March Discussion: Is the universe a simulation?

[I]n dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, First Meditation)

Is the world something we know? Do we have contact with what we think of as reality? That was the subject of this month’s discussion. The occasion was the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate; the question there was: Is the universe a simulation? A new version of a very old question.

First, the new: The recent growth of computing, AI, and virtual reality, has come to where increasingly believable VR is available on phones and game consoles. This will only grow in the future, and the possibility of quantum computing means the growth could be explosive. Given it seems at least possible to create VR so realistic it could be taken for reality, what are the odds that, in all of reality, we are the first to discover this, that some other species hasn’t? And what, then, are the odds that our universe is the real, unsimulated one? In the debate Neil deGrasse Tyson, the moderator, puts the odds at 50/50.

Why think so? One argument is that if some species decided to, say, simulate their descendents, and those descendents eventually did so as well, on and on, most consciousnesses would be in simulations as a result; by sheer math we should assume we are, too. Second: as we better understand the universe, it seems fundamentally mathematical; mathematics is the language of computer simulations, so the nature of our universe is positive evidence that it is simulated.

While these disputes appear to be scientific, the questions are philosophical, and should be considered there first. To the first argument: if we assume creators beyond our universe (since ours is simulated), what can we possibly claim about their intentions? That’s assuming their minds operate like ours, and we know not the mind of God. To the second, it is actually backwards—if computers are things within our universe, and our universe is mathematical, it is not surprising that computers work that way—they must. And who’s to say whether the universe of the creators is, or isn’t, mathematical?

The difficulty with a question like this is that any true answer would require a God’s eye view, one beyond our universe. Anything else is speculation; when we question reality itself, evidence both for and against is within our universe’s rules, thus illegitimate. This parallels Immanual Kant’s distinction between the object in itself (noumenon) and the object in our experience (phenomena); while the object in experience follows laws we can trust, “we have no insight into the possibility of such noumena . . . . The concept of a noumenon is therefore merely a boundary concept, in order to limit the pretension of sensibility.” (Critique of Pure Reason B310-311)

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