Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nick Bostrom: Young Earth Creationist!

Been thinking lately about the simulation hypothesis, which I continue to regard as a downright fascinating idea.

One thing that struck me about Nick Bostrom's original thoughts on it was how his emphasis was specifically on a certain type of simulation: the "Ancestor Simulation", which would simulate not only a world, but also all of their evolutionary development, etc, starting from the Origin of Life or the Big Bang.

At the time I thought, "Huh. Well, THAT is awfully specific." I mean, there's a lot of programs one could code up with the amount of processing power Bostrom's imagining could be kicked around. And a lot of programs which could feature conscious beings (if you accept Bostrom's premises, of course). Why assume that the ancestor simulation is the only relevant one to think about? Why not any other number of possible simulations that would include simulated worlds and conscious beings? From what I read, those possibilities went unmentioned by Bostrom. Even by Chalmers, with his Matrix paper.

A few days ago, it finally hit me as to why.

Imagine the NPCs in World of Warcraft were conscious. This would qualify as a simulated universe, I think, in the sense Bostrom is talking about: Conscious beings, interacting in a virtual world, etc. Now, admittedly there is an in character storyline for the origins of various things. Typical fantasy fare: Created by godlike beings, corrupted by demonlike beings. Dwarves originally carved from stone and starting off as robots, then receiving the curse of flesh and becoming similar to how dwarves are now. Etc, etc.

But, of course, all that backstory is a load. In reality World of Warcraft went online a few years ago, kingdoms and all, programmed into existence. They didn't even decide on the backstory/origins for these guys until years down the line, most likely. The archaeologists that the dwarves have can find evidence after evidence about their true origins (being rockmen, the curse of flesh, etc), but that just isn't how it went down.

You probably see where I'm going with this.

A technologically advanced civilization with tremendous processing power at its fingertips, capable of simulating fully conscious beings, could damn well make a world look like it's 14 billion years old. The sims' scientists, their every measure, would find results consistent with this. And yet, it wouldn't necessarily be true for them. Maybe the programmer wanted to "accurately" simulate a given period of time. Maybe the programmer is being imaginative. Maybe a million things, many of which entail that the history virtual scientists are discovering is bupkis. Just as, when a scientist creates a simulation of this or that phenomena, he doesn't necessarily import the entire history since the Big Bang into the simulation. It's just not his interest.

But that means, if we have reason to suspect we live in a simulation, it seems we have tremendous reason to view our evolutionary history as fictional. Last Thursdayism is in play, as is 6000 years-ago-ism.

Here's the part I particularly love. Bostrom, along with Chalmers and others, have dug in their heels and insisted that the simulation hypothesis is a naturalistic one. Which I suppose they'd have to - if the idea of our living in a simulated universe was supernatural, then confirmation for the supernatural exists all over the place, right here and now. In fact, we're supernatural beings, even if it's only in relation to our simulations.

I think the ramifications of this are far reaching, radically so. For one thing, it makes Young Earth Creationism conceivable as a naturalistic hypothesis. YECs, in fact practically all religious claims, can almost entirely be reconceived as naturalistic.

So why did Bostrom focus on 'ancestor simulations' in his simulation papers? I can't help but wonder if it's because he wanted to avoid arguably the single most grievous scientific sin in the modern world: Doubt of evolution. But if it's possible to simulate universes complete with conscious inhabitants, that - and other kinds - of doubt are introduced. I agree with Chalmers that this doesn't entail that simulation theories are necessarily skeptical hypotheses in the sense of forcing us to doubt that there exists an 'external world', or doubting the possibility of knowledge, etc. But, it introduces skepticism enough.


The Phantom Blogger said...

Nick Bostrom's new paper on the topic.


The Phantom Blogger said...

You may be interested in this, it is a live feed of the Online Papers in Philosophy and is updated every time a new paper is released, you can get all the papers for free and it also gives you links to the Philosophers personal websites with yet more links to there own papers.

It's updated almost everyday.


Ilíon said...

Scott Adams (he of Dilbert), who asserts that humans are "wet robots," lacking in free will (I never said that the man was consistent), once made a good point about "simulationism." It went something like this: "Anyone who believes or asserts that we will one day be able to create computer simulations of worlds indistinguishable from “the real world,” who does not also that “the real world” is itself a computer simulation is just blowing smoke."

Crude said...

Scott Adams is remarkable in his ability to tweak people. Really, at this point he's made an art form out of it. I recall a fairly recent blog entry of his that went something like this in turn:

"If you get a muslim, a christian, and a crazy person together, you know at least one of these three people believe in something that has no correspondence with reality. Of course, atheists' beliefs are always in a tiny minority, which is practically a textbook definition of mental illness."

I paraphrase, but what stood out to me wasn't the aptness of the comment (I think it's filled with flaws) but the smooth, graceful, jiu-jitsu like trolling of such a diverse group of people in a couple short sentences. The man turns it into an art form.

That said, I agree with his point. And I think it hovers over the heads of many people who bother to think about it. I find it fascinating that philosophers, many of whom are more than happy to argue at length (book-length!) about minutae, have seemingly little to say about computer simulations.

Ilíon said...

I used to read his blog every day ... but I got just totally bored with his smarmy "jiu-jitsu like trolling" of everyone.

While I love the Dilbert cartoon, I was not at all shocked that Adams blogs in the manner he does.