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A Terrifying Thought Experiment

I was listening to the Audio Mullet Podcast recently, and they catalogued a list of scientists who embrace the possibility that we are living in a simulation. I had forgotten that Neil Degrasse Tyson, who has resisted other scientific horror stories like AI, also embraced the simulation hypothesis. The idea, which I think originates with Nick Bostrom, is that if intelligences are capable of creating realistic worlds, more and more realistic as time goes on, what would prevent them from creating a world indistinguishable from reality? If intelligences can create such a simulation, why would we believe we are living in the "base reality" as opposed to one of the theoretically infinite created or simulated universes. 

This is a fun idea for a lot of reasons, and it's hard to argue with. The premise is fuzzy enough around the edges that you can't really grab hold of anything to rebut. It's particularly fun to me that a number of stridently atheist scientists have sort of backed themselves into an alternative theory of intelligent design. How the builders of the simulation would differ precisely from a vague notion of a deity is unclear. I suppose religions think their Gods should be worshipped, while scientists may imagine that the creative hand was a neutral or indifferent force. It also seems important to define reality and simulation in meaningful ways before speculating on which one we are in. I'm sure Bostrom could define the difference in mathematical language that I couldn't understand, but I also don't care. For me, any world or universe where people experience suffering is real enough, whether created by hyper-intelligent aliens or not.

But this is where the idea can become terrifying. If we imagine our existence was manufactured in a similar way to say, how Blizzard made Diablo 3, then our theologies could be correct, but in a very different way than we imagined. Perhaps, to see if they could make a religion catch on in their playpen reality, these brilliant aliens went into the code and made a burning bush appear to Moses and speak to him. Worse, if we were designing a game in which we believed the characters had no feelings, or at least not ones significant enough to care about, why not actually create simulation hells where dead characters can go? Some humans have worried that we will make machines conscious in a way that they might experience as painful. Did the same thing happen to us?

Iaian M Banks actually explored the idea of a simulated hell in his book "Surface Detail" from the excellent Culture sci-fi series. His rendering of the place is worthy of the terrifying idea. What comfort can I offer after suggesting that the worst thing imaginable could well be true, and that there's no real evidence against it (none for it either). Well, because I think it's stupid and the world is too beautiful. I can't really believe that a species designing a trivial game or an experiment could take the care they did with a tree or the oceans. If they did, maybe that means they love us and they are the God we have been worshipping. 

The point, for me at least, is that science, shortly after it convinced itself it had killed God, proceeded to resurrect Him in a stupider form. As has become a consistent theme of late, science provided an explanation that made the world uglier and scarier, but was necessary to confront because, hey, it could be true. I think there are truths not worth knowing. If you are a Christian or a Muslim, the results of IQ tests by race or gender are irrelevant because God created each human being with a spark of the divine. They are God's children. The question isn't even worth asking. Sam Harris, the father of so many bad ideas, throws around the idea that there is no such thing as freewill, even while acknowledging that this conclusion is basically a social nuclear bomb. While acknowledging that culture and religion have been invoked to hamper important scientific progress in the past, one should not throw out the most basic underlying assumption of our legal system during an afternoon in the lab. 

This is where the progs might be on to something with their whole 'lived experience' schtick. We don't have to submit to data or measurements unless we want to. We don't have to agree that it represents the optimal way to render our lives. So even if this is a simulation, let's all just keep playing like it matters. 


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