Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Weirdness Versus "The Simulation"

Weirdness is everywhere. This past year has seen a couple of unusual events that were considered highly unlikely. Donald Trump was elected president, despite most the polls leading up the election showing him behind. The Super Bowl featured the biggest comeback win in the history of the game. And recently, the Oscars ceremony screwed up the award for Best Picture by handing the presenters the wrong envelope. The New Yorker has an article up that claims this weirdness supports the "simulation argument." That is, the scenario explored in the film The Matrix is true and we are all components in an elaborate computer simulation. I've complained a number of times in the past about how dumb this idea really is. And, I have no problem whatsoever doing it again.

And so both of these bizarre events put one in mind of a simple but arresting thesis: that we are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers. This idea was, I’m told, put forward first and most forcibly by the N.Y.U. philosopher David Chalmers: what is happening lately, he says, is support for the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation and that something has recently gone haywire within it. The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it.

Once this insight is offered, it must be said, everything else begins to fall in order. The recent Super Bowl, for instance. The result, bizarre on the surface—with that unprecedented and impossible comeback complete with razzle-dazzle catches and completely blown coverages and defensive breakdowns—makes no sense at all in the “real” world. Doesn’t happen. But it is exactly what you expect to happen when a teen-ager and his middle-aged father exchange controllers in the EA Sports video-game version: the father stabs and pushes the buttons desperately while the kid makes one play after another, and twenty-five-point leads are erased in minutes, and in just that way—with ridiculous ease on the one side and chicken-with-its-head-cut-off panic infecting the other. What happened, then, one realizes with last-five-minutes-of-“The Twilight Zone” logic, is obvious: sometime in the third quarter, the omniscient alien or supercomputer that was “playing” the Patriots exchanged his controller with his teen-age offspring, or newer model, with the unbelievable result we saw.

And actually, that's a great big nope. Who says the "real world" isn't weird? Certainly not magicians. We mess with this stuff all the time. It may even be that as more of us work out how to do more effective magick, the weirdness is going to multiply. There were a whole bunch of people who bragged about doing magick to get Trump elected. I've been asked a number of times how to do magick to influence sporting events, so there must be people out there doing it, probably on all sides. And is it really such a stretch that magicians might want to mess with the Oscars? I mean, I personally think the whole thing is silly, but there are apparently a lot of people out there who consider them incredibly important.

Spirit conjuring coming back into style over the course of the last decade means that the probability shifts we can create are getting stronger, since spirits amplify practical magick a lot. It seems to me that far from some simulation problem, the simplest and most parsimonious explanation is that more people are casting more effective spells, for all sorts of different objectives, and I think that's flat-out awesome. The result of a bunch of magicians casting at something from opposite sides? Chaos. Weirdness. Exactly the kinds of things that are starting to happen. The only way a simulation makes sense is if you operate from a deterministic materialist paradigm in which things like spells just can't happen.

Except those of us who have taken the time to develop magical skill and experiment with it know better. I would even go so far as to say that it wouldn't happen in a simulation at all. Why model something as complex and chaotic as magical powers when you are trying to explore history from a materialistic standpoint? I highly doubt anybody would bother. Or, if they did, they would make it more fun to watch, like letting us throw real fireballs and stuff like that. In effect, the fact that magick is as subtle as it is in the world, but still present, suggests to me that we are in fact living in reality and not some sort of souped-up video game that exists to entertain a bunch of space aliens or something.

And I need to complain about this one more time, because it's a big pet peeve of mine. The article includes the (incredibly dumb) explanation for why people buy this simulation nonsense. Put simply, they don't understand that probability is basically meaningless when dealing with a sample size of one. Either the universe is real, or it's a simulation. No matter how many real universes there are and how many simulations there are, it makes no difference whatsoever after the fact.

Since there will be only one “real” universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. (Or Matrixes, depending on how you grammatize it.) As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, no less, explains succinctly, “A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

This argument is absolutely meaningless. It's basically saying that if you've tossed a coin five times and gotten five heads, the next toss is 99% likely to be tails. Which, as we know, is not the case. Even if we ignore the M-Theory contention that there are an effectively infinite number of parallel universes, it's like saying that there are trillions of earthlike planets in the universe on which humans could have evolved other than Earth, so the odds are strongly in favor of humans not living on Earth. The balance of probability is that humans live on some other planet, by the same logic.

Do you see why it's dumb yet? As a person trained in statistics, I can confidently say that anybody who believes in the simulation argument on these grounds doesn't understand them. Sadly, that group includes some otherwise smart people. But a sample size of one always yields a confidence interval of zero. If you don't understand what that means, or how it applies in this case, you probably shouldn't go around spouting that "obviously" we're living in The Matrix. The statistical argument provides no evidence for any such thing, and mathematically, it can't.

I think the deal is this. Since statistical analysis is worthless in this context, we should see about replacing the simulation argument with, say, "the wizard argument," in which weird things happen because wizards. Or, of course, because probability is fundamentally a lot weirder than most people think it is.

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