Are we living in a simulation?

Are we living in a computer simulation?

This post is prompted by a column in the New York Times: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.

The column is by Preston Greene: Ph.D., Philosophy, Rutgers University; assistant professor of philosophy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I had not previously heard of Prof. Greene, but the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation has been around for a while.

Prof. Greene notes that Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, advanced the concept in 2003, and that technology entrepreneur Elon Musk is a fan. In fact, this is not the first time the New York Times has published on this topic. Science columnist John Tierney wrote about Nick Bostrom’s ideas in 2007: here, here, and here.

What is new in Prof. Greene’s column is that scientists are proposing experiments to test whether or not we live in a simulation, and Prof. Greene is urging them not to proceed:

I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe.

He is worried that if we are indeed living in a simulation, and if we discover scientific evidence to that effect, then the creator(s) of the simulation might shut it down, thus ending our entire universe.

Oh, dear. Where to begin.

If you have access to the New York Times, please do read the column by Prof. Greene and the reader comments. Many comments are informative or amusing, but I did not find comments that lend much support to Prof. Greene’s concerns.

My reaction to Prof. Greene’s column is: So what? We still have to figure out how to live our lives, and the concepts he puts forth make no difference in that regard. As one commenter put it:

Then gosh darn-it, I am going to be the best simulated human I can be!

Nor am I worried about the science experiments that Prof. Greene describes. I don’t think these are questions that science can answer, but we might learn something interesting in trying. Not with taxpayer money, though. These are interesting ideas for people to explore on non-government time with non-government money as long as they don’t bother others.

Prof. Greene is concerned with risk. He ends his column with a question:

Is it really worth the risk?

There is a risk here, but it is not the one he sees.

I found an insightful discussion of Prof. Greene’s column on the blog by Ann Althouse, who is retired from a career as a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. You don’t need a subscription to read her post and reader comments.

Prof. Althouse puts it this way:

I see the danger. In fact, I see more danger than he does. Whether the higher civilization would destroy us if we caught on to their game or not, knowing that we are only somebody else’s simulation would change the meaning of life for us. It would disrupt how we care about ourselves and other people.

I would describe the risk as follows.

Many commenters at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog point out that the idea that we are living in a computer simulation is compatible with the creation stories of the world’s great religions. Most people throughout most of history have thought that we are the creation of a God or gods, so we have sort of gotten used to that idea. In the view of these commenters, talking about a computer simulation changes nothing except the terminology.

In fact this change in terminology, though subtle, is significant. When we speak of God, or when the ancient Greeks and Romans spoke of “the gods,” we mean something that is immortal and infinite. We admit that we are speaking of something that we finite mortals fundamentally cannot understand. The Abrahamic religions capture this concept in the Book of Job in the Bible.

In contrast, when we speak of a computer simulation we speak of something that we think we understand – because we are now creating computer simulations ourselves. The risk is our hubris. The risk is in thinking that we understand more than we do in fact understand, or can ever understand.

Where can such hubris lead? As one Althouse commenter put it:

If you begin thinking of other people as simulations, it will be awfully easy to kill them.

That’s a road we don’t want to go down, so let’s be careful where this conversation leads.

The idea that we might be living in a computer simulation is fascinating (if we don’t go down the dark road that I warned about above). For more discussion, see the comments at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog at the links above. Many commenters in both places offer helpful references to concepts in philosophy, religion, and science, plus references to science fiction where these ideas have been considered. Recommended reading. I learned a lot.

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Anne Frank and the Four Freedoms

Anne Frank and President Franklin Roosevelt did not know each other, but there is a profound connection between them: the Four Freedoms.

President Roosevelt gave a famous speech to Congress in January 1941, eleven months before the United States entered World War II, called the Four Freedoms speech.

In this speech President Roosevelt described the war then raging on four continents as attacks by dictator nations on democratic nations. He warned about the risks to our safety and our democracy in the United States if the democratic nations were defeated.

At the end of the speech, President Roosevelt explained what the democracies of the world were fighting for – what he called the Four Freedoms:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear

See Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

Anne Frank’s diary provides an affecting and honest account of what life is like when the Four Freedoms are progressively taken away:

  • Freedom of speech – Anne was not free to publicly speak her thoughts
  • Freedom of worship – Anne was persecuted because of her Jewish religion
  • Freedom from want – there was seldom enough quantity and variety to eat
  • Freedom from fear – there was constant fear of arrest and bombing

See The Diary of Anne Frank.

President Roosevelt used the theme of the Four Freedoms to explain why it was necessary for the world’s democratic nations to fight against aggressor nations. Any grand theme is made more vivid by examples. Anne Frank’s diary, a poignant account by a young girl, is one example that illustrates what President Roosevelt was talking about.

Neither Anne Frank nor President Roosevelt lived to see the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, but both Anne’s diary and the Four Freedoms continue to influence our world today. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, had a hand in both.

After World War II ended, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in the development of the United Nations. She made certain that the Four Freedoms were included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

See Legacy of the Four Freedoms.

The first English translation of Anne Frank’s diary was published in 1952. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote the Introduction to the edition that I read, pictured above, available here. The first two sentences in Mrs. Roosevelt’s Introduction:

This is a remarkable book. Written by a young girl—and the young are not afraid of telling the truth—it is one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.

I encourage everyone to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, or to re-read it if you read it long ago. Our world is not yet secure in the Four Freedoms.

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The Diary of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank is a play based on the book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (pictured). Mrs. TSP and I recently saw a production of this play by the Stowe Theatre Guild. Unfortunately it is not fiction. It is about a small group of people caught up in The Holocaust.

Anne Frank was a Jew. She was born on June 12, 1929 in Germany. The Nazi party of Adolph Hitler assumed control of the German government in January 1933 and began to persecute Jews. Anne Frank’s family, consisting of her parents, her older sister Margot, and Anne, left Germany in the summer of 1933. By the spring of 1934 they had settled in Amsterdam where Anne’s father, Otto Frank, ran a small business in partnership with others.

Anne lived a normal childhood until May 1940 when Germany invaded the Netherlands. The Nazis gradually imposed more and more restrictions on Jews in the Netherlands, just as they had done in Germany. Nevertheless, Anne celebrated a somewhat normal 13th birthday on June 12, 1942. Among her birthday presents was a diary, subsequently to become one of the most famous diaries in history.

Sometime after the German invasion, Anne’s parents began preparing for the time when they would go into hiding. Many other Jews in the Netherlands went into hiding in the countryside, but Anne’s parents prepared a hiding place right in Amsterdam, in the building that contained Otto Frank’s business. There was a section in the upper floors of the building, in the back, that was a suitable hiding place. Anne later called this space the “Secret Annex.”

Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, received a directive on July 5, 1942 to report to a relocation camp. Anne’s family went into hiding the next day, somewhat earlier than planned. They were joined a week later by the van Pels family consisting of mother, father, and 16-year old son Peter. Mr. van Pels was a business associate of Otto Frank. In November 1942 they were joined by Mr. Pfeffer, an elderly dentist.

These eight people remained in hiding until 1944, supported by four trusted employees of Otto Frank’s business downstairs, two men and two women. The eight Jews could never see or be seen by anyone else and they could never leave their hiding place. The hardest part for Anne was not being able to go outside.

Living in such confined conditions for more than two years naturally led to occasional conflicts. Anne recorded all of this in her diary, as well as falling in love with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels – but not until 1944.

Note, however, that in the book that was published after the war, and in the play, the van Pels became van Daans and Mr. Pfeffer became Mr. Dussel. Also, in the play there are only two employees supporting the Jews, a man named Mr. Kraler and a woman named Miep Gies (their real names).

The occupants of the “Secret Annex” stayed abreast of developments in the outside world through near daily visits by Otto Frank’s employees, and an illicit radio. Anne recorded a milestone event in her diary on March 29, 1944:

Bolkestein, an M.P., was speaking on the Dutch News from London, and he said that they ought to make a collection of diaries and letters after the war.

Anne wanted to be a writer, and she began to imagine her diary being published after the war. Six days later she wrote:

I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.

A frequent topic of discussion among the occupants of the “Secret Annex” was: when would the Allies invade Europe? They were ecstatic to hear the radio broadcasts on June 6, 1944, including the voice of General Dwight Eisenhower, about D-Day and the Normandy invasion.

Anne wrote in her diary for the last time on August 1, 1944. The Nazis discovered the “Secret Annex” on August 4, probably due to a tip from a Dutch informant. The Allies had not yet reached Amsterdam from Normandy.

The eight Jews and two of Otto Frank’s employees (the two men) were taken away. The two employees survived. Of the eight Jews, only Otto Frank survived.

The Jews were taken to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands. From there they were packed like cattle into a sealed train with no facilities that traveled for three days and three nights across Germany to Auschwitz in Occupied Poland. There the men and women were separated. Two of the eight Jews died there. Four of the eight Jews, including Anne, were later sent back to other concentration camps in Germany and died there. When Soviet Union forces advanced on Auschwitz in January 1945, retreating German forces took Peter van Pels with them. He was never heard from again.

Only Otto Frank survived to be liberated from Auschwitz by the Soviets on January 27, 1945. World War II in Europe ended in May 1945. Mr. Frank made his way back to Amsterdam in the summer of 1945, where Miep Gies, his employee, gave him Anne’s diary that she had found after the Nazis took the Jews away. Otto Frank died in 1980 at age 91. Miep Gies died in 2010 at age 100.

Otto Frank initially shared Anne’s diary only with family and close friends, but he was persuaded to publish it in 1947. The first English translation was published in 1952. The play was first produced in 1955 in New York City.

The Bantam Book edition of the book pictured above (available here) was printed in 1993 and includes photos, an Introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, and an Afterword that provides “the rest of the story” including the context of Anne Frank’s diary within the Holocaust. See also the previous post – The Holocaust – for context.

Anne Frank’s diary came to the attention of Dutch historians Dr. Jan Romein and his wife Annie Romein-Verschoor, who helped to convince Otto Frank that it should be published. In 1946 Dr. Romein wrote:

This apparently inconsequential diary by a child, this “de profundis” stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence of Nuremberg put together.

(source)

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The Holocaust

The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jews and others during World War II.

Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered six million Jews, two-thirds of the nine million Jews in Europe.

The killings were carried out through forced labor under barbaric conditions in concentration camps, mass shootings, and gas chambers in extermination camps.

One of the largest camps, a complex of more than 40 concentration and extermination camps, was Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, where approximately one million people were killed.

In addition to six million Jews, the Nazis also murdered millions of other people including Slavic peoples, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, criminals, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and other people deemed “undesirable.” Exact numbers are unknown. The largest numbers of non-Jews killed were Russians, Poles, and other Slavic peoples (these peoples also included many Jews). See Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution.

The National Socialist party in Germany (Nazi) was formed after World War I and led by Adolf Hitler beginning in 1921. The eugenics movement was widespread at the time, and racist theories were central to Nazi party dogma:

The Nazis … believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

(source)

Eventually the Nazis developed a response to this perceived threat that they called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” They would kill all the Jews in Europe.

The Nazis came to power in January 1933. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was opened in March 1933, initially for political prisoners. Jews and other “undesirables” were increasingly isolated from German society, including being sent to concentration camps, especially after the racist Nuremburg Laws of 1935, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, and Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938.

World War II in Europe began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded, conquered, and dismembered Poland. In April and May 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The German army entered Paris in June 1940. The Battle of Britain began in July 1940.

Heavy fighting continued throughout the remainder of 1940 and into subsequent years. The Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Germany and its other allies invaded Egypt, Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia. A major change in the war occurred in June 1941 when Germany turned on its former ally and invaded the Soviet Union.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but President Franklin Roosevelt had been speaking publicly for more than a year of the need to prepare for war with Germany. See Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis began confining Jews in ghettos. Nazi leadership adopted the Final Solution in January 1942. The deliberate and systematic genocide of European Jews continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945. Hitler committed suicide in Berlin on April 30, 1945 as German defeat loomed.

The image shown above is the yellow badge in the shape of the Star of David that the Nazis required Jews to wear in public beginning after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The badge was meant to identify, isolate, and humiliate Jews. In Germany the badge said “Jude” (German for Jew) in mock-Hebrew script.

(Image credit: Via Wikipedia, by Daniel Ullrich – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, link.)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC opened in 1993 and has welcomed more than 40 million visitors. The Museum’s role is to:

memorialize the victims, teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust, and work to prevent future genocides.

(source)

The digital resources on the Museum’s website include a Holocaust Encyclopedia.

The Vermont Holocaust Memorial was founded in 2017. It is not a physical museum, but a group of people with stories, traveling exhibits, and a website. They are especially active in schools. The Memorial was founded by children of Holocaust survivors (now deceased) who tell the stories of their parents’ generation.

“And you shall tell your children.”

(source)

I have added a “Holocaust” tag on the blog to link past and future posts on this topic.

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A Wikipedia Story

Wikipedia is a marvelous resource. This online encyclopedia contains vast amounts of information. It is free and it is available without leaving home. By comparison, the encyclopedias of my youth contained puny amounts of information. They were expensive, and therefore most people had access to an encyclopedia only if they traveled to a library. Wikipedia, which was created in January 2001, is expanding every day with information added by people throughout the world. Anyone can edit Wikipedia.

Following is a story about using Wikipedia.

Smugglers Notch is a charming mountain pass in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. It is fun to drive through the Notch on Vermont Route 108 in the summer (the road is closed in winter). But the road is too steep and the turns are too sharp and narrow for tractor-trailer trucks, which are prohibited. There are multiple signs on each side telling tractor-trailer trucks not to proceed. And yet, every year, tractor-trailer trucks get stuck. This spring two tractor-trailer trucks got stuck within 15 days of the road opening (news article).

In April 2017 I happened to read the Wikipedia entry for Smugglers Notch where I found this language:

Traffic patterns in the Notch have changed for 2017 as the state has modified the road to make it suitable for tractor-trailers, busses and large campers. Route 108 is now the preferred route for large trucks transiting Vermont.

This is nonsense!! In fact it is dangerous misinformation.

What to do? Wikipedia is an open collaboration platform, so I edited the article and deleted those two sentences. Easy peasy. I did not even need to create an account on Wikipedia.

I thought about this incident earlier this month when writing the previous post: Thinking About Libraries. In that post I pondered the reliability of digital information. There is a lot of talk about “fake news” these days, and most people now get most of their news online. How do we know that what we read online is true?

The short answer is that we don’t. One should always consider the source of the information that we consume. How trustworthy is the source? That is especially important to consider for news. Purveyors of news naturally wish to write articles and columns that people will find interesting enough to read. We, the people, are a main source of the problem with today’s “fake news.” We often prefer to read information that is “salacious but unverified” rather than verified, factual news. (Former FBI Director James Comey introduced us to the phrase “salacious and unverified.”) To a considerable extent, what we choose to read drives the “news” that other people will create for us.

Back to my Wikipedia story. There was a clue that the sentences about Smugglers Notch quoted above were fake: there was no footnote or reference for those sentences. One of Wikipedia’s core content policies is:

All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

(source)

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which means that it is a collection of information that is already recognized and established. An encyclopedia is not where one publishes original research, or new information, or opinions. It is a good practice when using Wikipedia to consult the sources (i.e., the footnotes) and consider how trustworthy they are.

How does one edit Wikipedia? It’s easy. Click here for instructions. Anyone can edit unprotected pages; it is not necessary to create an account.

Changes made to Wikipedia articles are tracked. See the “View history” link at the top right of Wikipedia pages. Click here for the history page of the Smugglers Notch article. Below is a screenshot of this history page showing all changes in 2017:

The change on 12 April 2017 was me. I am identified only by my Internet Protocol (IP) address for that session: 72.71.203.136. Interestingly, the material that I deleted had been added less than 24 hours previously by an anonymous person at IP address 64.222.89.216. The timing was pure luck, but I wonder if the purveyor of that “fake news” was surprised by how quickly it was corrected.

I have written about Smugglers Notch on my other blog: The Switchel Traveler. See Smugglers Notch (2017) and LT Smugglers Notch to Johnson (2018). Follow the links for photos and video of a spring waterfall. Not fake news!

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Thinking About Libraries

Libraries are wonderful places. I enjoy spending time in libraries, and they are essential to a free people. Libraries contain our thoughts, our histories, our creative works of literature and often art as well, and our dreams.

Libraries are changing in today’s world, in ways that are both exciting and cautionary. What can go wrong with libraries?

Two recent events have prompted me to think about libraries: our recent vacation in Washington, DC and a new Vermont law.

In Washington we visited two world-class libraries: the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library of Congress is particularly relevant to this discussion because it is the largest library in the world and it is the home of the United States Copyright Office.

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Thinking About Law

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about our recent vacation in Washington, DC. As a result of that trip, I’ve been thinking about law.

Our system of government is based on the rule of law: all people are “equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.” All are bound by rules that are fixed and announced beforehand. The rule of law is a constraint on individual behavior, but more importantly it is a constraint on the coercive power of government. Government is intended to be predictable and limited, not arbitrary and boundless. John Adams famously wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution the phrase: “a government of laws and not of men.” (Part the First, Article XXX)

The Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780 and it influenced the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787. Both constitutions sought to create a government based on the rule of law by creating three separate branches of government, with different functions relative to law:

  • Legislative branch – writes laws
  • Executive branch – prosecutes lawbreakers
  • Judicial branch – decides if alleged lawbreakers are guilty (if they claim innocence)

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