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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