Wednesday, August 15, 2007

There is No Spoon

I enjoyed The Matrix (but not the sequels) because it was thought provoking, original, and causes you to question conventional descriptions of reality. John Tierney, writing in yesterday's Science Times, points out that some academics have taken the question of reality much further. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, suggests there is a one in five chance that we’re living in a computer simulation.

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.

Interesting hypothesis, but how would you disprove it? Just like the question of the existence of God, the idea is unfalsifiable. "Are we just binary digits in a vast computer universe?" is a metaphysical question, and beyond the scope of science. Whether we are made up of atoms or computer circuits is irrelevant. We still have bodies, and there are still chairs and tables: it's just that their fundamental nature is a bit different from what we may have thought. Nonetheless, it is a bit fun to speculate. What happens at the end of history? Does it say, “Insufficient Memory to Continue Simulation.”?


  1. I really dislike these speculations, especially when someone says "there's a 20% chance we're in a simulation." You'd think that a scientist would have the sense to say, "But this all rampant speculation and totally unprovable." But they never do, and it's infuriating (to me, at least). It's like "Many Worlds", where people think it's more important than it is.

  2. I find it hilarious when you wrote "Insufficient Memory to Continue Simulation."

    It can be somewhat fascinating to speculate something. I have to disagree with this hypothesis. I have yet seen something unusual in my own eyes. Anyone is free to speculate sommething.

  3. What would it take for a bit of software to be self-aware? Complexity per se wouldn't do it. But repeated selection from among a large population of software variants, under conditions where increasing self-awareness would increase the chances of making it into the next "generation" might work. I think we will see self-aware computer viruses, for which these conditions might apply, before we see self-aware simulations designed by humans. Neither seem imminent, though.

  4. Stop it! Posts like this make me feel like I'm back in a college dorm at 2am, procrastinating writing a paper on Jane Eyre. There really is no other reason to postulate such completely imaginary, undefined situations.

  5. Well, what's different is that what is said in the circle, stays in the circle, whereas these guys are publishing in peer-reviewed journals.