"Big Ideas" = Meaningless Cyber-babble?


It used to be that when people contemplated "big ideas," they asked things like "What is justice?" or "How should people live together in a political community?" But today, apparently "big ideas" means contemplating complete nonsense, like "Are we living in a simulation?"

A simulation is an abstraction. Of course, there is something really going on: it is electricity moving around some circuits. But think about the proposal from that perspective: maybe we are really just living inside some electricity moving around circuits. How could someone "live inside" an electric current?

The rest of the simulation is nothing more than our own interpretation of what that electric current represents. There is no thunderstorm in a weather simulation; we choose to interpret the current's movements as representing a thunderstorm. If we wish, we could instead choose to interpret it as a piece of music, or directions for firing pieces of artillery, or for making stock trades. If someone were "living in a simulation" of a thunderstorm, and the creators suddenly decided to interpret it as a piece of music instead, would the clouds above the "simulated person" suddenly turn into musical notes?

The whole idea is a complete piece of intellectual rubbish, which simply can't be thought through coherently. No, we are not "living in a simulation" because a simulation is an abstraction, and nothing whatsoever lives in an abstraction. The question is like asking if we are "living in a trigonometric function" or "living in an Edgeworth Box model."

17 comments:

  1. You introduce a thought experiment of someone living in a simulation of a thunderstorm. You later say 'a simulation is an abstraction, and nothing whatsoever lives in an abstraction'. But if someone really did live in a simulation of a thunderstorm then by your definition, as they were really living in it, it would not be abstraction would it ?

    And if that person wanted to answer the question 'Am I living in a simulation?' they might be able to answer it as follows:

    - Take a reasonable definition of "a simulation" (for example: 'Something which models, replicates,or duplicates the behavior, appearance or properties of a system or environment' )

    - See if the world they live in fits this definition

    If they could somehow get accurate information about the history and build-process of the simulation they live in , this question could in theory be answered. And this answer would not totally be affected by the fact that the simulation was no longer being thought of as what it was originally designed for.

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    1. "You later say 'a simulation is an abstraction, and nothing whatsoever lives in an abstraction'. But if someone really did live in a simulation of a thunderstorm ..."

      If someone really did create a square circle, then it can't be impossible to create a square circle!

      "And if that person wanted to answer the question 'Am I living in a simulation?'"

      They should stop being so ridiculous and get on with life. No one is living in a simulation, just like no one is living on the real number line. There is no "there" to live in!

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    2. If someone built a near-exact simulation of the room I am currently in and put me in it while I was sleeping and said "work out whether you're in a simulation or we'll kill you", the question would have a real urgency.

      I suppose I could say "there's no such thing as simulation that just an abstraction, and BTW, I actually think of the second room as a work of art not a simulation - but that might lead to me losing the chance to get on with life.

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    3. What the heck do you mean, "Put you in it?"

      If you mean like the matrix, fine, we could be operating in a simulation while our real bodies are in a bedroom, in a capsule, etc. There would still be a real you, not in the simulation, but you believe you are in it. I have played video games, you know!

      But THAT'S not what these people are talking about when they ask "Are we living in a simulation?" They mean there is no real you anywhere else: you just ARE the simulated thing. "We" are just creations of some alien super-intelligence with a really great computer.

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    4. So, in other words, you might be living in your real bedroom while being tricked into thinking you are living in what is really just a simulation of your bedroom. But you can't actually live in it; for instance, there is no real oxygen in the simulation, no real water, etc.

      Neo *thought* he was living in the Matrix, but really he was living in a pod: that's why they had to feed the pod.

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  2. What difference would it make if it was the "real" me or a virtualized version of me that was in the room? In both cases in theory it would be possible to establish the true basis of my existence.

    While I agree it is probaly not the sort of inquiry we should spend too much time on - the question "Are we living in a simulation?" is not obviously one that is unscientific. Of course it also raises some interesting philosophical questions.



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    1. Huh? In the first case you would be "living in a simulation," while in the second one you would be living in a pod, say, like Neo, and just think you were in the simulation!

      Rob, I'm getting the feeling that you have no idea what the people who claim things like "the universe is a simulation" are actually talking about.

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    2. In other words, your question asks, "What difference would it make if I were actually living in a simulation or not make for answering the question, 'Is it actually possible to live in a simulation?'"

      Well, all the difference in the world?

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    3. By the way, rob, Silas understands the real issue being discussed when people ask this question: see below.

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    4. well, I was trying to say something pretty much the same as Silas. I guess he's better at articulating it than me.

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    5. Probably should give up at this point but one last try.

      You claim that the question "Are we living in a simulation?" is nonsense.

      Lets take Silas's phrasing 'the idea is that (what we currently know as the) universe is "just" running on some computer within a higher-level reality, that e.g. other intelligent beings designed and can monitor, as opposed to us living on the "root level" reality.'.

      My point in that whether I am at the "root level" (the "real" me) or at the higher level ("virtualized" me) - in theory at least the question "Are we living in a simulation?" would be answerable and so not be nonsense.

      I agree I probably confused things by talking about a simulated room where the "real" me was taken to - but that was just a (failed) attempt to frame the issue in a more straightforward way.


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    6. 'In other words, your question asks, "What difference would it make if I were actually living in a simulation or not make for answering the question, 'Is it actually possible to live in a simulation?'"

      No it doesn't. My questions asks "What difference would it make if I were actually living in a simulation or not make for deciding if the question, 'Is it actually possible to live in a simulation?' is valid or not"

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  3. Wait, I don't follow -- the idea is that (what we currently know as the) universe is "just" running on some computer within a higher-level reality, that e.g. other intelligent beings designed and can monitor, as opposed to us living on the "root level" reality.

    I can understand this as being an *unlikely* idea, but surely this goes beyond the philosophical issue about whether any subset of reality is merely *interpretable* as a simulation/computer/brain/whatever.

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    1. "the idea is that (what we currently know as the) universe is "just" running on some computer within a higher-level reality, that e.g. other intelligent beings designed and can monitor, as opposed to us living on the "root level" reality."

      Which is absurd: it is like saying we live in the set of rational numbers, or we live in the idea of justice. These are not places that things can live!

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    2. Why can't things live in computer simulations? Gliders seem to work fine.

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    3. Yes, gliders are a SIMULATION of one tiny aspect of what living things do. And they work fine. I actually BUILD much more complex simulations all the time. But, not being hypnotized, I don't actually think my segregation model contains real people who really don't like their neighborhood.

      I really don't what else to say, Silas. It's as though I met someone who tells me, "Um, I had a topological manifold for lunch today!"

      I tell him that's not the kind of thing one can eat, and he replies, "Ha! I once saw a manifold swallow another manifold in a simulation."

      If the person really can't see why these things aren't possible, then I just say, "That's great! Have a nice day!"

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  4. I love this post so much Gene.

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