Matrix is a series of podcasts from ForkLog in which we understand how the digital environment is being transformed with the advent of VR and augmented reality technologies, and we talk about metaverses with pioneers: businessmen, researchers and philosophers. The guest of the new issue is philosopher Alexandra Tanyushina, with whom we discuss how simulation hypotheses appeared and why they are of interest to academic scientists.
1. We live in a simulation (almost certainly). In the early 2000s, shortly before the first full-fledged virtual reality systems appeared, and a few years after the release of the film The Matrix, a kind of hype arose among philosophers: let’s estimate the mathematical probability that we live in a simulation .
In 2001, Swedish futurist Nick Bostrom wrote an iconic article assessing the likelihood that we are loaded into a kind of matrix. She, according to his calculations, tends to 100%. Bostrom uses a coherent three-point argument: if one is wrong, then move on to the next.
The first thesis says: the computing power that will allow us to create full-fledged computer simulations will never be realized – another pandemic will cover humanity, there will be a Third, Fourth, Fifth World War and we will not reach the required level of development. Bostrom rejects this thesis, believing that sooner or later sufficient capacities will appear.
The second thesis: a computer simulation will never be run – for ethical reasons or some other, it doesn’t matter. Bostrom dismisses this argument too, pointing out that we are already in full swing modeling very different processes and are unlikely to stop.
The last thesis remains: if a simulation is possible and humanity is ready to run it, then not one, but many such simulations will be launched. This means that, statistically, we are more likely to be in a simulation than in reality.
2. People have been thinking about something like this for more than a thousand years. We don’t need digital technology to think about simulation. The simulation hypothesis is based on the fundamental thesis – our surrounding reality is unreal, illusory, fictitious. In ancient Hinduism and in some Buddhist texts, you can find such a thing as maya – a universal illusion, the game of the gods. The goal of any person is to get out of this state and begin to live a real, divine, sacred life.
We find the same thing in Antiquity. The Platonic theory says that all that is available to man is the shadows on the wall of the cave, the shadows of true ideas that are somewhere outside. This is also a simulation hypothesis. The essence is the same: somewhere there is an otherworldly reality, more fundamental than ours.
Many modern philosophers will speak about the same. Immanuel Kant argued that “things in themselves” are fundamentally unknowable by us, and all that is available to us is the world of phenomena, phenomena, our subjective experience. In the future, this idea was picked up by science fiction writers.
3. The simulation has a creator, but it’s better not to think about it. The idea of an evil being that creates a matrix comes from the New Age. Its forerunner is René Descartes, the founder of rationalist philosophy. He suggested that the outside world might be bewitched by some kind of demon who wants to mislead us. This is where so-called Cartesian skepticism arises: the attitude that we cannot reliably know any facts about the world around us. Philosophers struggle with this postulate up to the present time.
Bostrom’s scenario, as we have already understood, is relatively optimistic: we, that is, future people, launched the simulation for some pragmatic purposes of our own. Apparently, they need to study something, for example, how historical events developed in 2023. From here, by the way, the assumption follows: perhaps, while living in this simulation, we need to perform certain actions in order to please our conditional creators, otherwise they will turn off our simulation. And for this you need to penetrate into their motives.
But there are even scarier versions: maybe some child or, even worse, a teenager launched our simulation – just for fun. Some philosophers say that all this is generally for the purpose of pornographic observation. This option cannot be denied, but in this case the question of the meaning of the simulation seems to be lost. It has no meaning, everything happens for fun.
4. It is impossible to conceptually prove that we are not in a simulation. But what does this proof give us anyway? If you think about this question, then the first reaction will be shock, a momentary desire to get out of the simulation. To return our “lost paradise”, because our current experience of life (as it turns out, in the matrix) is not quite complete. But the problem is that we do not really understand what it is – a full-fledged reality. Maybe it’s not so good, and we ourselves decided to go into the simulation, because that life is not very good. The discourse that simulation is definitely bad and reality is definitely good is wrong. That is, all the negative connotations about fake simulation can be turned upside down.
Let’s say it was announced on TV that we are living in a simulation. Panic begins. Of course, we want to go “outside” or at least talk with the creators. Look them in the eye, ask: why? Demand to turn off the matrix. A practical question immediately arises: how are we going to do this? Here I wake up and see my loved ones. Now I know that there are actually not people around, but artificial intelligences. Should I, in the name of maintaining my mental health, continue to communicate with them the way I have done so far?
There is no universal answer to all these questions. Another thing is that, perhaps, we do not need to do anything, but just move on. This will be better for everyone – for the simulation, for those outside the matrix, and for those inside.
5. With the proof of consciousness, too, everything is not easy. There is a very special branch in simulation theory that refers to the famous problem of other minds. By what criteria can we assess that our interlocutor is not just a robot, artificial intelligence or a zombie? There is no way we can prove the existence of consciousness in parents, friends, children, enemies, etc. And this problem remains when we are transferred to a simulation.
With the help of exclusively behavioral and external manifestations of this or that agent, we can assess with a very small degree of probability whether he is a carrier of consciousness. Plus, the possibility is added that we have before us not just a separate artificial intelligence or a separate real consciousness, but a combination of them – an augmented consciousness. The current progress in the field of neural interfaces shows how confusing things can be.
6. Speaking of which, we can increase the likelihood that we are living in a simulation (and decrease it too). In the early 2000s, when Bostrom, and after him the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, began to argue that we were already living in a simulation, this gave rise to reflections on how we can influence the situation. The following line of argument emerged.
If we start now to develop codes of ethics and other ways to limit the construction of highly functional computer simulations, then we will reduce the likelihood that in the future someone will run the matrix in which we already live. Conversely, if we are now actively working on models and simulations, we will increase the likelihood that we are already living in one of them.
Be that as it may, it is almost impossible to stop technological development on the basis of purely ethical views.
7. If there is a simulation around, then everything in the world is a figure. It cannot be said that analytic philosophy is more interested in simulations than continental philosophy. These are two different approaches to the same problem. According to legend, the sisters, and at that time the Wachowski brothers, were inspired by The Matrix by reading Jean Baudrillard. Important motives can be seen in the concepts of virtuality in Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and so on. Another question is that continental authors talk about the existential, cultural, social, political aspects of the simulation hypothesis. But analysts are interested in the good old ontology: what follows from the simulation theory at the most basic level?
This theory is based on a simple thesis: our surrounding reality is information. Number. A collection of zeros and ones. Therefore, analysts are very fond of referring to various mathematical and other empirical sciences. In physics, for example, such a direction as digital physics remained popular for a long time: the “it from bit” hypothesis, the Wheeler hypothesis, the idea that the entire Universe is a giant computer, and so on.
8. Simulation theory must be approached practically. “What if mom is a robot”, “what to do with the creators …” – this, of course, is good and interesting, especially if you are a philosopher, but what benefit can ordinary people get from simulation theory? It makes sense to look at all of the above as a global thought experiment. It allows you to find bugs in our thinking, to understand what exactly we mean by reality and what by virtuality, to understand how “digital” metaphors work in reasoning and, ultimately. This experience is useful for building virtual and augmented realities, metaverses, and so on. Based on this, one can think about applied issues: codes for modeling various objects, problems of post-digital aesthetics, etc.
The same David Chalmers in 2022 released a very curious book “Reality Plus. Philosophical problems and virtual worlds. It is written in accessible scientific language. In it, the author argues that events in VR are just as important as events in “real reality”. This is a serious conceptual step, because it gives us reason to believe that our hybrid life – half in physical reality, half in digital – has a value and no less than the “analog” life. What exactly this hybrid will turn out to be, we do not yet know, but the future will be interesting. I absolutely agree with this conclusion of Chalmers.
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