Still Insane for Believing the Simulation Hypothesis
5 February 2019 (updated 25 October 2020)
A decade ago, Blake Ostler called me insane for believing in the Simulation Hypothesis. Today, a friend brought to my attention that Blake recently doubled-down on that characterization, in an episode of an Exploring Mormon Thought podcast, asserting that people like me “have serious problems in assessing reality.” My response? Guilty as charged. I do have serious problems in assessing reality. Reality is, in so many ways, a mystery – a sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible, and sometimes tedious mystery. That’s the brief version. But of course I have more to say.
Blake is a Mormon philosopher who has written extensively about Mormon theology. He seems to have significant influence among a segment of scholarly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From what little interaction I’ve had with him, it seems to me that he has a tendency to speak with excessive confidence about matters in which he’s not well educated. Maybe that over-confidence reflects a well-earned confidence in other areas. Others would be better judges of that. In any case, his familiarity with Transhumanism is poor. Maybe this post will help a little.
In the podcast, Blake discusses epistemology. I haven’t listened to the whole interview. My friend told me that the relevant part begins at the seven minute mark. So, trusting him, I began listening there. And, there, Blake says:
“It’s the matrix or brain in the vat problem. So you have these experiences, that your experience would be identical in all respects, even if you were just a brain in a vat, having the sense experiences fed into it, or if you’re in the Matrix where your body and all the sense experience is just given to you through a computer simulation.”
Blake’s characterization of the Simulation Hypothesis is a straw man fabricated from implicit appeals to negative emotions. The “brain in a vat” is a popular characterization that tends either to marginalize the Simulation Hypothesis as merely silly, or even to generate a sense of disgust. The “Matrix” characterization tends to associate the Simulation Hypothesis with a sense of oppression. Both characterizations anchor Blake’s listeners, from the beginning, to negative emotions. And both are straw men, operating on the assumption that experience in a computed world must be ontologically inferior to experience in a non-computed world. As a philosopher, Blake should know better than to begin a criticism with a straw man. And I trust he does. So, as mentioned previously, I think this reflects a lack of familiarity with the Simulation Hypothesis.
There are far better characterizations of the Simulation Hypothesis. To begin with, check out Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” from Philosophical Quarterly. I admire Nick’s work. But, for our purposes here, it too has a shortcoming, revealed even in the title of his paper. “Simulation” tends to connote an inferior ontological status: most of us understand a simulation to be less real than that which it simulates. But, despite its name, there’s nothing in the Simulation Hypothesis that requires such a position. Nothing requires us to assume that our world must be less real than a world after which our world may be modeled. For example, you probably consider me to be just as real as my parents, although I’m modeled after them. So, if you want to avoid a straw man criticism of the Simulation Hypothesis, you will need to discard the unnecessary assumption that it’s proposing a world of inferior ontological status.
To help with that, I developed the Creation Hypothesis as part of the Creation Argument in the New God Argument. As it turns out, the Simulation Argument does not depend on any particular creative mechanism. Historically, most articulations of the argument, such as Nick’s paper, have referenced computation as the creative mechanism. But any other creative mechanism that we might deem feasible for emulating our evolutionary history, such as terraforming or cosmoforming, would work within the structure of the argument just as well. So the Creation Hypothesis generalizes across all feasible creative mechanisms, computation and otherwise. It doesn’t change the logic of the argument, but it may, for people like Blake, change the emotions that they attach with the logic. I assume that Blake, like most Mormons, trusts that we live in a created world, whether or not he thinks computation would be a feasible mechanism for that creation.
After Blake’s straw man introduction to the Simulation Argument, the interviewer comments, “Okay, but as you pointed out elsewhere, no one probably really believes they’re in the Matrix. And if they do, they’re generally considered a little unstable psychologically.”
A little psychologically unstable, you say? What does that bring to mind? Blake responds, “Well, I since learned there actually is a Mormon by the name of Lincoln Cannon who is allied with the Transhumanist Mormons, who actually does believe in such a thing. It’s called the Simulation Theory.”
There really are psychologically unstable people. See. Look at Lincoln Cannon! Ha. Well, as a teenager exploring my own epistemological limits, I actually confronted that possibility seriously decades ago. I was evaluating and re-evaluating what I knew, what I thought I knew, and how I thought I knew it. And it led me to the realization that I can’t disprove to myself, let alone to others, that I’m insane. So I’ll let you judge Blake’s assessment for yourself. But beware. If you judge me insane, and if you prove capable of applying the reasons for your judgment consistently – beyond me to others and, most dangerously, to yourself – you may find yourself in a dark and cold place that’s hard to escape. That was my experience, at least. It was hard, emotionally and socially, to lose the epistemic confidence of my childhood.
The interviewer responds, “Oh. I’ve heard of that. Yeah.”
And Blake continues, “Yeah. And what he believes is that all of life is merely a simulation, and we’re having these experiences fed to us.”
Blake is wrong. I don’t believe that life is merely a simulation. I believe that our world is a computation. But there’s not much “merely” involved. There’s not much “mere” about my experience of the world, let alone the life I observe in it. To the contrary, it is sometimes sublime. It must be. It is, by definition, the sum total of my experience. And that’s the only source I have for judging whether something is sublime or mundane. Surely parts of the experience are mundane, by the same reasoning. But it cannot be merely mundane on the whole. It cannot be merely anything. It is everything, both mundane and sublime. Even my imagination is constrained to some combination of projections and negations of my experience: some combination of projections and negations of the world. So, no, I don’t believe that life is merely a simulation.
Are we having experiences fed to us? Well, yes, I trust that’s true to some extent. Otherwise, we’d have to embrace solipsism. And despite Blake’s rhetoric, I doubt he would disagree with the assumption that the world is feeding experiences to us. That’s implicit to the assumption that there’s a world beyond my own mind. And, yes, external reality is an assumption. Like insanity, it’s not something that we can refute logically. The best we can do, it seems, is something along the lines of induction, which science formalizes and engineering applies. We can test our experience in multiple ways, looking for patterns, and gaining trust that those patterns will hold out through time and space. We never prove that in any final way. But our confidence tends to increase.
Blake explains, “The objection works both ways. How could you ever substantiate such a claim (laughter), because there’s no possible empirical evidence that could possibly work or any kind of sense experience that could possibly work to disprove it. In my view, it’s a meaningless hypothesis because there’s no way you could come up with that either proves or disproves it. You’re just asserting it.”
How could you substantiate the claim that we’re living in a computed world? As it turns out, that may be easier than substantiating the claim that we’re NOT living in a computed world. So, contrary to Blake, the objection may not work quite the same both ways, depending on how we define “computed.”
If we define “computed” in various narrow senses, we can formulate falsifiable hypotheses about physical observations within the world that must be true if we’re living in that kind of computed world. Some scientists are actually trying to do that. And some have already persuasively demonstrated that our world cannot be a computation according to some narrow definitions of “computed.” Other narrow definitions of “computed” remain open questions, and that’s likely to be the case for a long time.
If we define “computed” broadly, we cannot directly formulate falsifiable hypotheses. So we cannot directly falsify the general idea. This is where the imbalance of objection may present itself. If we end up finding just one definition of “computed” for which we can formulate falsifiable hypotheses that repeatedly resist falsification, we would relatively quickly increase confidence in the general idea. Whereas, much more work across much more time is likely to be required in the opposite direction.
Blake continues, “But I think that if you actually believe that you’re just a brain in a vat, or your mind’s in the Matrix while your body lies somewhere generating heat, that you’ve got serious problems in assessing reality.”
As mentioned previously, although I reject Blake’s straw man characterizations, I plead guilty to his charge, in the general sense, that I have serious problems assessing reality. It really is hard – seriously hard. So hard, in fact, that I think Blake should plead guilty too. He may be even more guilty than I am. After all, he’s claiming that there’s no way to disprove the Simulation Hypothesis, while he charges me with insanity for believing it. Consider that. He says I’m crazy for believing something that he thinks cannot be disproved. That actually sounds crazy to me. But, again, you be the judge.
Blake then tries to explain, saying, “That’s my response because nobody really believes that, because we assess our knowledge, at least the knowledge delivered to us through our senses. You know the difference between conscious experience and like a dream state or unconscious experience. And that is: we use all of our background information to assess and we can distinguish between these kind of states and do it rather easily by the way. And so we’re totally aware of the, I’m going to call it the [something], of conscious experience opposed to simulated experience and our own experience.”
I’m not sure that I fully understand his intent, but it seems like he’s saying that we just intuitively know, based on accumulated experience, that we’re not living in a computed world. If so, there are problems with such a position. My memories may be giving me a false sense of accumulated experience. Perhaps I’ve mis-remembered some experiences and wholly fabricated others (there’s good scientific evidence that these both happen frequently). At the extreme, perhaps an evil demon conjured pervasively false memories into my brain just now. So I reach out to others, who I assume are not just figments of my imagination, seeking confirmation of my experiences. And thereby I may increase my confidence, at least for a time, in whatever may be the common sense of the day. But history, if it can be trusted, shows us that common sense changes over time and uncommon sense sometimes becomes common sense. The Earth no longer appears quite so flat, and the stars no longer appear quite so fixed. Don’t misunderstand me. I value our shared sense of accumulated experience. That’s science, and I’m a big fan. But it’s not static or final. It’s changing. And I don’t suppose it will ever stop changing.
Blake asserts, “Dreams are simulated. The experience that we have is not.”
The interviewer responds, “Well, when you’re in a dream, you can’t really. You don’t really know you’re in a dream, generally.”
And Blake responds, “Well, but when you wake up, you’re aware that you were in a dream.”
The interviewer continues, “What if you die, and then you happen to wake up then? You’re, like, ‘Oh, it was all a dream.’”
Exactly. That’s exactly right. When we wake up, literally or metaphorically, we tend to change our ontological assessments. Our brains are constantly constructing models of the world. They add in biases, which is probably generally a good thing. And they subtract staggering amounts of information that never enters our conscious experience. And we’re left with something around which to wrap our attention. Gradually or suddenly, the inputs change. Perhaps our eyes open. Our brains begin to give us a new model, with some echoes of the old, and we compare them. We might judge one to be ontologically superior to the other. But, here, I think is the truth: both are real. The dreaming experience is real. The waking experience is real. Both are real aspects of the real world of our real experience. And that is just as true whether or not computation proves to be a good explanation for the nature of the world in which we’re now living, whether we’re awake or dreaming.
“But there’s no way to talk sensibly about it because it’s an empty meaningless hypothesis,” says Blake.
And the interviewer confirms, “It just isn’t helpful, really, in any way.”
They’re both wrong. The Simulation Hypothesis is meaningful and helpful to me and many other persons. How so? Well, it’s so in the same way that anything is meaningful and helpful: in its practical value from day to day. What practical difference does it make, one way or another, to believe, disbelieve, or remain ambivalent? Depending on the person, answers will differ.
For me, the Simulation Hypothesis changed the way I live from day to day. I had lost my faith in God. The Simulation Hypothesis led me to a pattern of thought that eventually restored my faith in God. And that restoration has substantially influenced important decisions in my life since that time. As just one example that I think Blake might appreciate, without the influence of the Simulation Hypothesis, I may not have remained a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some would say that I make the world worse by remaining a member of the Church. At least members of the Church would generally say that I’m better for it. In either case, it seems like a rather large stretch to claim that it makes no practical difference.
So, is the Simulation Hypothesis empty, meaningless, and not helpful in any way? Not for me, and I’m not alone. There are many religious Transhumanists who, like me, have found it and the generalized Creation Argument to be faith affirming. And we’ve found it to be faith affirming in a particularly useful way. It doesn’t affirm the kind of faith that leads to escapism or nihilism. It doesn’t affirm faith in anything supernatural that would negate or marginalize the relative value of the world and bodies that we actually experience. Rather, it’s a faith that arises from an embrace of natural mechanisms and their extensions as potential means for explaining and enacting the wonders that religion has attributed to God for millennia. Not only does it inspire us with a sense of purpose, but it also provokes us to constructive action in this world. The God of the Creation Argument is a natural God who became God by natural means, suggesting how we might do the same.
So I can, with the perfect confidence that arises from extensive personal experience and broad familiarity with others’ accounts of similar experience, assert that Blake is wrong about the general value of the Simulation Hypothesis. If he cares about being right on this subject, he should spend more time talking to and learning from religious Transhumanists, and less time telling others that we’re insane.