Friday, June 3, 2016

The Simulation Argument is Still Dumb

It always surprises me when smart people believe dumb things. I realize that for some my practice of this thing called "magick" puts me in that category, but I'll venture anyone who thinks that hasn't seen a tenth of the things I've seen. My direct, personal experience supports the notion that magick is something other than nonsense, and while the possibility always remains that I could be misinterpreting those experiences, there's no denying that I have had them.

The latest comments from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, though, are another thing entirely. He accepts the "simulation argument," one of the dumbest ideas to come out of modern philosophy in a long time. Musk is a brilliant businessman and engineer, so the fact that he gives any credence to the concept that the odds are "one in billions" that we are not living inside a computer simulation is quite disappointing.

Put simply, there's no evidence whatsoever, direct or otherwise, that we are actually living in The Matrix. The simulation argument depends on a particular misunderstanding of the laws of probability, and it surprises me that an otherwise highly intelligent person like Musk would fall for it. Here's how he explains it.

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

So what's the problem with this? Simple. The whole argument is akin to insisting that if you've just flipped three tails in a row on a coin, the next flip is likely to be heads. But we know experimentally that it's not, and that the assumption is based on the failure of the human mind to intuit odds correctly. It even has an official name - Gambler's Fallacy.

Consider the following more practical example, replacing "planets" with "simulations" and "Earth" with "base reality":
  1. Let's say for the sake of argument that there are billions of habitable, earth-like planets in the universe capable of supporting intelligent life. Most astronomers believe that this is not an unreasonable assertion given the frequency of star systems with planets and the size of the universe.
  2. Earth is one of those billions of planets.
  3. Therefore, there are billions of not-Earths versus one Earth.
  4. The odds, then, that we are living on a planet other than Earth are billions to one against.
  5. However, we do live on Earth.
  6. Therefore, the argument that we are far more likely to live on a planet other than Earth has no bearing on the planet we actually inhabit.
Do you see the problem? The number of inhabitable planets in the universe, no matter what it might be, doesn't change the planet we live on. Likewise, the argument that in the future we will be able to simulate billion of artificial realities - or trillions, or quadrillions, or whatever - has no bearing on which reality we inhabit. Even if all those simulations existed right now, at this moment, it wouldn't make any difference at all.

So that's how accepting the simulation argument is just like believing that three tails, or a dozen tails, or even a billion tails means that the next flip will be heads. The mathematical fact is that the flips are unrelated and independent, no matter how many there are. So are any and all potential simulations, or potential habitable planets. This sort of bad logic shouldn't be taken seriously in philosophy or for that matter any other subject.

Of course, the Huffington Post article I quoted this from also repeated the "universe is a hologram" line as though it means the universe is illusory or something - which it totally doesn't. The "holographic principle" in cosmology isn't related to the practice of holography except in a metaphoric sense, as it refers to reducing the many dimensions of cosmological models like superstrings into sets of two-dimensional equations that yield the same values.

Just as a point, I'm not completely closed-minded on this issue. I could be convinced, but it would have to come in the form of demonstrable, experimental evidence. It would also have to address the potential problems raised by this article. There are enormous differences between how the human brain and digital computers work, and if someone ever mathematically proves that a digital construct cannot possess consciousness, the whole simulation idea pretty much falls apart.

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Cat Vincent said...

Agree completely... and wanted to give some love for The Thirteenth Floor, since you used the poster image. Best film on the subject, for my money.

Scott Stenwick said...

Yeah, Thirteenth Floor is great. It's pretty much the whole simulation argument laid out in a movie, and not nearly as many people saw it as saw The Matrix, which is a pity.