Wednesday, July 25, 2018

My problem with the simulation argument: It’s too idealist in its assumptions (all mind, no matter)

By “simulation argument” I mean the argument that it’s highly likely that we’re not real people. Rather, we’re just creatures in a computer simulation being run by a highly advanced civilization...somewhere...up/out there.

The idea was first advanced, I believe, by Nick Bostrom in a well known argument, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? (Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, vol. 53, no. 211, 243-255). I don’t know when I first read it, but certainly not when it was published. I creeped me out. And then I set it aside, returning every now and then, but no longer being creeped out.

I don’t believe it.

There are subtleties in just what Bostrom’s proposing. It’s not as simple as: “We’re living in a simulation and here’s why.” It’s couched in a trichotomy, one of which is supposed to be true. We can set that aside.

The basic argument is about: 1) the amount of computing power an advanced civilization will be able to create, and 2) the amount of computing power needed to simulate a human mind. To simulate a historical evolution one must, of course, simulate a bunch of minds. Bostrom takes that into account and says its doable. While I’m by no means that those future masters, call them the Orchestrators, will be able to simulate minds, let’s set that aside.

What I’m wondering is how much of the environment has to be simulated? Bostrom isn’t clear on that (p. 5): “If the environment is included in the simulation, this will require additional computing power – how much depends on the scope and granularity of the simulation.” So, there’s some possibility that we might not have to include the environment. I don’t believe that for a minute. In any event, Bostrom has some remarks about simulating the environment (p. 5):
Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible, unless radically new physics is discovered. But in order to get a realistic simulation of human experience, much less is needed – only whatever is required to ensure that the simulated humans, interacting in normal human ways with their simulated environment, don’t notice any irregularities. The microscopic structure of the inside of the Earth can be safely omitted. Distant astronomical objects can have highly compressed representations: verisimilitude need extend to the narrow band of properties that we can observe from our planet or solar system spacecraft. On the surface of Earth, macroscopic objects in inhabited areas may need to be continuously simulated, but microscopic phenomena could likely be filled in ad hoc.
Bostrom asserts that “whatever is required to ensure that the simulated humans [...] don’t notice any irregularities” is sufficient. Is that sufficient? Just what does it mean? That’s not at all clear to me.

Consider something that actually happened in earth’s history in the nineteenth century. In 1883 a volcanic island in Indonesia, Krakatoa, erupted violently. It was heard over 2000 miles away and global temperatures were depressed by 1.2 degrees Celsius. Temperatures didn’t return to normal until 1888.

How would such an event come about in a Bostrom simulation? If the Orchestrators know they want such an event in a given simulation, well then they can take measures to ensure that the simulated people have the appropriate sensations. It is not at all obvious to me, however, that a Bostrom simulation would have sufficiently rich geodynamics to that such an event would arise ‘naturally’, from within the simulation, rather than being introduced from the outside by the Orchestrators. And that’s cheating, no?

Bostrom seems to think that, if the Orchestrators need to simulate the environment at all, that is ONLY because they have to provide sensations and perceptions for the simulated people. He sees no need to provide the non-human world with its own robust dynamics.

Has Bostrom considered the requirements of starting a simulation without any humans at all so that, in time, humans could evolve in that world? What would such a simulation require–the impossible “down to the quantum level” simulation? If a Bostrom simulation can’t run a world within which humans can emerge, then do we have any reason to believe that it would provide an adequate simulation of human history.

Consider this (p. 5): “What you see through an electron microscope needs to look unsuspicious, but you usually have no way of confirming its coherence with unobserved parts of the microscopic world.” Will bacteria and viruses exist only as suitably simulated images in simulated electron microscopes? Where will simulated disease come from? What about the microbiome so essential to real life? Are Bostrom zombies only feeling occasional sensations of digestion without any simulated digestion taking place?

It seems to me that Bostrom’s Orchestrators are providing only simulated sensations and perceptions. There are no simulated physical dynamics. There is no world at all.

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