August 14, 2007

Maybe God is "an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims."

John Tierney wonders, and really, haven't you been worrying about this possibility for a long time?
[I]f you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of [Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom], it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation....

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems....

“My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”...

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.
So what does the Big Nerd want from us? And do we have any reason to care? We could try to understand the mind of the Big Nerd for the pure love of knowledge, or we could try to think of how He -- you just know it's a he -- might punish or reward us. The economist Robin Hanson figures that we ought to try to be -- not obedient and moral -- but interesting, so we'll get to continue in the next simulation.
If our descendants prefer their simulations to be entertaining, all else equal, then you should want you and the events around you to be entertaining as well, all else equal. "All the world's a stage, and the people merely players." Of course what is regarded as entertaining does vary somewhat across time and cultures, and our distant descendants' tastes will likely vary from ours as well. So one should emphasize widely shared features of entertaining stories. Be funny, outrageous, violent, sexy, strange, pathetic, heroic, ... in a word "dramatic." Being a martyr might even be a good thing for you, if that makes your story so compelling that other descendants will also want to simulation you....

If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal it seems that you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look likely to become eventually rich, expect to and try to participate in pivotal events, be entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happy and interested in you.
The Big Nerd God wants to be entertained.

48 comments:

EnigmatiCore said...

I bet cleavage entertains Him.

Pissed Off Hillbilly said...

That means that...

our whole solar system...

could be, like...

one tiny atom in the fingernail
of some other giant being.

This is too much!

That means...

-one tiny atom in my fingernail could be--
-Could be one little...

tiny universe.

Bissage said...

Wait a minute.

We’re all living in someone else’s computer simulation?

Why, that’s positively uplifting!

I thought we were all rats living in a giant Skinner box.

Original Mike said...

I request a reboot.

John Burgess said...

Reading Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, from 1937, is always helpful in this discussion.

Meade said...

“My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”...

Let's see... Wait, wait. Let me try to do the math in my head...

That would be an approximately 80 percent chance that we are not living in a computer simulation.

Revenant said...

If that’s true, it’s bad news for the futurists who think we’ll have a computer this century with the power to simulate all the inhabitants on earth. We’d start our simulation, expecting to observe a new virtual world, but instead our own world might end — not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a message on the Prime Designer’s computer.

There seems to be an implied assumption in this article that a simulation must simulate real-world conditions. In reality almost no entertainment simulation, and very few research simulations, attempt to precisely mimic real-world rules. It seems to me that if we ARE in a simulation, it is very likely that the rules we operate under aren't those of the world the computer is sitting in.

I would expect a simulation to either have enough memory to allow the people inside it to run their own simulations, or to contain underlying rules preventing those sorts of simulations from occurring.

Paddy O. said...

it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation....

“My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”...


Did I miss something in math lo those many years ago? When did 20 percent chance become a mathematical certainty? Is this part of the "New Math"?

joe said...

So the world ends when His mom makes him shut down and go to bed.

AJ Lynch said...

Ann this is the most interesting NYT article you have ever blogged about.

Could it mean our eclipses are really power outages in the giant God's world?

Paddy O. said...

Yay for a religion post that might make people angry.

"The Big Nerd God wants to be entertained."

This isn't entirely offtrack to what Christian theologians might say. Except they use bigger words to impress each other.

The question is what kind of entertainment does God want? There are a lot of different kinds of computer games out there ("How about a nice game of chess?").

Take the Sims, for instance, as was referred to in the article. Computer people just livin' their lives trying to get ahead. People who play those games are looking for a little artificial community. There can be violence but it's not really a feature or part of the goal.

As with a lot of role playing games part of the fun is getting stronger and better and rising in levels which opens more quests and opportunities. Violence can be part of that, but it's more focused on fulfilling quests and accomplishing missions.

In theological terms the idea that God's game is designed to encourage players to advance, to advance all the way to the highest level is called Theosis, literally union with God. "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God," wrote Athanasius a while back.

The Big Nerd God seems to also want relationship... interaction, fellowship, community. One way of viewing the Trinity is as a community of three, who eternally interact with each other in a dynamic process of retaining their individuality while fully a unity.

God seeks that community and some say created everything so as to expand this community.

He wants friends.

And, again using theology concepts, not only does he want friends. He wants to party. He wants to dance.

Folks getting drunk and crazy ruins the party so he set up some guidelines. Not to restrict, but to keep the dance going.

In terms of the computer game maybe it's a lot less like Warcraft and a lot more like Dance Dance Revolution. Or, to use a theological term, it's perichoresis.

Paddy O. said...

Original Mike said...

I request a reboot.


This is called eschatology. Basically what the book of Revelation is about, or any of the earlier Jewish apocalyptic books like 1 Enoch.

. said...

it sounds like the speculation of some fat, zit faced pre-pubescent boy

Hoosier Daddy said...

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom says“My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”...

Hmm…how much you want to bet this chap has tenure too?

I get gut feelings too and it’s usually from eating too many White Castle cheeseburgers.

Joseph Hovsep said...

Reading Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, from 1937, is always helpful in this discussion.

It reminds me more of Asimov's The Last Question.

Spengler's Ghost said...

If true, this would make the literary figure of God, as spoken of in the Bible, the most interesting invention of all time. Even more interesting than the Big Nerd God himself.

Or, to put it another way, if reality is merely an illusion, then I just overpaid for my Asian Chicken Salad.

Revenant said...

Did I miss something in math lo those many years ago? When did 20 percent chance become a mathematical certainty?

Tierney's the one saying "mathematical certainty"; Bostrom is the one saying "20%".

The important thing is Tierney's qualifier -- "if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption". Bostrom's "20% gut feeling" presumably factors in the chance that his assumptions are wrong.

Henry said...

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert Heinlein.

Paul Snively said...

If you want to see this line of reasoning put on firm physical and mathematical footing, I recommend "The Physics of Immortality," "The Physics of Christianity," and especially the paper that the latter title was derived from, "The Structure of the World From Pure Numbers," which was published in "Reports on Progress in Physics," volume 68 (2005), pages 897-964.

Joe said...

You also have to consider the possibility that God hates us.

I prefer the notion that God hates sycophants and will reward those who don't kiss his ass and invoke His name. He also prefers people who are good because they choose to be, not out of fear of punishment.

rhhardin said...

Decades ago there was a cartoon of a guys in a commuter rail car, with one noticing a huge boy with a huge Lionel train transformer watching outside. Probably in the New Yorker.

It would have to be a child.

The computer idea is drawing on writing in the computer program for supplying language, and the observer for supplying significance. Which is what is missing from a materialistic universe.

The trick in explanations is to produce a confusion of use and mention that prevents you thinking back past that confusion. Then it seems to be a root term, the bottom turtle in the explanation.

There's a grammar of explanations.

rhhardin said...

It's turtles all the way up.

Pogo said...

Let's don't tell Christopher Hitchens about this.

His head would explode, and the Nerd God hates such messes.

Palladian said...

"Reading Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, from 1937, is always helpful in this discussion.

It reminds me more of Asimov's The Last Question."

That's possibly my favorite short story ever. Beautiful. And much more positive than this terrible "model railroad" idea.

jeff said...

I read that this morning and the first thing I thought of, much like pissed off hillbilly, was the bathtub scene in "animal house".

However, it's pretty neat article. Why couldn't it be the case? I can't think of a way to prove or disprove it. Anyone?
Second thing I thought of was I could be seeing the start of a new religion. Could we all, in a few years, start worshiping "Phil" Who lives in the Holy Mother's Basement? The alter in the shape of a PC? Will we begin violent wars with those who believe the almighty Phil is a Mac guy?
Even thought the PC and Mac may only exist in our program?

Michael said...

No one has referenced Douglas Adams yet?

Am I the only geek here?

Is this thing on? Am I logged in?

Pogo said...

Thanks for all the fish, Michael.

jeff said...

Perhaps "Phil" (blessed be his processor) has activated his geek filter, afraid that they may become false prophets in His game. Don't know what to tell you. His game, His rules. Then again, maybe the answer IS 42.

Robin Hanson said...

Do you think non-nerds would be any less likely to want to be entertained? Do you resent more having to entertain a nerd than you would a non-nerd. I sense a bit of anti-nerd hostility; am I misreading you?

Peter Palladas said...

My gut instinct is that around 20% of adult males who spend weekends with their model railways are sublimating perverts.

See 'Cracker' passim.

Pogo said...

Peter,
Probably so.
But that's a good thing, isn't it? Far better to keep it in the basement, all focused on choo-choos and what-not, fascinated with the HO scale and model RR mags, rather than stalking the local Toys-R-Us.

Still, though, you have a point.

XWL said...

It's a similar thought as to this South Park episode.

In it, the Earth is the rest of the Univere's favorite reality show, which is why they purposefully sow discord (for the ratings).

There isn't a major philosophical argument that the South Park fellas haven't touched, it seems.

Revenant said...

My gut instinct is that around 20% of adult males who spend weekends with their model railways are sublimating perverts.

You can delete the "who spend weekends with their model railways" bit and still be pretty much right on the money.

Revenant said...

Oh, and speaking of horny guys and whole-world simulations, the movie "The Thirteenth Floor" deals with the exact situation being discussed here. A perfect replica of 1940s Los Angeles is created by some software engineer, with users able to jump into a "person" in the virtual world and experience it from their perspective. The first thing the lead developer does is, of course, to take the opportunity to score with some 1940s virtu-hotties.

Which is exactly what would happen in real life. Like the joke goes, the worst job on the Enterprise has got to be mopping up the Holodeck.

Masked Menace© said...

Douglas Adams?

Hell, "Free Your Mind", dude. And beware the Agents.

Andrew said...

The "mind in the vat" stumper has been around a long time, in different forms, always fun. It invites you to posit some design, and generally that you're the main attraction.

We're all too prone to wishful thinking. If we did not have souls, we would have to invent them. Whether there's a design doesn't really matter. What matters doesn't even matter, when you get right down to it, because we're stuck being us whether we're part of what matters or not.

We just want to know how to live.

I'm a weed. I'm a dandelion on a bit of dust drifting amidst the stars. I enjoy the sunshine and the dew and the bees. I don't much care for lawnmowers. I support the eternal order of the dandelion. Overall I'm happy.

***

Before there were eyeballs, did the animals then, with whatever brains they could muster, sense dimly a world of light and color?

We're so proud of our sight, of our insights.

What do we sense dimly?

Revenant said...

The "mind in the vat" stumper has been around a long time

Yeah, but it is only recently that we figured out we can actually build the "vats". :)

igbalonigbanlo said...

Andrew....I sense...a disturbance...

igbalonigbanlo said...

the mind in the vat doesn't always make you the center of attraction, you could be many of such neurally networked together, a beowulf cluster of sorts.

Hey You! Yes You! Stop messing up my reality!!

Gedaliya said...

This isn't a new notion. Each generation, it would seem, has to discover it for itself. Listen to what Hobbes said in 1651:

Whatsoever accidents or qualities our senses make us think there be in the world, they be not there, but are seeming and apparitions only: the things that really are in the world without us are those motions by which these seemings are caused.

mtrobertsattorney said...

Bishop George Berkeley came up with virtually the same idea almost 300 years ago.

hdhouse said...

There was a terrific short story in Science Fiction Anthology published in the middle 50's called (sp?) Fesseden's Worlds. The galaxy or those visible existed in the basement of a hobbyist who would, now and then, bop a meteor out of orbit and watch the frantic preparations on the planets through a microscope.

I think this was written when univac was the bigcheese computer and a 286 was science fiction...

I guess we have all been thinking these thoughts and dreaming the God the Geek dream for a long time.

Pogo said...

The movie Truman seems to have escaped mention.

Cue the sun.

Apostolic Anchoress / Rowena Hullfire said...

I like the answer to the Problem of Evil:

Peace is boring.

That resonates with my understanding of literature and creative writing. Good stories require conflict.

So did God give us free will so He wouldn't get bored? It's all for the sake of a Good Story?

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, why would he want to be worshipped? So boring.

Ann Althouse said...

And he already knows how great he is. Why do we impute such insecurity to him? It makes so much more sense to infer that he wants entertainment.

Revenant said...

It makes so much more sense to infer that he wants entertainment.

Being worshiped might be the point of the game, though. In "SimCity" one of the objects of the game is to maintain a good approval rating among the population of the city. In "Black and White", worship gives the God (i.e., the player) various benefits. Etc, etc.

hdhouse said...

Does this Geek-God wear a pocket protector?