Whoa, Dude, We’re Not Inside a Computer Right Now
We recently published an interview with NASA scientist Rich Terrile about how incredibly likely it is that we’re all Sims. You all loved it for three reasons: 1) It’s simple; 2) You smoke waaay too much weed; 3) You don’t want to die. But, in reality, comprehending life is a bit trickier than relying on the notion we’re all living in a reality coded by a programmer from the future. Plus, the simulation theory is basically nothing but a rehashed version of medieval philosophy that taught how everything exists only in the mind of God.
Because I don’t want to make everything too easy for you, I thought I’d try to debunk Terrile’s theory by having a chat with Massimo Pigliucci, author of Answers for Aristotle and professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.
To quote Massimo: we really don’t know shit. So stop dreaming about connecting your brain to your Playstation and get serious. Life is harder than pressing restart.
VICE: Hi Massimo. What do you think of theories like Terrile’s?
Massimo Pigliucci: I’m not directly familiar with Terrile’s work, in particular, but that’s an old idea, which has been proposed by philosophers in many guises. In general philosophy, it’s known as “idealism,” meaning the concept of what we call reality is the manifestation of a mind, i.e., it’s an idea. George Berkeley—the namesake for the Californian university—was a proponent of idealism. Although he thought that the mind in question was that of God, not of a computer.
I actually think the argument is interesting, philosophically speaking, but it has two problems: it is entirely empirically untestable—i.e., it’s not science—and is based on what I think is a fundamental flaw. The philosopher Nick Bostrom argued something along the lines of what Terrile is proposing quite recently.
What was that?
Well, the argument is that, if it’s possible to simulate minds inside a computer, if there’s an existing civilization capable of doing so and if at least some of these civilizations are curious enough to actually do so, then they’re likely to do it many times over. Just like we don’t only make one copy of The Sims, we make millions. It follows that there are likely many simulated universes and only one or comparatively few physical ones.
Given that, the odds that we’re inside a simulated universe are much greater than those dictating that we’re in a physical one, and Bostrom concludes that it’s likely we are inside someone else’s simulation. The argument is actually very clever.
So what do you find problematic about it?
Bostrom—and, I assume, Terrile—accepts a strong version of the so-called computational theory of mind, i.e. the idea that the mind is like computer software and can be “run” on many different substrates, including computer chips. While some version of the computational theory is widely accepted by neuroscientists and philosophers, I think this is far from established and I agree with the minority view voiced most famously by John Searle.
According to Searle, the mind simply isn’t like a computer, because “minding” is a particular biological activity—like, say, breathing—that is likely tied to specific biological substrates and the result of a specific process of biological evolution. This isn’t to say that there is anything mystical about consciousness, of course. Nor that we couldn’t reproduce the phenomenon artificially. But it doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that we could “simulate” it inside a computer, or “upload” it in a computer, so that we become immortal, as supporters of Singularitarianism claim.