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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
July 29, 2005

Virtual Reality

Are We In A Computer Simulation?

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.

So begins the Introduction to a paper entitled "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" by Dr. Nick Bostrom of the Department of Philosophy at Oxford University in the UK, posted at www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html He argues that to believe there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false unless we are already living in one. As with any deductive arguments the conclusion rests totally on the assumptions, but this one doubtless offers much for speculation and debate nevertheless. Bostrom's case is based on the premise that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Realtime Interrupt deals with this subject, although the simulation in that story is the work not of distant posthuman descendants but of people in the very much here and now, driven by familiar motives. Just what the motives of future posthumans might be in creating such a simulation is a good question that science fiction might address. Such a line of speculation complements in an interesting kind of way the contention of scientists and others of the Intelligent Design movement that there are strong reasons for supposing the existence of a powerful intelligence behind the universe, not because the Bible or other religious book says so, but on the strength of hard evidence and numbers.

I've felt for a long time that such an intelligence would do things for its reasons, not for what we think its reasons ought to be, and to imagine otherwise is repeating Ptolemy's anthropocentric fallacy on a bigger scale. Many scientists are arriving at the conclusion that mindless unguided matter cannot turn itself into the kinds of living complexity we see, not matter how much time or improbability you allow, anymore than piles of bricks, tiles, cement, and piping on a construction site exposed to lightning and sunshine can assemble themselves into a functional building. And that's all they are saying. On the other hand, we have those with other interests who find that fear of a supernatural intelligence who rewards and punishes human actions provides a most effective means of social control. There are absolutely no grounds for presuming these two intelligences to be one and the same, and that therefore if one is real the other must be too. Their confusion and the false dichotomy it leads to seem to be encouraged, however, and are responsible for the needless ideological confrontation dividing much of our society at the present time.

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