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Tuesday
Apr242012

RS59 - Live at NECSS: David Kyle Johnson on the Simulation Argument

Release date: April 21, 2012


Julia, Kyle, and Massimo Live at NECSSIn this special live episode recorded at the 2012 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, Massimo and Julia discuss the "simulation argument" -- the case that it's roughly 20% likely that we live in a computer simulation -- and the surprising implications that argument has for religion. Their guest is philosopher David Kyle Johnson, who is professor of philosophy at King's College and author of the blog "Plato on Pop" for Psychology Today, and who hosts his own podcast at philosophyandpopculture.com. Elaborating on an article he recently published in the journal Philo, Johnson lays out the simulation argument and his own insight into how it might solve the age-old Problem of Evil (i.e., "How is it possible that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and good God could allow evil to occur in the world?"). As usual, Massimo and Julia have plenty of questions and comments!

Kyle's picks:

1. Ted Schick and Lewis's book Vaughn’s "How To Think About Weird Things." In Kyle’s opinion, it's the best critical thinking book out there. He uses it in many of his classes, and he's not the only one. Carl Sagan also liked the book, and used it in at least one of this classes. The first edition even boasted a blurb from James Randi. It lays out the basics of critical thinking, and then applies them to a number of different topics of interest to students: ghosts, UFOs, conspiracy theories, creationism...you name it! There is almost no way you can't be a skeptic after reading this book. If you have a friend who wonders why you are skeptic—give them this book. It’s very readable and much, much shorter than Demon Haunted World.

2. The Band is Ethereal Collapse. It's a Heavy Metal band, not for the faint of heart. They are not mainstream, but not a garage band either. They do dozens of shows a year, have 5 albums--you can even download and play a few of their songs on Rockband. They tickle Kyle's rational fancy because a number of their songs are about philosophy. "Categories," "Discovering the Absolute," and many more. Kyle can vouch for the philosophical quality of the songs--Ryan Klubeck, the lead guitarist and lyric writer for the band, is one of his graduated philosophy majors. Their new album, “The Precipice of Failure” should be available for download soon. 

References:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/04/simulation-hypothesis-and-problem-of_16.html

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: Problem of Evil
    Evil is an essential ingredient of experience. The article explores the impossibility of having an experience without what we call Evil.

Reader Comments (12)

Very interesting discussion. It occurs to me that one indirect bit of evidence against the simulation hypothesis is that if we were, in fact, in a simulation in some way analogous to SimCity (SimMultiverse?), there should be way more "interesting" characters than boring old "normal" characters living boring lives of "quiet desperation". Instead of having about 1% of the population composed of psychopaths (who are arguably the most interesting and dangerous characters in the story which by the aforementioned hypothesis is being simulated) , there should be a much larger percentage wreaking interesting and (to our hypothetical teenage stoner "creator") vastly more entertaining havoc than is currently being observed. If we ever get to the point of a version of SimUniverse populated by self aware artificial intelligences, my "interesting character deficit" argument will doubtless skew the probability of the simulation hypothesis one way or the other depending on a statistical analysis of said SimUniverse vs our then observable "reality". This sort of ties into the probability that once we advance sufficiently to create such simulations, we will still have the same attitudes regarding what constitutes interesting entertainment as obtain at our present level of development.

April 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterullrich fischer

I'm bothered by how quickly everyone seems to hop straight over the issues of whether or not we have the computing capability to *do* the simulated world. It quickly skips by, "Well, let's assume that we're going to be able to simulate human minds in computers." and straight on to, "Let's also assume that we have enough computing power" (which assumes that there won't be logarithmic complexity increases at any point. Bostrom, at least, seems to kind of acknowledge those points, but rushes straight past to say, "So there's a 20% chance we're living in a simulation." To just *hop* past those vastly important points just seems idiotic to me, and just increases my feeling that at least this type of philosophical musing is just mental masturbation. Do the philosophers pushing the simulation crap have any scientific justification for saying that it's reasonable to assume that we'll be able to simulate minds in computers, that the fact that we have physical bodies doesn't change things a bit? Is there anything that separates this from garden-variety solipsism?

April 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Hi, I have a couple clarifying questions. 1) Part of the argument went that the probability of us being in a simulation jumps after we create simulations here. How does that argument not apply to other things? For example, because we have terrariums then it would be likely that we were just in a giant terrarium (perhaps our keepers have incredible eyesight, which would account for all the "empty" space around us). Or because we have cultures in petri dishes, it would therefore be likely that we simply exist in a petri dish in the corner of some lab somewhere. I'm assuming the difference has to do with our perceptive abilities simply being a program, but I still don't really understand the argument. 2) The second question is related. It seems that you wouldn't be able to calculate probability based on our ability to make simulations, because our simulations would be less complex then the possible one we would be living in. It then becomes a case of using apples and oranges, so I don't see how creation of simulations would have any bearing on the probability of us being in one. I think one of the questions at the end might have touched on this, but the answer seemed to have slipped past me.

April 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGi

One characteristic of a simulated universe probably would be that it would not be possible in that universe to create simulated universes. In modern parlance, that would lead to "stack overflow". The basic problem is that the real computer system would need the processing capability to simulate the simulated universes of its original simulated universe. And then the simulated universes of those simulated universes of its original simulated universe, etc, etc. etc.

April 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

Greg: Bostrom account for “stack overflow” in the argument. The simulations could be complex enough to allow for simulations within simulations pretty easily. Given what he lays out about possible computer power, it would only take a post-human civilization one half a second to run a simulation of our entire universe with only a tiny faction (1/1000th?) of their computing power. Besides, if we are in a simulation, any simulation we create would just be running, ultimately, on a harddrive in the real physical universe—our masters could let the simulation we run, run on their harddrive, and just feed us the results to full us into thinking it was running in our world.

Gi: 1) The argument doesn’t apply to other things, like petri dishes and terrarium’s, because (a) they don’t contain whole universes/civilizations (b) you can tell from the inside that you are in them and (c) it isn’t as obvious that there would be so many of them if they were possible. (Simulated worlds are really easy, once you have the technology.) (2) Even though the simulations we would create would be less complex, this does not affect the argument. There are two possibilities; either the physical universe that exists has no simulations or millions (with varying complexity). Our creation of a simulation eliminates the first possibility, no matter how complex it is. Thus, once we know that the physical universe is one in which millions of simulations exist, the odds that we are not in one are a million to one.

Richard: First of all, Bostrom goes into quite a bit of detail regarding why it is reasonable to believe that, given what we know about computing now, simulating a brain and in fact an entire universe is possible. He does not just skip over it. And he doesn’t even state the 20% figure in his original paper. You are missing the point of the argument. He is not saying that we definitely will create a simulation, or that we definitely are in one. He argues that the likelihood that we are in one is contingent upon the likelyhood that we will create a simulation ourselves. That’s it. If you don’t think it is likely, that’s fine, and so you don’t think it’s likely that we are in a simulation—but that doesn’t contradict his conclusion. It’s still the case that the probability of the one is determined by the other. Ultimately, he thinks it’s about 20% likely that we will create a simulation, so he thinks it’s about 20% likely that we live in a simulation—but the specific numbers are not the important part of his argument. All he’s pointing out is that, unless you think it’s really unlikely that we will create a simulation, then you have to think it’s somewhat likely that we live in one. An argument is not mental masturbation simply because you don’t understand it.

Ullrich: This is an interesting thought, but since we wouldn’t know the intentions of the simulator, we don’t know how interesting they would want it to be. If it is just a game, maybe they would want to make individuals more interesting. But, they may just be interested in watching things play out on a larger level—and our world is plenty interesting on a global scale. In addition, the simulation may not be for entertainment. If historians are using it to study development, they may simply want the world as close to their own as possible.

Thanks for the comments.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kyle Johnson

Besides, if we are in a simulation, any simulation we create would just be running, ultimately, on a harddrive in the real physical universe—our masters could let the simulation we run, run on their harddrive, and just feed us the results to full us into thinking it was running in our world.

I never doubted that this would be the means of implementation, but it doesn't get around the problem, IMO. The growth rate of required computing power would be exponential, and would exceed any level of computing power.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

Isn't it kind of arrogant of us to assume that if we are in a simulation that we are the focus of that simulation? Given all that we're learning about the commonness of the elements and molecules that make up life as we know it, and the commonness of planets besides ours, it's becoming more and more clear that Earth probably isn't special in any regard. Isn't it as or more likely that the simulation is just of the physics of the universe, and our appearance and evolution is just incidental?

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKent Carder

@Richard - minor quibble: I think you mean exponential complexity increase, logarithmic growth is slower than linear, and generally can be considered well-behaved and controllable. But yes, your skepticism is entirely justified, I think there's no way to put an actual meaningful probability on any of this. Also there's no reason to believe the underlying physics of any base reality and the resources available for simulation there would be constrained in the same way as in our (hypothetically simulated) universe, though there would be certain transcendental a priori constraints on the physics there - namely that it must be possible to simulate our physics within their physics. So I think that at our current level of knowledge we are at the level of metaphysical speculation. The question could even at some point in principal become an empirical one by probing high enough energy scales or small enough distances to look for inconsistencies or other simulation artifacts (c.f. side-channel attacks in computer science). Curiously the hypothesis being subjected to falsification in this case would actually be the hypothesis that our reality is the base reality, which could be ruled out by finding such artifacts, and not the simulation hypothesis itself. That the universe is a simulation could never be ruled out per se, because one could always hold that the simulation is still good enough to fool us. It's very similar to the claim that there is a more accurate undiscovered model of physics underlying our current ones, which can never be falsified, but which can be ruled in by showing existing models to predict results that disagree with observation.

Personally I think we just have to suspend judgement on it at this stage, whether we consider it plausible or not is all very well, but rather subjective.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOnce Upon A Space

It may be of interest in regard to the ethical discussion to note that the argument from the problem of natural evil, that the universe must be the creation of a sub-created being with free will and therefore not the direct creation of the true or ultimate God, is not a new one. This argument was known to the members of Gnostic sects of the Early Christian Church, many of whom held that our universe is the creation of a "Demiurge" (sometimes referred to as Yaldabaoth), a created being who should not be identified as the true God. This is effectively quite close to the notion of the universe as a simulation. The sequels to the Matrix drew reference to this tradition.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOnce Upon A Space

I listened to this with interest but it seems to run into all of the same philosophical arguments than deism does. In fact, how does this deist "programmer" differ from a deist god? Wouldn't the same arguments apply? Why is this any more plausible than the idea that we are living in a giant undetectable dolls house and are manipulated by invisible strings controlled by undetectable dinosaurs?

Functionally, given that we cant prove this, how should it affect anything? If there is an experiment then I say the same thing I would say to anyone... "bring it on!" I'm keen on what is provable - not in what is conceivable - otherwise I'd believe in a lot of other crap as well.

Evidence, or GTFO.

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSephwrath

"The question could even at some point in principal become an empirical one by probing high enough energy scales or small enough distances to look for inconsistencies or other simulation artifacts (c.f. side-channel attacks in computer science)"

SMBC tackles the issue in typical, amusing fashion.

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2535

January 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterP

There seems to be lots of comments on the antiquity and grandness of the universe and therefore the need for a inconceivable powerful computing power at the basement level of all the simulated worlds within simulated worlds (I believe this simulation within simulation are what dimensions are; basement world=dimension 1, simulation running from 1st dimention=dimention 2, so on and so forth) but how can any player in this simulation be sure that the reality we live in and the alledged universe are constantly being simulated? How do we know that things within this simulation are actively simulated when they are not being observed? Out of the billions of beings we are led to believe that exist in this world, how many people are actively observing the universe? I am sure there are only a handful of people looking at images sent back by space probes and hubble telescope...even the existence of probes, scientists, hubble we are led to believe in their existence could just be information fed to us. In which case they don't have to be continously simulated outside of the players perception. We are fed the information about a strange behavior of electron; it is rrported by scientists that the electron changes its behavior based on whether it's being observed by a being or not....perhaps one of many hints given from the runner of this simulation to the beings in this level to help us know the truth in order to give us hope. So the dark side of the moon, and anything even your own car you think is parked outside could actually not be there until it comes in the range of a player or character in this game. The fact that the universe cannot be sensed continously by the players (us, whose self consciousness are projected into the physical bodies of this level of reality and/or complete sims whose minds as well as what we perceive as physical bodies are the product native to this environment (characters that are alive only within this level of reality) makes it likely that the computing power requirement would not be that great......on that note; let me post a relavant comment albeit repetetive of what I already said once again because it also has some other interesting concepts to ponder about: There seems to be lots of comments on the antiquity and grandness of the universe but how can any player in this simulation be sure that it is really that big and old? Only thing the individual player can be sure that is real is himself. All the other things such as the history that were learned while in this simulation could all just be a fabrication designed to make the player believe that this simulated reality is older than the player. Even the other people around you or persons you see on TV etc could just be simulated characters in this game. So all the information about this world that a player come to believe exists could all be just a background story of the world. As matter of fact; all things that the player suppose that it exist may not even be simulated beyond the reach of the players sensory perception range. The only thing that can be counted on to exist is the players self awareness. But when you look at the hints given to the player of the game of life; we can look at the development of the computer games. It started as single player games and as it got more advanced it became multi-player online games.....I think this could be either a single player game and I am wasting my time writing this post or it could be a multi player game and hopefully another player could read my post......the so called billions of people that we are led to believe to live in this world; I believe it is just a fabrication fed to us to make this simulation seem grand....like the author said; I also believe that the bible is among some of the books that exist in this game to provide hints about this game...it says that the number of the people that will be saved at the end times are 144k.....maybe it's a indication that there are only 144k people playing this same game. ....Also Bostrom simulation argument suppose that only the scientist or historian might run a historic simulation. ...when we take into account the hints given to us by this life game; it is more likely that it would be played by individuals like us for entertainment, fun, and educational reasons.....another interesting hint is: the bible tells us that; one day of God is like a 1000 years to mankind; when you calculate that while taking into account of 80 year aver as get life span; it turns out that our life time in this game is would be less than 1.5 hrs....perhaps we are just playing this game of life for about the same amount of time we use to watch one movie.....also, I am 50 yes old here but found out that my other body outside of this simulation is 26 yes old....I agree with Bostrom that there could be multi layers of simulation within simulation....He called the original level where all simulation started a "basement world"...The way to identify whether you are in a game or simulation or at the basement level is when the world you exist in don't have a exit mechanism. That mechanism is Death. I agree with the author of this page that we are here because we chose to play this game. So enjoy it while you are here....when realize this to be a fact then you just gained eternal life. You will know that you are already in heaven and playing a fun game. The game's objective is to defeat evil. I don't know about you but in my game, there is really a technologically advanced evil race hiding and influencing other characters of this world to cause us to fight via psychotronic mind and emotion influence, infiltrate bogus religions, ideologies, races, nationalism etc to cause wars, disease, etc....the Jehowa of old testament type of demons that came in the name of Good.....it's the greatest SF fantasy game....Knowing this also answers the problem of evil that has baffled so many religious fools...why if a loving God exist; it allows so much death and destruction and don't inrerfere....it's because no one really dies....it's like asking why we allow so much violence and suffering in many of our computer games and movies.....it is improbable statically that you will wake up in another world after this total immersion simulation game is over.....it is more likely you will wake up in your living room in another simulation or a arcade in a simulated reality where technology is sufficiently higher than here where total immersion simulation games are perfected......another thought is that you might be playing other games while you are sleeping here....you remember bits and pieces right after you wake up or continue playing this game until memory erasure almost completely erases the memory of another game we call dream from here....now I know what having a eternal life really means....believing this concept you can't loose...if you wake up in the basement world; you will know that you are one with the eternal being.....the biggest falacy is that something must come from nothing....:)

really that big and old? Only thing the individual player can be sure that is real is himself. All the other things such as the history that were learned while in this simulation could all just be a fabrication designed to make the player believe that this simulated reality is older than the player. Even the other people around you or persons you see on TV etc could just be simulated characters in this game. So all the information about this world that a player come to believe exists could all be just a background story of the world. As matter of fact; all things that the player suppose that it exist may not even be simulated beyond the reach of the players sensory perception range. The only thing that can be counted on to exist is the players self awareness. But when you look at the hints given to the player of the game of life; we can look at the development of the computer games. It started as single player games and as it got more advanced it became multi-player online games.....I think this could be either a single player game and I am wasting my time writing this post or it could be a multi player game and hopefully another player could read my post......the so called billions of people that we are led to believe to live in this world; I believe it is just a fabrication fed to us to make this simulation seem grand....like the author said; I also believe that the bible is among some of the books that exist in this game to provide hints about this game...it says that the number of the people that will be saved at the end times are 144k.....maybe it's a indication that there are only 144k people playing this same game. ....Also Bostrom simulation argument suppose that only the scientist or historian might run a historic simulation. ...when we take into account the hints given to us by this life game; it is more likely that it would be played by individuals like us for entertainment, fun, and educational reasons.....another interesting hint is: the bible tells us that; one day of God is like a 1000 years to mankind; when you calculate that while taking into account of 80 year aver as get life span; it turns out that our life time in this game is would be less than 1.5 hrs....perhaps we are just playing this game of life for about the same amount of time we use to watch one movie.....also, I am 50 yes old here but found out that my other body outside of this simulation is 26 yes old....I agree with Bostrom that there could be multi layers of simulation within simulation....He called the original level where all simulation started a "basement world"...The way to identify whether you are in a game or simulation or at the basement level is when the world you exist in don't have a exit mechanism. That mechanism is Death. I agree with the author of this page that we are here because we chose to play this game. So enjoy it while you are here....when realize this to be a fact then you just gained eternal life. You will know that you are already in heaven and playing a fun game. The game's objective is to defeat evil. I don't know about you but in my game, there is really a technologically advanced evil race hiding and influencing other characters of this world to cause us to fight via psychotronic mind and emotion influence, infiltrate bogus religions, ideologies, races, nationalism etc to cause wars, disease, etc....the Jehowa of old testament type of demons that came in the name of Good.....it's the greatest SF fantasy game....Knowing this also answers the problem of evil that has baffled so many religious fools...why if a loving God exist; it allows so much death and destruction and don't inrerfere....it's because no one really dies....it's like asking why we allow so much violence and suffering in many of our computer games and movies.....it is improbable statically that you will wake up in another world after this total immersion simulation game is over.....it is more likely you will wake up in your living room in another simulation or a arcade in a simulated reality where technology is sufficiently higher than here where total immersion simulation games are perfected......another thought is that you might be playing other games while you are sleeping here....you remember bits and pieces right after you wake up or continue playing this game until memory erasure almost completely erases the memory of another game we call dream from here....now I know what having a eternal life really means....believing this concept you can't loose...if you wake up in the basement world; you will know that you are one with the eternal being.....the biggest falacy is that something must come from nothing....:)......I believe that at the basement level of 1st dimention; there is not a civilization of people but just one very bored creator of all things whose imagination is the most powerful computer....in eastern tradition; it's all a dream and/or image-nation of the Buddha, Brahman etc. What else would a eternal sentient entity do besides this....by the way; the comment about how this world is full of boring old men; it's only boring because you did not open your mind enough.....one way to tell the difference from players from another dimention and a computer generated character is that the computer generated beings are capable of believing the BS of religious teachings so abhorred by Folks like Maher, Dawkins etc, and they are not capable of changing their pre-programmed ideas.....someone who cannot learn something like this because they will disappear when this Sim game is turned off...

December 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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