Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Is Reality a Simulation?

The NYTimes has a piece today considering the hypothesis put forth by Nick Bostrom, a professor at Oxford, that the universe is a simulation being run by 'post-humans' to study their past. This hypothesis may be fun to think about, but the article doesn't deal with it well. The author, John Tierney, doesn't mention the extensive history of the philosophical debates over the nature of the universe. Many people have suggested something along these lines before, although they didn't specifically mention computer simulations. They talked about dreams and divine experiments, or suggested that on a cosmic scale our personal reality may serve a purpose we do not consider. Changing this part of the hypothetical doesn't do much to alter the debate.

This idea seems to fall under the category 'ideas amusingly overestimating humanity's place in the universe'. Why would you assume that our descendants are the ones doing the simulating? Maybe the species that hideously butchers humanity and takes control of the planet but us in for historical accuracy? Even if 'post-humans' with very fast computers(so fast that they could, in effect, create and house an entire parallel universe) do exist, why would they care about us? If they are so post human, wouldn't they just know what it's like to be us?

Along this line, I came up with some hypothetical situations Tierney didn't mention. Maybe our descendants don't like us, or are just mean, and created this universe to fuck with us. Maybe they wanted to give us a chance to make choices they didn't. Maybe they're doing something entirely different and our entire galaxy is just a byproduct, cosmic exhaust if you will. Now, what if you replace the idea of 'post-humans' with the idea of God? It's pretty much the same. If you want to believe in them, fine. Personally, it sounds much more likely that the universe just is, and nothing was made for humanity.

The article includes some unfortunate bits, including an obligatory Matrix reference. Then, at the end of the first page on the internet version, we get:
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. Peace is boring, Dude.

Screw you too, Mr. Tierney, screw you too.

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