is not a simulation. How does that take anything for granted? It doesn't.

Why would anyone waste their time and resources simulating the drudgery of our daily lives?

  • To improve our daily lives
  • To find solutions to problems
  • For education purposes
  • As a form of entertainment
  • For running risk analysis
  • For military and defense applications
  • Because not everyone thinks of their daily lives is a "drudgery" like you
  • Because some people see great possibilities in our daily lives

Furthermore, there are already life simulators (sims). Farm sims, some for science, some for fun, there are boat sims, people sims, space sims, there is even a truck driving sim in which you transport goods via interstate travel, and there are many versions of this sim. Many games are less game and more simulator.

There is even a MMORPG called Chronicles of Elyria that is more simulator than game, your character never leaves the world, has a family, joins communities, takes on the appearance of ancestors, and even dies of old age.

One of my favorite sims is a space sim called Orbiter. It is extremely challenging, requires real world skills, and used primarily as an education tool.

All of these sims address one proposition of the argument; that we might lose interest in creating simulations. But so far the interest has only grown, there are 1000's of sims that exist already.

Of all the possible uses for a sophisticated computer simulation, having one which records every boring day-to-day activity of human life sounds not only incredibly pointless, but also egotistical. Why should any “posthuman” civilization care that much about us?

This addresses another misapplication of the argument. For some reason, and Max Cohen isn't alone here, some people seem to inject the assumption that this could only come from a non-human source. Given that we are not familiar with other races of intelligent beings, it seems more likely that we would be the authors of our own simulations, just as we are now.

And to address the question: "why care". Why do we spend millions unearthing the past? Why do some people spend their entire lives in search of historical archives and events? There are lots of benefits to understanding the past and collecting data on progress.

Those, at least, are some of the reasons why the simulation theory makes for a tough sell.

Despite the claim in the title that the simulation hypothesis is unlikely, Max didn't present one reason for discarding the simulation hypothesis. He presented no sound data in opposition, no observations to rule it out, and no evidence to explain it away. His article, and so many like them, merely pointed out why he didn't find the idea appealing; because he views life as "boring" and a "drudgery". Likewise, and despite the claim made in his title, he also didn't give a single item of point that supports the simulation hypothesis and why some people believe it is a possibility.