I have a great respect for Bostrom, and genuinely believe him to be one of the most important thinkers alive today. I agree with a great many of his ideas, and have been influenced my many of his essays over the last decade, from What is a Singleton? to Utopia and beyond.
That said, I consider much of the simulation argument to be a waste of time, neither particularly jarring nor interesting.
When people hear me say that I don’t agree with the simulation argument, or I consider it wrong, they presume that I make the argument that we live in base reality (i.e. some concrete “real” world that is not simulated) and are certainly not simulated – but nothing could be further from the truth.
I simply believe that the simulation argument isn’t worth speculating about – as it doesn’t take us much further into the inquiry of our condition than Hume or Descartes or the Greek skeptics took us.
1 – We Were Never Certain of “Base Reality” Anyway
The simulation hypothesis is only jarring if you’ve ever considered yourself to be in “base reality” in the first place.
But anyone with brains can tell that there is no escaping Hume’s Fork: There are things that are true in themselves (“a triangle has three sides”) – and there is knowledge from the senses. The latter we can never be certain of.
I function in the world, in society, but I operate on the bleeding edge of solipsism at all times. To quote Emerson:
Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are.
Here’s the point:
You never knew what “reality” you were in in the first place. You have no idea if every sense perception you’ve ever had is the result of the Cartesian evil genius. You don’t know if you’re a brain in a vat. Maybe neither brains nor vats actually exist and this jumble of senses you experience have led you to believe in these concepts.
An earthworm’s perception of reality is unbearably fettered. They understand nothing. They have no concept of physics, of how light and sound operate, of what atoms are, of the shape or size of earth, of the sun, or of the Milky Way itself.
How much higher is the understanding of humanity, really?
Think about the mere 2% genetic difference between chimpanzees and homo sapiens – and how drastically different our understanding of the world is. That 2% is the difference between peeling bananas and throwing dung – and space travel, nuclear war, and Shakespearian sonnets.
What would another 2% do?
Do you really suspect that our present ideas about reality or art will all hold true? All our fettered hominid notions about physics, about consciousness (which we have woefully little understanding of), about morality – it’ll all still hold true?
We have never had some eternal access to “base reality,” and even with brains a thousand times beyond our own, we may never reach an understanding of this “base” in the first place. The simulation argument doesn’t make this any more mysterious.
2 – A “Simulation” is a Ridiculous, Anachronistic Analogy
The Greek gods got drunk on wine, fought with swords and bows, and valued livestock as a store of value.
Visions of the year 2000 – predicted in 1900 – depict men with mustaches and top hats using remarkably1900’s-looking buttons and levers to operate machines.
Sitting farther ahead in time, we laugh at the naive and limited ideas of people before us. Even people who practice common religions blatantly ignore the embarrassingly anachronistic language and references therein.
We laugh because, of course, we live in a time of the most advanced understanding of the sciences, and of the furthest developments of technology.
So our own analogies – comparing things to “computers” and “simulations” are valid – while we can safely smile looking back on the silliness of ancient people, or naive “futurists” from the year 1900.
But wait a minute. Were the Greek gods not conjured up when bows and swords were not the most advanced technology of war, and cattle not the most advanced and sophisticated kind of currency?
We are as ignorant and ridiculous as those before us. Our petty current concepts are in no way sufficient to house “reality”, to bound any kind of real understanding of things. Replace “Simulation” with “sword and bow.” Replace it with “fruit salad”, who cares.
You are just as likely to be in a bowl of alphabet soup as you are to be living in a simulation created by super-intelligence aliens.
It’s very strange for me to hear Bostrom talk about future civilizations (i.e. vastly more intelligent post-human life) “running ancestor simulations.” Imagine chimpanzees talking about what humans would do. They’re be talking about “harvesting bananas” or something similarly ridiculous and inaccurate. Post-humans will almost certainly have no interest in the ridiculous ideas that we can put into words.
So What Should We Do?
Is the world a simulation?
We have no damned idea what it is, and while our latest anachronistic analogy (“computers!”) is interesting, it’s no closer to truth than Phyrro or Zhuangzi were.
Philosophers thousands of years ago have groped the edges of human experience and imagination. Hard-won advancements in the sciences have helped us to wield practical power over nature in an almost infinite number of ways – but haven’t brought us any closer to knowing what the world really is. An understanding of consciousness would be helpful, but we’re still woefully behind there, and our fettered consciousnesses may be incapable of grasping anything significant about consciousness itself.
We know nothing, we are capable of knowing very little, and only in reaching farther through higher post-human forms of intelligence can we have any chance at bumbling further toward the truth – if there is one at all. Everything else – including all our fanciest present analogies – is just more feeble verbal symbol-juggling. Let us advance the sciences, but let us also advance the spires of form – only then will we have any chance of understanding “base reality,” or “reality” at all.
Note on the potential value of Bostrom’s original “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation” paper: While I don’t think that the argument takes us a lick beyond Hume’s fork, it does bring up important considerations around mind uploading and the future directions humanity might take. Simulated immersive virtual worlds will be part of the human future and we should consider how we’ll create, interact with, and integrate with them. Also – we should consider the creation of sentient (conscious) life in these kinds of worlds would be monumentally consequential. We should do all that we can to avoid arbitrarily hurling billions of simulated beings into careless virtual worlds where they might suffer. Then again, we be morally obligated to tile the universe with blissful simulated minds.
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