Friday, August 17, 2007

A Mathematical Certainty?

Why is there air? ... Any phys ed major knows why there's air. There's air to blow up volleyballs, to blow up basketballs. You guys call ME dumb ... ~ William H. Cosby Jr., Ed. D.

Sometimes I have trouble deciding where to start on a piece, and this is one of those times. I guess the thing to do is to quote from John Tierney's New York Times article:

"In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. [Nick] Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation."

Take special note of the words "mathematical certainty". Later in the same article:

"Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. '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.'"My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even."

Dr. Nick Bostrum is a philosopher at Oxford University. He has written a paper speculating that there's some chance (his "gut feeling" of 20%) that our lives could, in fact, be a supercomputer simulation being played by some highly evolved "posthuman." Mr. Tierney is either the most brilliant satirist I've ever read or someone with a tenuous grip on reality. Taking a 20% "gut feeling" and turning it into "mathematical certainty" would suggest the latter.

I have nothing against philosophy; in fact, I'm a big fan of Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Sartre (Plato can go suck eggs). When I attended Case Tech (no, Aristotle was not a Scholar-in-Residence), the school made us take a course in the humanities each semester in an attempt to keep us from turning into total geek vegetables. I took several philosophy courses over 4 1/2 years (don't ask), so, while I'm no licensed philosopher, I am familiar with the concepts.

Dr. Bostrum's argument sounds suspiciously like a combination of several questions that are put to freshman philosophy students.

1. Are there minds other than my own? Alternatively, is this reality actually someone else's dream? Discussing the nature of reality is an important philosophical concept, leading to questions on morality, the meaning of existence, and how we relate to others. However, the questions as phrased above are lightweight and lead to some pretty silly arguments. I always felt, for example, that if we were in someone else's dream, we'd keep showing up for important occasions (like final exams) totally unprepared and naked.

2. Does God exist? Back in the sixties, this was generally a civil but useless discussion; today, I'm sure that some philosophy classrooms have descended into warfare. The problem here is that there is no "proof" either way, because all arguments for God are based on faith (the Bible, miracles, and so on) or the "cosmic watchmaker" principle of "the world (universe) is too complicated to have come about by accident, so there must be a Creator." Attempting to disprove the existence of God is almost meaningless as well, since negative proofs are notoriously difficult to make into solid arguments. Note that considering the existence of God is not the same as contemplating the nature of God, which is a much more important field of discussion.

In one fell swoop, Dr. Bostrum has lumped these rather specious questions together, postulating a "designer" who is running ancestral simulations and presumably still living in his mother's basement. Mr. Tierney runs with this, contemplating nested simulations, the first of which is created by the "Prime Designer" or, as most of us call him, God.

Frankly, this stuff is pretty rank sophistry, probably more on Mr. Tierney's part than on Dr. Bostrum's. Aside from a silly restating of freshman-level philosophy questions, the whole discussion presupposes behavior in the future will be the same as behavior now. A computer powerful enough to create an entire universe, complete with life-forms, buried fossils, climate effects, black holes, and on and on won't be here in fifty years, despite Mr. Tierney's vague citation of "some computer experts". Impressive 3-D graphics do not the creation of an entire simulated universe make. So we are looking in some dim and distance future (despite Mr. Tierney's statement that the time doesn't matter) and assuming that entities that are most likely very different from us are still into video games.

Even Dr. Bostrum hedges his bets, saying, "T
his kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly." Or perhaps they'll be fond of going outside and playing baseball. Either way, it's no sure thing that they'll amuse themselves creating simulations of their ancestors.

There are two things that are especially disturbing about this entire discussion. First, if this is the state of philosophical thought today, we're in trouble. Philosophers have become as vapid as reality TV. Second, Mr. Tierney's article appears in the Science section of the paper. That's frightening because the average web-dolt who stumbles across this is going to take it as science instead of sophistry. It'll turn up on Digg and Slashdot (it's already been on Fark), it'll be Wiki-ed, it may even end up on legitimate science sites (Scientific American bloggers dote on this sort of thing).

Before you know it, politicians will be saying that a 20% chance of something is "a mathematical certainty" because if it's in the New York Times, well, then it's a fact.

May the Prime Designer protect us from sophists and those who think they make sense.

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