He Will Never Bring it About That I Am Nothing So Long as I Think That I Am Something

John Tierney smokes up and ponders whether the whole world is, like, an illusion, man:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby.
It hadn't? I mean, that's one of the top theological arguments for the universe's existence. That and that it was an accident. A really bad accident.

I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.
Well, maybe it hadn't occured to you, but Big-Guy-in-the-Skyism is pretty much just that: God created the universe to give Himself something to do, and because humans amuse him, he plays around with them. A little smiting here, a prophet there, and you've got something interesting hopping.

Of course, Tierney isn't talking about God, he's talking about transhumanism.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.
Now, this may seem like a wild concept, but it's one that dates back at least to Descartes, who in formulating his idea of Cogito Ergo Sum hit upon the idea that he could be literally a detached brain in a bottle, with demons feeding his mind images of a world that did not exist. In this way, he realized that nothing beyond himself could be proven to exist, because logically anything could simply be a product of deception.

I'm going to get to the deep philosophical stuff in a minute, but in the short-term, let's look at Bostrom's idea closer:

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.
Now, I'm just a human, and unfamiliar with the strange world of posthumans. But does that really strike you as a likely scenario? Moreover, why would transhumans simulate evolution. Why would they look at people's responses to a mundane world like the one we live in? Why wouldn't they look at the responses to a more interesting world?

More than that, simulating humans is not just about raw mental processing power. For good or ill, our hormones regulate our thoughts as much, if not more, as pure logic. Our moods are based as much on natural seratonin levels as anything. A simulation that was indistinguishable from reality would not just need to account for the mentality of humans, but for each individual's body, down to the cellular level. And not just each human, but each animal and plant and bacterium and virus. And not just the living world, but each rock, down to the mineral composition.

Now, certainly you could run a complex simulation short of those metrics, but it wouldn't be indistinguishable from reality unless it met the above criteria, and we know that it's unlikely, to put it mildly, that we are simply ghosts in the machine, because our observed world is real down to the quark.

There's another objection to Bostrom's hypothesis, one that Bostrom himself raises:

“This kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly,” Dr. Bostrom says. “Maybe they wouldn’t need to do simulations for scientific reasons because they’d have better methodologies for understanding their past. It’s quite possible they would have moral prohibitions against simulating people, although the fact that something is immoral doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
I would suspect that if we last long enough to evolve into a posthuman species, we'll have to embrace an ethical life far beyond what we're currently capable of. And I believe that it would be unethical in the extreme to create sentient creatures specifically for recreation purposes.

Quite literally, all the objections to the unjust ways of God go beyond infinity when you're talking about J'ossef B'haga'dontz, who's tinkering with a massively complex simulation that creates literal creatures to be tormented. It's slavery to the nth degree.

Of course, like Descartes, I can't prove that Bostrom is wrong, because in a simulation truly indistinguishable from reality, I'd be unable to tell that it wasn't real, and you would too. But a simulated world so detailed as to be indistinguishable from reality is, by its very nature, real. Verum et Factum Convertuntur; the true and the made are one and the same.

Tierney ends his essay with the sort of turtles-all-the-way-down idea of what happens when a simulation's simulations start creation simulations of their own, but it's a silly conceit. The fact is that a computer system sufficiently complex to simulate the universe down to sub-atomic scale is as far beyond humanity as spaceflight is beyond your average marmoset. If the day ever comes when we do create such a device, we'll be as like unto God as to make the distinction meaningless -- and the creatures who are created by such a system will be no less real, and no less meaningful, than ourselves.

(Cross-posted from BotML)

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