Sorry, I invented a label. It’s to describe a nonsensical fad that I keep running into. It’s like steampunk: romanticizing the Industrial Revolution by putting gears on your top hat, imagining a world run on the power of steam with gleaming brass fittings, rather than coal miners coughing their lungs out or child labor keeping the textile mills running for 16 hours a day, limbs getting mangled in the machinery. Or cyberpunk, a dark gritty world where cyborgs rule and everyone is plugged into their machines, and the corporations own everything, including those neat eyes you bought. Sticking “-punk” on a term implies to me an unrealistic cultural phenomenon in which everyone adopts a faddish esthetic that they think looks cool, but quickly dies out leaving only a relic population that doesn’t realize how deeply uncool they actually are. Try to live on the bleeding edge, discover that the razor moves on fast leaving you lurking on a crusty blood clot.
So…matrixpunk. One movie comes out in 1999, and everyone is wearing trenchcoats, ooohing at deja vu, and talking about how deep it is that we’re just a simulation (and never mind the losers who are gaga over the red pill/blue pill idea — boy, that one sure drew in a lot of pathetic people). It might have been mind-blowing for a few months a score of years ago, but it’s time to move on and recognize that it’s very silly.
However, one of the core ideas that seems to have suckered in some physicists and philosophers is the simulation crap. As a thought experiment, sure, speculate away…it’s when people get carried away and think it might really, really be true that my hackles rise. Apparently, Sabine Hossenfelder thinks likewise.
According to the simulation hypothesis, everything we experience was coded by an intelligent being, and we are part of that computer code. That we live in some kind of computation in and by itself is not unscientific. For all we currently know, the laws of nature are mathematical, so you could say the universe is really just computing those laws. You may find this terminology a little weird, and I would agree, but it’s not controversial. The controversial bit about the simulation hypothesis is that it assumes there is another level of reality where someone or some thing controls what we believe are the laws of nature, or even interferes with those laws.
The belief in an omniscient being that can interfere with the laws of nature, but for some reason remains hidden from us, is a common element of monotheistic religions. But those who believe in the simulation hypothesis argue they arrived at their belief by reason. The philosopher Nick Boström, for example, claims it’s likely that we live in a computer simulation based on an argument that, in a nutshell, goes like this. If there are a) many civilizations, and these civilizations b) build computers that run simulations of conscious beings, then c) there are many more simulated conscious beings than real ones, so you are likely to live in a simulation.
Elon Musk is among those who have bought into it. He too has said “it’s most likely we’re in a simulation.” And even Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave the simulation hypothesis “better than 50-50 odds” of being correct.
Yeah, it’s a bunch of smart people (and a few hucksters) falling for the hammer-nail appeal. I’ve got a dazzlingly good hammer, or steam engine, or computer, and therefore the world must be made of nails, driven the piston of a very big steam engine, all under the control of a master computer. Or, more familiarly among the crackpots I have to deal with, watches are designed and manufactured, therefore the rabbits on that heath must also have been designed and manufactured. But how do you test your supposition? What would look different if the world did not operate analogously to your familiar technology, but was built on different rules? Why, what would it mean if rabbits lacked a boiler and a gear train in their guts?
Hossenfelder does a fine job of taking the whole idea to task. You should read that, not me, but here’s her conclusion.
And that’s my issue with the simulation hypothesis. Those who believe it make, maybe unknowingly, really big assumptions about what natural laws can be reproduced with computer simulations, and they don’t explain how this is supposed to work. But finding alternative explanations that match all our observations to high precision is really difficult. The simulation hypothesis, therefore, just isn’t a serious scientific argument. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it means you’d have to believe it because you have faith, not because you have logic on your side.
Right. I would add that just because you can calculate the trajectory of an object with a computer doesn’t mean its movement is controlled by a computer. Calculable does not equal calculated. The laws of thermodynamics seem to specify the behavior of atoms, for instance, but that does not imply that there is a computer somewhere chugging away to figure out what that carbon atom ought to do next, and creating virtual instantiations of every particle in the universe.
Also, Nick Bostrom is an ass.