Sunday, October 8, 2017

Evidence Against "The Simulation"

I've made no secret of my disdain for the "simulation argument" - the idea that we are actually living in some sort of artificially constructed universe as seen in the film The Matrix instead of a "real" universe. Recently, two physicists have claimed to have proven that we could not possibly be living in a simulation because as least one sort of quantum interaction would take far to much computational power to ever simulate on a large scale.

The pair initially set out to see whether it was possible to use a technique known as quantum Monte Carlo to study the quantum Hall effect – a phenomenon in physical systems that exhibit strong magnetic fields and very low temperatures, and manifests as an energy current that runs across the temperature gradient. The phenomenon indicates an anomaly in the underlying space-time geometry.

Quantum Monte Carlo methods use random sampling to analyse many-body quantum problems where the equations involved cannot be solved directly. Ringel and Kovrizhi showed that attempts to use quantum Monte Carlo to model systems exhibiting anomalies, such as the quantum Hall effect, will always become unworkable. They discovered that the complexity of the simulation increased exponentially with the number of particles being simulated.

If the complexity grew linearly with the number of particles being simulated, then doubling the number of partices would mean doubling the computing power required. If, however, the complexity grows on an exponential scale – where the amount of computing power has to double every time a single particle is added – then the task quickly becomes impossible. The researchers calculated that just storing information about a couple of hundred electrons would require a computer memory that would physically require more atoms than exist in the universe.

Now I have read a response to this article pointing out that this result is not "proof" - and frankly, despite my opinion of the whole simulation argument, I have to agree. It is possible that, say, the quantum Monte Carlo method used here is not the most efficient possible algorithm for calculating this sort of quantum behavior. It is often possible to model something that initially looks exponentially complex with something simpler than the most obvious method - and as a matter of fact, professional programmers like me come up with stuff like that all the time.

The simulation argument can also quickly become akin to the arguments fundamentalists use to prove "intelligent design." Maybe the data that the system lets us see is such that it is impossible to model it according to the "real" algorithm that the simulation is running. This is much like the idea that God manipulates scientific observations, or more humorously, that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is out there manipulating all of our measurements with his noodly appendages. Do I think that's likely? Of course not. But I won't go so far as to say it's impossible. Just like the God and/or FSM arguments, it can't be proved one way or the other.

However, this analysis is evidence against the simulation, and that's important because as I've mentioned previously, there's no real evidence for it. The supposedly groundbreaking philosophical paper that made people start thinking more seriously about it relies entirely on a misunderstanding of statistics akin to Gambler's Fallacy. Each "pick" - "is this world a simulation or not?" - is entirely mathematically distinct from every other. And that's without even pointing out that with a "pick" sample size of one, your confidence interval has to be zero.

I have no idea if anybody will ever be able to come up with a legitimate proof, but I'm hoping one of these days people quit wasting time on this idea that has no effect on anything whatsoever. If we live in a simulation that is indistinguishable from a non-simulated universe, the point is that it's indistinguishable from a non-simulated universe. How that changes the way anybody is going to live their life is entirely beyond me.

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Blogos said...

Do you believe in a reincarnating soul?

Scott Stenwick said...

I believe that reincarnation is possible, yes. I would not say that it is the only possibility for the soul after death, though. And whether or not a "simulated person" would have a reincarnating soul would probably depend on how the simulation in question worked.

Until we have a viable model that can resolve the "hard problem" of consciousness, we really don't know if consciousness can be simulated. That has all kinds of ramifications, such as whether or not it is possible to construct a conscious AI. I would say that if we can prove we can't simulate consciousness, it's very unlikely that we could simulate a reincarnating soul.

If we can simulate consciousness, then the question moves on to the next level. I don't personally believe that consciousness and the reincarnating soul are necessarily identical, but at the very least they strike me as closely related. So I think the possibility exists that it might be possible to simulate consciousness without any soul that can reincarnate.

And, of course, all that depends on your definition of reincarnation. The way that I use the term, I'm referring to some degree of coherence that passes from incarnation to incarnation. I think that probably is the most common usage.