Neil deGrasse Tyson led a debate on whether the universe is a simulation. He took the affirmative side. He agrees that there’s no way to prove it one way or the other, but he claims that the probability that we may be part of a simulation “may be very high”. Aargh. Facepalm.
Lisa Randall is the voice of reason who says she thinks the question is only interesting if we have a way to test it. You go, Lisa Randall. That’s how a scientist should think, and she finds the whole argument hilarious.
The others trot out these incredibly shallow excuses.
The universe seems to operate in a way that’s very similar to the way our simulations of the universe operate. Isn’t that circular? Have they considered that they have the arrow of causality going the wrong way?
The rules that regulate the behavior of the universe seem to be very mathematical. Computers are mathematical. QED, the universe could be a computer. Ugh.
Some of the equations that describe the behavior of the universe are similar to equations found in web browsers — specifically, error-correcting code. Fortunately, the person making that argument doesn’t believe in the simulation paradigm, and pointed out that biology also uses error correction, and it’s not evidence that biology is designed.
David Chalmers, the philosopher, also points out that the simulation hypothesis is a naturalistic version of the god hypothesis, that claiming the universe is a simulation implies that there is a great Simulator, “someone” who built this code with some intent.
But I am disappointed to say that Tyson gives the worst argument in favor of the simulation hypothesis. It’s the idea that of course there could be super-intelligent beings, and of course what super-intelligent beings would do is create us.
Tyson points out that we humans have always defined ourselves as the smartest beings alive, orders of magnitude more intelligent than species like chimpanzees that share close to 99% of our DNA. We can create symphonies and do trigonometry and astrophysics (some of us, anyway).
But Tyson uses a thought experiment to imagine a life-form that’s as much smarter than us as we are than dogs, chimps, or other terrestrial mammals.
“What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he says.
Whatever that being is, it very well might be able to create a simulation of a universe.
“And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment,” Tyson says. “I’m saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying, I’m not surprised.”
That really is an intelligent design creationism argument: I can imagine a superior being outside our universe, therefore, it is highly probable that there is a superior being outside our universe, and furthermore, it cares so much about us personally that it created this universe simulator so it can watch us for millions and billions of years.
I just wonder…does Neil deGrasse Tyson see dogs or cats or chimpanzees as deformed, inferior versions of ourselves? Does a chimpanzee look like a “drooling, blithering idiot” of a human, or would it be better to see it as a competent, successful chimpanzee? Chimps may not do astrophysics, but only an astrophysicist would be self-centered enough to consider that narrow discipline to be the defining character of a superior being. Yet again, Tyson reveals that he desperately needs some basic education in biology.
I also have to wonder if this is a general property of physicists, that they think they know so much that the only people they can imagine having a conversation about unverifiable, untestable, undetectable, hypothetical, imaginary foundational properties of the universe is a group of their fellow physicists (with one token philosopher).
Congratulations. They’ve discovered that they have something in common with theologians.
Bart B. Van Bockstaele says
I have seen that “debate” a while ago. The only interesting thing to me is that Lisa Randall, a string theorist, was the voice of reason. The others were just using the word simulation as a synonym for God, with not a single argument that had any rational weight.
The only reason this debate was not a waste of my time is that I now know for sure it was a waste of my time.
chigau (違う) says
How is it that Neil deGrasse Tyson has never read any Douglas Adams?
Or was he quoting?
The level of ignorance needed to argue this requires massive ignorance of scientific computation and chaos theory as well.
I have to wonder is he actually taking this position or is he trying to pander to singulatarians like Yudkowski and his followers.
The standard argument for why we’re in a simulation is:
There is one universe, but many simulations.
Since one simulation can contain other simulations, the ratio of simulations to universes is infinity to one.
Therefore, we are almost certainly living in a simulation.
Great minds of our century take this seriously, and it’s kinda stupid.
There is one universe, but many hats.
Since one hat can contain other hats, the ratio of hats to universes is infinity to one.
Therefore, we are almost certainly living in a hat.
Rob Grigjanis says
Lisa Randall is a physicist, as is Jim Gates (pretty sure that’s him on the right. No time to play the video on my really slow machine right now). Tyson, not so much.
It would be possible for the universe to be a computer program, but NOT be a simulation, as “simulation” implies that it is purposeful.
Maybe what we perceive as our universe is just an emergent property of a large random number generator.
Douglas Adams was right … the answer to life, the universe and everything IS 42. :)
The most pointless debate topic, and yet it still seems to beguile egoists who simply tell themselves they are ‘thinking big,’ which usually means ‘make sweeping statements about the entire universe on the basis of vapid twaddle.’ The natural habitat of not only the futurist, but also of the famous physicist: Michio Kaku would have loved that debate.
“Any theory which causes solipsism to seem just as likely an explanation for the phenomena it seeks to describe ought to be held in the utmost suspicion.” ― Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist
(In The Algebraist, the dominant religion is an aggressively evangelical form of the “simulation hypothesis”, which believes that the simulation will be brought to an end when a sufficient number of sentient beings become convinced that they are living in a simulation as to render the simulation invalid, and is on a galactic crusade to make that happen.)
Matthew Trevor says
Are they intentionally going for a Matrix look?
I’ve been playing an older video game (PS2) a lot lately, and there is no doubt that it is a simulation. I have no reason to think that this universe is a simulation. If it is, we seem to be programmed to accept it as real, and it might be a bad idea to start mucking about.
We are orders of magnitude smarter than chimps? Not hardly. I’d say maybe twice as smart, on a good day, in the things we are good at – language and tool use. But most of us are not all that good with language and tools, and just blunder along in our culture. Those of us with specialties are the products of long training and conditioning. Specialists tend to be hopeless outside their specialty – as Tyson so kindly demonstrates.
We? I can’t do any of that, so I’m out. The majority of humans on this planet, past and present, haven’t done anything particularly remarkable, just the every day stuff, like work and have families and care for them (which is remarkable enough, if you ask me).
One of the things humans, past and present, are best at is waging war and killing one another. That’s some fuckin’ design.
PZ Myers says
I can do trigonometry! I guess I’m 33% human.
#5: Yes, Gates and Randall are physicists, which actually supports my point: why do physicists have the hubris to think they can even talk competently about this nebulous topic?
Or, even away from their presence, such as during a debate, for some of us.
Akira MacKenzie says
Remember all that talk from certain accommodationists about the need for “rock star scientists” bringing dumbed-down science to the masses?
Yeeeeah… How’s that working for us?
Fair Witness says
I find the statement “the universe seems very mathematical” particularly irritating. We invented mathematics in order to understand the universe, so one should expect the universe to appear mathematical when the math that we developed to explain the universe is explained to you. This is another example of people getting cause and effect mixed up.
A Masked Avenger says
That essentially IS what we think is it not? I’m a mathematician, not a physicist, so everything I say is an analogy on an analogy, but…
Lawrence Krauss gives a persuasive argument that the universe has a net energy of zero. The importance of this seems to be that (like Hawking radiation), the entire universe can be explained as a random fluctuation that is allowed to occur because it nets to zero, but which failed to immediately cancel itself out because rapid expansion separated the (+) bits and the (-) bits and prevented them from meeting. Pretty much everything else is the result of expansion, cooling, and condensation, via processes which are fundamentally random–but which luckily manage on a macro scale to give some appearance of orderliness…
All which to say, on a lay person’s level Douglas Adams more or less had it right. An enormous [quantum] computer, so mind-boggling that it is itself part of its own computation, some sub-units of which manage to both be part of the computation and to perceive the computer at the same time.
#12 PZ – of course physicists can talk about nebulous topics! Half my high school physics involved cloud chambers!
A Masked Avenger says
As for NDT, he seems to go on and on about hypothetical beings who are to us as we are to chimpanzees. I feel him: I’m an intellectual snob as well, and I too idealize intellect. I too am captivated by the hypothetical being who embodies it more perfectly.
Or, to show my own dark underbelly, I often enough get a fucking snootful of all the people who can’t even follow simple directions, let alone contemplate lofty things…
But as PZ likes to point out, there’s no special reason to believe that natural selection will drive us to perfect our intellect. If we manage not to exterminate ourselves, it’s entirely possible that we will become dumber over the gigayears, not smarter. Since we’re helpless without our tools and our clothing, it’s hard to envision. We can’t simply “return to the savannah.” But being smart is expensive–and being moral is not necessarily a survival trait. Neither our intellect nor our society are particularly likely to be perfected in the future.
Which I’m sure NDT finds painful to contemplate, as I do.
Ugh. I mean, there really isn’t anything else to say that does it justice, so I’ll just say it again. Ugh.
I have often wondered this myself, escpecially while in grad school studying Physics. It is a general tendency that permeates all of Physics and is more common the more theoretical the field. I have come to expect it in physicists and am always pleased when there is a true humility expressed by a physicist regarding areas outside their narrow expertise. Unfortunately this Physics Elitism is often fed by folks from other disciplines who come to give a talk to the Physics crowd and start by saying how they “weren’t smart enough to do Physics and so the went into ___________”. This is like telling Trump that you weren’t smart enough to succeed in real estate so you became a pathologist.
Bill Buckner says
Phil Crawford says
This is just Anselm’s ontological argument recast. Projecting formalism into the universe due to fear of the true chaos that we live in.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
Do they mention Quantum Mechanics? [I refuse to watch the vid] One argument for being within a computer Sim-Universe is that quantum granularity is a result of the finite computationality of a computer program. Ideally, all forces are continuous functions (with no granularity at all) and quantum would never be a factor.
or so I’ve heard.
Sounds a lot like Plato’s Cave
I lurve Lisa Randall, her interp of String Theory blew everyone away, so I’d follow whatever she says. [to get all sappy fanboyish about it …]
If the universe is a running simulation, I’d say it’s more likely it’s running a game of Fizzbin.
If we can’t tell the difference between a simulated universe and a real one, then what is the difference between a simulated universe and a real one?
Well, except mathematicians.
Of course chimpanzees are superior beings. Did you ever see what happened to the boyfriend of that primate researcher when he entered the habitat while she was sharing lunch with some male chimps? Bye bye, face and balls!
My camera went dead on top of Gibraltar one morning, and I opened a new battery pack. Now, I knew better than to open food, but just the sound of tearing plastic alerted every Barbary Ape within 50 yards, and a big male hopped off a tree and onto the roof of the cable car terminal, eyed me, and within a second and a half had made three great bounds and was there, four limbs with opposable thumbs gripping my waist and shoulders. I instinctively gave him a really hard right cross, square on the jaw. I’m the better part of 200 pounds, and strong. It was a punch that would have dropped a man. His head moved a couple of inches, then he eyed me, and bared his fangs. All four paws were still gripping me firmly. Damn, I thought, is this going to end in a hospital or in a morgue? Luckily an immense Arab on the balcony hollered at him, by name, I think, and he grudgingly let go and bounded off.
It’s the worst sort of arrogance to think that our intelligence matters one damn whit in confrontations with superior beings, like rottweilers and baboons and a big teenager with a baseball bat!
I’m unconvinced by that argument. Physicists say that counter-intuitive nature of QM is not a problem: there’s no reason to believe that our intuition of how the world works should apply at the quantum scale, honed as it is by observations at a much greater scale. But I don’t see how you can have it both ways: you can’t say “so what if the double-slit experiment is freaky? That’s just how the world is”, and then say “but shit ought to be continuous”. Where does that “ought” come from?
I have come to believe that those who are so impressed with mathematics that they figure that the universe must be mathematics have forgotten (if they ever knew) where math came from and how it was invented. We know that. We have the archaeological evidence. It was invented for market purposes, to keep track of (for example) sheep.
Send a slave to market with a flock of sheep. How do you make sure they all get there? You make little round pebbles of clay, one for each sheep, and then put them in a clay envelope. When the slave gets to market, he gives the envelope to the dealer, who breaks it open and matches those clay marbles to the sheep, one by one. You also put markings on the outside of the envelope. Now the dealer doesn’t have to break open the envelope, and it can just be a clay tablet — it doesn’t even have to be an envelope with marbles inside — and now you’ve invented written numbers. And then you learn to add up the contents of multiple envelopes, or multiple markings, and you’re writing and manipulating numbers — you’ve invented mathematics.
Mathematics is just the invention of ever more sophisticated methods of manipulating quantitative symbols without losing track of them. It’s a way to avoid losing your marbles.
And the universe is very good at manipulating packets of marbles (from quarks to planets to galaxies and beyond) without losing track. It isn’t that the universe obeys conservation laws, it is conservation laws. So of course the universe is good at math. We’re not. That’s why we had to start with little pieces of clay. (And the fact that it so good at it is pretty good evidence that the universe is not a simulation. Where are all those glitches and deja-vu Matrix moments we would expect from a simulation?)
I recently tried to watch a British documentary series on “maths”, but had to give up because the mathematician-host was infuriatingly obtuse about this (“the universe is mathematical”) and even went into raptures over the mysterious and transcendental properties of pi, as shown by a statistical method for calculating pi which he was convinced had no trace of anything circular in it (thus showing, in his view, that pi is deeper and more mysterious than the ratio of a circumference to a diameter). But I am pretty sure he was just plain wrong. A dowel cast onto a lined sheet statistically sweeps out a circle. What he managed to prove to me is that even professional mathematicians can sometimes lose their marbles.
Marcus Ranum says
Is this one of those “physicists make fun of philosophers for wanking about unreal hypotheticals” things?
Rob Grigjanis says
slithey tove @25:
What ‘quantum granularity’ are you talking about? Spacetime granularity arises in loop quantum gravity, and it’s used in lattice quantum chromodynamics, but it’s not a generic feature of quantum mechanics or quantum field theory. Or do you mean the particle discreteness that arises from field quantization?
moarscienceplz @ 26:
Oh yes, Fizzbin. I agree with you. It’s that or Cripple Mr. Onion. Fizzbin is more chaotic, though, so I think that wins.
I’ve never been able to understand how anyone takes these simulation arguments seriously at all.
I mean, to the degree I find them coherent at all, they basically seem to amount to this:
(a) In the future, well have infinite computing resources. [Whaaat?! *cough* BS *cough*]
(b) With infinite computing resources, we could run a new universe. [True]
(c) The people in said universe will develop infinite computing resources too! [LOL]
(d) So uh, yeah, we’re totally in a simulation dude. Singularity!
The whole argument is basically nonsense. Infinite computers?!
It doesn’t help that actual quantum physics simulations are computationally intractable and hence only work on the tiniest scales, barring an exotic quantum computer. So you can hardly even argue that our universe is an easy one to simulate.
Like, if I were going to go design some laws of physics to run in a computer, I don’t think having every single particle affect every other one via infinite-range fields would be my first choice…
For me, the thing that makes these arguments obviously nonserious is the part where you invariably get to the simulation running its own simulation. Isn’t it transparently obvious that all the information / computation in a simulation must be contained in the level above it? It’s like those shady ads back in the early ’90s for a zip program that you could run again and again until the file was one byte long. Really people?!
Based on PZ’s description, I agree most with Lisa Randall.
I think the simulation hypothesis should be approached similarly to the multiverse hypothesis. Lots of people have advanced philosophical arguments in favor of a multiverse, but at best this motivates research–it does not, by itself, constitute research. The real reason physicists suspect we live in a multiverse is because multiverses may be predicted by established theories of physics, theories which have been otherwise experimentally confirmed. When physicists talk about multiverses and fail to ground them in established physics, this is nothing more than hand-waving.
Panelist Zohreh Davoudi actually has the right idea. She formulates a specific testable hypothesis, based only on the idea that simulations have limited computational power. I didn’t watch the whole talk, but she has a paper on arxiv about it. I find the predictions unlikely, but it’s the right direction. Speculating on the motivations of higher beings is definitely the wrong direction.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
the “granularity” of which I spoke, is the discrete energy levels that quantum particles manifest. I guess they might be saying that it is equivalent to digital recordings of live music performance, where the sound gets encoded into digital data packets. That all this would only happen if we were embedded within a _virtual_ reality. or so I heard.
I didn’t really follow it too closely; immediately dismissing it as an imaginative interp of puzzling effects that we haven’t developed complete understanding of.
[I guess that is my personal disclaimer for everything mucked up in that word stuff]
I understood that refererence :)
In fact, as to simulations, I read an excellent series of texts on our world as a simulation. They are in the Science of the Discworld series.
Apparently, the renouned wizards of Unseen University created a pocket university to test the bizarre hypothesis that worlds could be round, instead of riding on the back of elephants, on the back of giant space turtles. They even figured out that people do not indeed fall off! The roundworld experiment considered for some time and may even now be sitting on some wizard’s bookshelf.
You would think that someone of Tyson’s stature would be aware of such important research and reference it during the debate.
I seem to recall something about producing a hypothesis, then a test for the hypothesis. Anything other than that is simply hand waving and supremely short of facts and observations.
As a hypothesis is rooted in what is observed and theorized based upon the observed, with testing of the theorized condition, testing is critical.
Otherwise, it’s not a hypothesis at all.
We see condition X, with Y also being observed and suspect that X and Z present condition Y to occur. We test by observing X, Y and Z, measuring the characteristics of each. Reproduction of the observation is critical.
Not, “I think we are living in a simulation” and no testing suggested whatsoever. That isn’t even philosophy then, it’s religion. For even philosophy requires a philosophical test for a theory.
I feel like the basic flaw in the whole “chance the universe is a sim” is that probability is inherently an extrapolation, and you can’t meaningfully extrapolate from a sample size of one or zero. So speculating about computers powerful enough to simulate an entire universe is pointless when there are no examples of such things to compare to. It’s like when religious creationists go on about the laws of physics being improbably fine tuned. When you only have one set of physical laws to look at, you don’t even know what your variables are, not to mention in to how much they can vary.
(The same problem also applies to “chance of alien life” speculation; with only one known case of life beginning on a planet extrapolating from that is silly.)
re: Slithey Tove @ 37
Why would a non-simulated reality not be granular?
Rob Grigjanis says
slithey tove @37:
Energy levels are only discrete for bound states (electrons in an atom, quantum harmonic oscillator, etc). Free particles (scattering states) have continuous spectra.
At least Neil is an Old Earth Simulationist. Baby steps.
BTW, the answer is not “42” but “SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE”. Read the book people. Amen.
The Simulation of the after life is even more awesome. Believe. Seriously, believe.
the “matrix hypothesis” is treated by the sciencey crowd like a terribly new Idea a tremendous new speculation because we have made devices that can make feeble simulations (in comparison with most real event/things)
In the east they have been telling these stories for millennia both in Hinduism and Buddhism where the idea is to awaken from the “dream” (simulation) and become enlightened.
the significance of the “illusion” is the part to focus on it is about the only relevant part of the speculation at all. What does that make you then?
other than that it is pretty useless though it can be entertaining for some new to it but really. The bottom line is really what we know we know and what we do not know we do not know.
Rob Grigjanis says
*snort*. I’m guessing they were invited, and turned up. And from the few minutes I watched, I doubt a chemist or biologist could have come up with a better response than Randall’s “why are we even talking about this, or attending?” (I’m paraphrasing). Dunno about hubris (no physicists I studied under or worked with were more arrogant than the other scientists I’ve known), but I’m beginning to wonder whether some biologists might have an inferiority complex.
chigau (違う) says
Won’t somebody think of the mice?
and howinhell ‘mouse’ pluralises to ‘mice’?
Well, chigau, a bunch of guys got together and combined their early languages together. Alas, their principle activity revolved around beating one another about the head with iron clubs and telephone pole analogs, resulting in a rather insane collection of contradictory rules.
Multiple mouseseseses become mice, grouse not into grice. All very confusing.
But, immensely fun to abuse.
Either (1) that is what the programmers of the Neil deGrasse Tyson simulation made him say, or (2) he meant to say that the people who think they are part of a simulation “may be very high”.
chigau (違う) says
I have among my acquaintances, linguists.
Sometimes (rarely) we get more than one in the same room.
oh my popcorn
Bart B. Van Bockstaele says
The battle seems to be raging no longer, but there was a time that arguments were made that we should talk about ‘mice’ for the cute little rodents and ‘mouses’ for the computer peripherals.
It’s surprising to me that the fact of our existence didn’t receive more attention. The moon with the resultant tides. The evolution of an eukaryote, which I read, biologists consider an extremely unlikely event. .The advantageous savanna. Large brain development (Not energy efficient y’know). I think its an actual possibility that we are the only intelligent civilization in the universe! The universe is a dangerous place.
Matt Cramp says
The question that never seems to come up when people claim we’re in a simulation is ‘why is it still running?’ Simulations are not universes; they are designed by some process, or the process that builds them is designed; and they exist for a specific, convincing reason, which is the reason why it’s built and run in the first place. There’s places where the simulation could be cutting corners, like quantum uncertainty, but there’s so much unnecessary detail. Either we’re the point, in which case why do gravitational waves exist, or humanity is not the point, in which case why was the simulation designed so that life is capable of spawning. If we’re a glitch, why haven’t we been fixed yet and the universe rebooted? If we’re not a glitch, then why do we need a whole universe in the first place?
if you ask me why god made the world round I would say
god made the world round so it would roll when he kicked it
if you ask me how I know this it is because
that is what i would do myself
if you have any more questions like this just address them to
archy the cockroach
(credit to Don Marquis)
That’s pretty much the usual practical answer to this kind of solipsism. If we can’t tell the difference, why should we act as if there might be one? We can’t know anything other than what we perceive with our senses (and only a tiny fraction of that). We might as well assume that the world outside us exists, makes sense, and that we can affect it, because there isn’t much point otherwise.
As was once pointed out to me, strip out the sexy technology and you’re saying it’s more likely that we’re living in a novel than in a universe. And that’s an even better bet, because we know that there are millions of times more novels than universes!
Also, if we are living in a simulation, it’s certainly not a simulation of humans; if that were the goal, why include dark energy, quasars, degenerate matter, gravitational lensing, or any of the crazy things our universe is built on? It’s clearly a simulation of a universe as a whole, and if the physics that lead to galactic superclusters also lead to a thin film of organic slime on a mote of dust orbiting a particle in a single, unremarkable galaxy, I’m certain that the simulators will never notice.
What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says
It’s a mutant.
–Your friendly neighborhood linguist
No we don’t. All that we know about the number of universes is that there’s almost certainly at least one. We have no upper bound for the possible number of universes.
The usual answer that simulationists (is that the term?) give is that the simulation is an “ancestor simulation”, designed by some post-human society or intelligence to shed light on the development of its ancestors, so it has to include those things for us to discover them as part of journey to Our Inevitable Post-Human Destiny ™. Personally, I find the notion that running a very large number of simulations of different possible histories at this level of detail would tell you anything useful about actual history to be… somewhat implausible.
Isn’t it just as likely that the simulation is run by post-zorblaxians, and they’re focusing on a planet in a galaxy millions of light years from here?
I dunno. It mostly sounds like a bunch of post-hoc rationalisation for a dumb idea somebody thought up whilst they were really, really stoned, so… Yeah, whatever, I guess. But Nick Bostrom’s argument is explicitly about simulating humans, AFAIK.