Saturday, February 22, 2020

The flaw in simulation theory

Simulation theory is the idea that what we believe to be the universe is actually a computer simulation and each of us are characters in this simulation resembling characters in a video game. A similar idea was the plot of the 1999 films The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. In the films, the characters discover that what they believed was reality was really an illusion, a virtual reality computer simulation.

There are people today who take this idea seriously, including scientists or entrepreneurs. Before delving further, I'd like to begin with the unspoken flaw in this theory that is often absent from discussion on the topic.

Simulation believers build their idea on advancements in computer technology. And, the current trajectory of increasing technology tends toward indistinguishability from reality.

One of the more famous simulation theorists is industrial engineer Elon Musk, who, in 2016, answered a question on the topic thusly:
It's a 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 or on a PC or whatever and they would probably be, you know, billions of such, you know, computers or set-top boxes. It would seem to follow that the odds that we're in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what's wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?
The flaw is this: simulation theory is self-admittedly founded on the characteristics of a world that is considered an illusion. It is circular thinking.

The only way for real technological advancements to have occurred is if we are living in a true base reality. In the first part of their deduction, simulation theorists treat technological advancements as if they were real phenomena in a base reality. But, in their conclusion, simulation theorists say the very technological advancements on which they formed their premise are an illusion.

Online entrepreneur Naval Ravikant was interviewed in 2018 by Scott Adams, who asked him to name illusions people experience. Ravikant said "the illusion of reality":
Well the thing is if you understand simulation theory it's statistically likely that not only is there one level above there's zillions of levels above you. So in The Matrix Neo doesn't actually get out. He just pops one level higher. And now he's even more deeply trapped because he's trapped in a ***** environment and he's convinced it's real, which is the ultimate trap. Now he's not even looking for the next level up. Even one level beyond that, it's worse than that, because it's statistically likely, if you're in a sim, you're not some real world character representing a sim, you're actually an NPC. There's millions more NPCs in Call of Duty than there are real players. So you're you're probably just a computer simulation
Here we see another appeal to video games. There are millions more NPCs (i.e. non-player characters) in the game Call of Duty than human gamers actually controlling a character. Notice, to form his theory, Ravikant appealed to a virtual game created in the very world he says is an "illusion." The pool of data from which Ravikant derives his claim that "it's statistically likely" that there are "zillions of levels" of simulations is based upon a game and a reality that he says do not exist. His conclusion is absurd. Again, the simulation-theorist falls into the illogic of a circular reasoning that destroys its own premise.

The simulation theorist attempts to use some form of the following syllogism:
  1. Simulation technology is tending more toward indistinguishability from reality.
  2. Since billions of such simulation could be created by such advanced technology, the odds that any given reality is the base one is highly improbable.
  3. Therefore, what we believe to be reality (INCLUDING THE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS IN STEP 1) is most likely an illusion. 
Now, the simulation theorist doesn't mention the part in caps in step 3, but it cannot be avoided. What the theory requires to be a real phenomenon in step 1 is reduced to an illusion in step 3. And, an illusion is not a reliable model for reality. (Incidentally, step 2 doesn't even logically flow from step 1 because there is no cause given for why the level of indistinguishability must have already been achieved in some other universe by some alien species.)

Again, simulation theorists are observing the development of computer and video game technology that is occurring within a realm they claim is not real. According to their theory, there isn't really development of computer technology occurring at all. The higher species who created "this" simulation programmed it so its characters can "do" the virtual illusion of "leveling up" their video game technology. But, if this is a simulation, those advancements have never actually occurred any more than there is a real Pac-Man who has colorful ghost enemies whom he sometimes eats.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson is also known to seriously entertain the idea that we live in a computer simulation. At the 2016 event 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Is the Universe a Simulation? Tyson closed in part by saying:
So, given our definitions, we’re the only intelligent species there ever was because we have poetry and philosophy and music and art. And then I thought to myself, well, if the chimpanzee has 98-whatever percent identical DNA to us—pick any animal. It doesn’t matter. Dogs, it doesn’t matter. Mammals have very close DNA to us. They cannot do trigonometry. Some people can’t do trigonometry. Certainly not these animals. So, if they cannot do trigonometry, and they have such close genetic identity to us, let’s take that same gap and put it beyond us and find some life form that is that much beyond us that we are beyond the dog or the chimp. What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence. ... Oh, you’re back from preschool? Oh, you’ve just composed a symphony. That’s so—let’s put it on the refrigerator door. We just derived all the principles of—oh, that’s cute.  And so that is not a stretch to think about. And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment
But, guess what. None of the things to which Tyson appeals as a trajectory of intellect are actually real if we are living in a simulation. He said it himself that "everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity." If this is a simulation, the idea that humans have poetry is an illusion, just like everything else in the simulation. The animals we think we see aren't real. There isn't actually DNA nor DNA similarities. Etc. All these things would just be part of the illusory world created by some theoretically advanced computer programming species.

Is our universe just a sophisticated computer simulation?
In my recent book, Hollow Anchors of Morality, I discussed the nonsensical claim that morality can exist in a strictly material world devoid of free will. If someone were to claim morality exists in an artificial simulation just as it does in a base reality, the error would be similar.

Think back to the examples of video games to which simulation theorists appeal in their circular error. If one NPC "kills" another NPC in Call of Duty, did an "immoral" act occur in reality? If "Mario" throws the penguin off the cliff in Super Mario 64, did a real Mario commit a real act of cruelty? Of course not. No one was harmed in reality. But, if we were just characters in a similar kind of game, we wouldn't be any more real than the NPC.

Even if a simulation theorist wanted to argue that there are "real" persons operating the characters in the simulation through some futuristic virtual reality headgear, there still wouldn't be acts of morality committed by or against the pixels they are controlling. We see this directly when observing people playing, say, a battle game and "shooting" each others' characters in the game, but, of course, not in reality. If an act of unreal violence was committed against an unreal illusion of a person, what crime was done? Nothing actually happened other than pixels rearranging, no matter how sophisticated the graphics might be. The simulation theory essentially strips the universe of moral obligation.

Of course, an overly violent or sexually charged game, for example, could influence a real person playing it to commit a sin, but only because the person is outside the game and in reality. The pixel constructs in an illusory realm lack the necessary quality of being made in the image of God (a principle also discussed in Hollow Anchors) in order for morality to pertain to them in the first place. Thus, the idea of morality is absurd when confined to the activity of a computer chip.

From a related Catholic perspective, apologist Jimmy Akin discussed simulation theory on his blog and on Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World. He concluded it would not matter in the order of salvation. When addressing the consequences of living in a simulation, he said, "We still have the same three elements—God, the spiritual world, and the natural world—and all three interact."

One of the objections to simulation theory is that in order to create an "ancestor simulation" of an actual snapshot of the historic universe, it would require "a computer memory that requires more atoms than what’s available in the universe."

This objection is useful if limited to discussing the aforementioned simulation theorist's premise #1: Simulation technology is tending more toward indistinguishability from reality.

By limiting the thought exercise only to our advancements in computer technology, there may well be physical limits that would prevent a simulation detailed enough to be indistinguishable from a base reality. However, remember, the simulation theorist ultimately ends up claiming that this universe is an illusion, along with everything in it, including advancements in video game technology.

It is also worth mentioning, in the aforementioned 2016 debate on simulation theory, not one scientist on the panel said the odds were in favor of us being in a simulation. When asked what the odds were, they said: uknown, 17%, 1%, 0%, and 42%. Only Tyson, who was hosting, said the likelihood might be "very high."

Theoretically, if we did live in a simulation, it is useless to point to qualities inside the simulation to deduce we are in one. There's no reason to think the physics of any simulation must be a reflection of the physics of its world's creator any more than Pac-Man should assume there are entities in the real world like him, who move faster and faster the more they eat.

At the end of the day, simulation theory is wild speculation, not some deductive reasoning of intellect. Other science fiction theories, such as our memories swapped out periodically such that we never know it, seem to have just as much a logical basis as simulation theory. Such theories are not demonstrated by our experience, even if they are theoretical possibilities.

Finally, the irony of modern simulation theory, is that the very premise on which it is founded depends on this world being a real base reality, for their entire theory is built upon its contents.

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