Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reality, perception, Hume, the red pill - and John Tierney

There's no way I have time to do this post justice, but I'll put something up anyway. Maybe I'll fill it in later.

What do these things have in common?

As a hint, here's a little bit more on the In Our Time programme on Common Sense Philosophy

  • David Hume realized he couldn't "get out of his head". That is, he couldn't show that his "perceptions" were attached to an external truth, he had to simply assume there was an "out there". Thomas Reid responded with an 18th century version of "shut up and calculate", asserting that philosophy had to begin with the assumption of a physical reality and this could not be questioned. Reid was a deist, like Descartes he began with the assumption of a benign Principle Designer who wouldn't resort to trickery. Of course if one attributes more complex attributes to the PD then all bets are off ...

So, do we live in a simulation in a "real" world, or do we live in a simulation in a simulation?

Update 8/15/07: It must be something in the air. I just saw this: Tierney (NYT) interviews Nick Bostrum.
... The math and the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations...
Oh dear, it's getting harder to keep this blog on the fringes. I'll have to try harder. So, if we are (or I am) in a simulation run by ripples of space time in the infinite dying years of the endless universe, is this heaven, hell or are we (I) simply glitches in the software? Ok, now I'm back on the fringe ...

Or maybe not. Tierney, who was a miserable political columnist, is more imaginative than I could have imagined:

... My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history — or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.

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...

Not bad really, though he's jumping to conclusions by assuming that whatever runs our purported simulation need have any similarity to us. This next bit I know Tierney got from a rather good science fiction story (I'll look it the story reference):
... There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it)...
...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...
Darn, he took that one from me. I have to check if I ever seeded the meme that quantum computers would make us all dumber, since they'd suck the cycles that drive our simulations (hmm, is that testable? Probably not, the clock speed would simply drop.)

Next thing you know, Tierney will be onto the Fermi Paradox connection -- maybe after he recovers from the beating that he's about to receive from the general public.

I guess I can't stay on the fringe forever.

Update 8/15/07b: I remembered Reid's name and revised the post accordingly.

Update 1/18/08: See this later post on the same topic.

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