(/me peeks out of lurking/super-busy-with-RL-work mode.)
Today’s New York Times has an interesting essay by John Tierney about the hypotheses of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.
Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.
Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”
My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history — or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.
It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft [and drama in Second Life – Ed.]. Peace is boring, Dude.
A more practical question is how to behave in a computer simulation. Your first impulse might be to say nothing matters anymore because nothing’s real. But just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real.
Of course, it’s tough to guess what the designer would be like. He or she might have a body made of flesh or plastic, but the designer [of the simulation] might also be a virtual being living inside the computer of a still more advanced form of intelligence. There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it).
Then again, maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Dr. Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations. Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?
If simulations stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on, then I really shouldn’t be spreading Dr. Bostrom’s ideas. But if you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once we start figuring out the situation.
Talk about recursivity.
I seem to recall a similar argument from a college Intro to Philosophy class, and I remember the interesting discussion we had on the topic in that seminar.
If this were the case, then we’re all living a simulated First Life. When I talk to Bethy, for instance, my First Life interacts with my simulated Second Life, since she is (voice notwithstanding) a product of the simulation that *I’m* running within my own simulated First Life. And in that sense, then the fact that Aenea lives and/or reacts differently in my Second Life than I would in my simulated First Life is startlingly silly.
My head hurts now. I hated philosophy class…
(/me ducks back into lurking/real-life-work-is-overwhelming-me mode. Miss you guys 🙂 )