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Dartmouth Physicist Slams Matrix Idea That Life Is an Aliens’ Sim

A number of prominent people have taken philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea that our universe is a computer sim seriously

Matrix fans, take heed: Dartmouth College physicist Marcelo Gleiser is not a fan of the idea that we are all living in a giant simulation created by intelligent aliens. He takes issue with it for ethical reasons as well as physics ones: “It is little more than a fancy excuse for escapist fantasizing.”

Well, some prominent people in our world are escapists! That would include science broadcaster Neil deGrasse Tyson, driverless car entrepreneur Elon Musk, and former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees.

Gleiser, author of The Island of Knowledge (2014), traces the idea that our universe is a computer simulation by advanced aliens to an influential 2003 paper by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute and author of Superintelligence: Paths, Strategies, Dangers (2014).

Here’s the paper’s hypothesis:

This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.

Nick Bostrom, “Are you living in a computer simulation?” Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243 255

There are some glitches with Bostrom’s whole approach, Gleiser notes,

One such glitch is that there is no reason to stop the simulation at one super-advanced posthuman (or alien) species. It could very well be that our simulators are being simulated by even more advanced simulators, and those by even more advanced ones, ad infinitum. Who is the First Simulator?

Marcelo Gleiser, “The simulation hypothesis is a dangerous illusion” at Big Think (July 6, 2022)

Assuming that the regression does not continue endlessly, only the First Simulator is real. But then, why do any simulators even bother?

For Bostrom’s argument to work, a key assumption is that advanced intelligences will have an interest in simulating their ancestors — in this case, us. Why would they, exactly? Would they expect to gain some new information about their reality by looking at their evolutionary past? It seems to me that being so advanced, they would have collected enough knowledge about their past to leave them with little interest in this kind of simulation. Looking forward will interest them much more. They may have virtual reality museums, where they could go and experience the lives and tribulations of their ancestors. But a full-fledged, resource-consuming simulation of an entire Universe? This sounds like a colossal waste of time and energy.

Marcelo Gleiser, “The simulation hypothesis is a dangerous illusion” at Big Think (July 6, 2022)

Of course, really advanced simulators may have a nearly infinite number of demo universes to play with…

At root, Gleiser just doesn’t think that the notion (sometimes called the planetarium hypothesis) that we are an advance aliens’ simulation is good for us:

The simulation argument messes with our self-esteem. It concludes that we have no free will, that we are just puppets fooled into thinking we are free to make choices. To believe this is to give up our sense of autonomy. After all, if it’s all a big game that we cannot control, why bother?

Marcelo Gleiser, “The simulation hypothesis is a dangerous illusion” at Big Think (July 6, 2022)

Philosopher David Chalmers, best known for the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and the philosopher’s zombie points out that we can’t prove that the simulation idea is false. But, as theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder says, we have no reason to believe it to be true, either. And if the hypothetical aliens were clever enough to simulate us, Matrix-style, they would probably be clever enough to keep us from finding out (except in the movies). So why not just watch the movie and otherwise forget the idea …


You may also wish to read:

Theoretical physicist shows why the sim universe is pseudoscience It’s a lot of fun in science fiction and some scitech celebs buy in. But Sabine Hossenfelder and others explain why it’s fiction. One problem is, computers can’t simulate human thought because it is often non-computational, which means it is something computers can’t do, by definition.

and

How can we be sure we are not just an ET’s simulation? A number of books and films are based on the idea. Should we believe it? We make a faith-based decision that logic and evidence together are reasonable guides to what is true. Logical possibility alone does not make an idea true.


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Dartmouth Physicist Slams Matrix Idea That Life Is an Aliens’ Sim