Anyone who has played even a little of modern video games would be impressed at their realistic quality. The avatars on the screen have been programmed to look almost human. Now what if the designers could program the avatars to have thoughts as well, and that we make them do things by affecting their thinking and putting thoughts in their heads. So rather than making them do things, we give them the thought that makes them do things, as if they had decided to do so themsleves. Then the avatars might think that they are real and acting on their own volition and not being manipulated by an outside agency.
This is the basis on an idea that I keep running into from time to time, that we ourselves are the products of a computer simulation that has been created by an advanced post-human race. Philosopher Nick Bostrom explains this idea in a paper whose abstract reads as follows.
This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.
The opening paragraph of his paper lays the situation out quite clearly.
Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea.
Via Machines Like Us, I came across this 50-minute documentary that walks the viewer through the history of science that looks at successive answers to the so-called fine-tuning problem. i.e., how could it be that the universe seems to have just the properties necessary to create and sustain life? It takes us through the various alternative naturalistic answers to the ever-popular “God did it”.
I felt that documentary maker went too far in trying to make everything all mysterious and deep and solemn, with the choice of music and backdrops. Astronomer Martin Rees, dressed all in black and looking like a vampire while also reminding me of the master of horror Vincent Price, poses and speaks in a melodramatic way that I found both annoying and risible. But if you are willing to overlook this cheesiness, the program is pretty good at laying out the issues involved.
The show also has mathematician John Conway speaking about his game Life that shows how computers programmed with a very few simple rules can over time create things that behave a lot like living things, suggesting that they way real life came about could be by similar simple rules. As he says, “We are atoms, time, and mathematics”.
Nick Bostrom also appears, explaining how the computer simulation idea emerges out of the multiverse concept.
The idea that we may be simulations, the imaginings of an advanced post-human simulation is pretty interesting, if mind-boggling, stuff. It is hard, maybe impossible, to show that it is false, the same way it is hard to argue against solipsism. But that does not mean it is true, either.