Philosophical Fun for the Whole Family
The Simulation Game
The following document recently fell into my hands:
“Report to the Commissioner of Games: We recently met to discuss, plan and implement a new game, to be called the Simulation Game (hereafter SG). For this purpose we have created a small group (about 6 billion) of individual centers of consciousness, each with finite and quite restricted intelligence. These are to be the pieces in the game and they are currently stored in warehouse 7,000,042, suitably hooked up to the simulation machine SM 5000. The system is now fully operational, with each individual experiencing a fully simulated world. Our technicians have verified that there are no glitches.
Each individual believes that he or she is living in a world that really exists. The point of SG is to provide clues to the pieces that this is not so and see when they realize they are in a simulation. We considered inserting some obvious clues into their stream of experience, such as sky writing that says “This all a simulation—you are being fooled”, but that was deemed a bit too obvious, even taking into account the limited intelligence of the pieces. To make the game more interesting, and to net the greatest gambling revenues, we decided to make the clues subtler, though of course any of our species would recognize them immediately. We have therefore arranged it so that the world they experience is incoherent and unintelligible—quite literally impossible. This is not so clear on the surface, but in the game it is meant to be gradually revealed, as they apply their limited intelligence to the appearances.
The bets are on who will get there first, if anyone. Without going into unnecessary detail, we have built into the simulation a few telltale incoherencies—such as the idea that consciousness depends upon the brain, some logical paradoxes, and the measurement problem (etc) surrounding quantum physics. In SG the pieces are allowed to discover and reflect upon their “world” and to ask themselves whether it really makes any sense. Once they realize it doesn’t, the question is when they will hit on the correct explanation of their predicament: that they are pieces in a simulation game. So far the vast majority are clueless but a few have begun to suspect that all is not well—they are starting to feel that they live in an impossible world (or “world”). At later stages of the game the point of interest will be whether they can persuade others of the truth.
SG promises to be quite fun and completely harmless (unlike that game Galaxy Busters dreamt up recently by some irresponsible gamers). We ask merely that you, as commissioner, list the new game in your records and grant us the appropriate patent. Thanking you for your attention, we are the Grand Society for Responsible Gaming, Section 345, Plasma System 68,000,333.”
What should we make of this peculiar document? First, if it is genuine, then these super-gamers are by no means infallible, since the document gives the game away completely. But perhaps they are just being clever, since the existence of such a document by means proves the truth of what it contains. So let us put that aside. The story seems perfectly intelligible: it is logically possible to create a simulated world that contains hidden incoherencies—as with many works of fiction or even dreams. Thus there can be internal evidence that a narrative is a form of fiction not fact. A simulation might undermine itself in this way, either by design or through incompetence. We might think that the authors’ breezy assumption of incoherence in the simulated world they have created is questionable. Admittedly, the puzzles of mind and body, of the logical paradoxes, and of the quantum realm are serious and hitherto resistant to intelligible solution, but maybe this is a just a matter of temporary perplexity, or perhaps of permanent cognitive limitations on our part. Why should we think that a world in which these problems arise is impossible? Well, that depends on how seriously unintelligible you think the world is—whether such a world would be genuinely impossible. Of course, a world cannot be impossible if it exists to be lived in; but it may be that our “world” is unintelligible simply because it does not exist. That is, there are no bodies and brains and objects of the kind that we suppose, governed by the laws we think we have discovered. It is an impossible fictional world—a perfectly intelligible notion. This is the view of the designers of the simulation game: such a world is literally impossible and the question is whether we will come to realize this and draw the obvious (to them) conclusion, namely that we are pieces in a game of simulation. The form of the argument is straightforward: unintelligible worlds cannot exist; our (apparent) world is unintelligible; therefore our world does not exist. Given that we experience an apparent world, the best explanation is that we are living in a simulation contrived by superior aliens.
Question: does this story raise the probability that we are subjects in a simulation game? Suppose that we are: do we now have clues that this is our situation, if only we interpret them rightly? If our true situation is revealed tomorrow, will we be right to say, “Yes, it was clear all along, if only we had heeded the signs”. I just wish the document had contained information about what would happen if we arrive at the correct view of our condition. What happens to us at the end of the game? Will it be a case of “game-over” with all the pieces disposed of, or will we be put out to pasture in some undreamt of paradise?
It’s unclear to me whether the individual player subjectively experiencing the game is a simulation or an actual agent (as is say a shopper wearing 3-D goggles and one of those electronic gloves “in” a virtual reality emporium). If the player is a real agent in a simulated world it’s likely clues would soon pop up. You’d impulsively bend down to pick up and throw a virtual rock only to discover it wouldn’t let you throw it, something along those lines. No human-written program could possibly encompass the near-infinity of possible actions available to a free agent in the actual world. Glitches would abound.
If the player is a simulation too then we’d be living in a superdeterministic world as proposed by Gerardus ‘t Hooft. Cosmic Calvinism. But there’s no way we could ever know that unless possibly we’re programmed to discover we’re all monads or whatever in which case it wouldn’t really be a discovery even though we’d believe it was … meaning there isn’t any way we could ever genuinely know.
A real agent in a simulated world, like the brain in a vat or the Matrix. The supervisors would arrange it so that virtual rocks were virtually thrown. The idea is that we are really the pieces in the game–the aliens are the players.
To create a virtual world that meets those standards, to program the proper response on the part of the rock, the programmers would need to anticipate your plan to pick up and throw the rock even as you’re performing the action because intention may be coincident with or even follow the action itself. They’d need to be able to read, instantly, every afferent and efferent message zipping around your nervous system. They’d need to decode neurological impulses and read them as subjective qualia and formulated ideas. They’d need to be able to map Brain to Mind. They’d need to have resolved the Hard Problem.
Eliding into computer science here, the knowledge and algorithmic expertise necessary to accomplish all this would be well beyond what could possibly be assembled on this planet certainly at this time. And the Supervisors, whether human or extraterrestrial, would likely have needed to resolve the P vs. NP problem and proven P=NP. That’s an issue with epistemological implications: can any knowledge discoverable by chance also be discovered by deduction? More mundanely and physically: can we compute essentially anything and solve all formulable problems? Most professionals don’t think so. And the issue is presumably universe-wide. Other universes may have other parameters, who knows. But the Supes are probably from this one.
That’s all as maybe–the question is IF such a simulation were possible, could we infer it to be the case? All such thought experiments trade on the logical possibility of total deception. That’s why skepticism is so hard to answer. I am just adding a new wrinkle, based on apparent unintelligibility in our assumed world.
By definition the Supervisors are not “from this one” because “this one” is the simulation.
And in any case simulating _all the rocks all the time_ even when they’re just sitting on the ground is much simpler than simulating an entity capable of deciding to throw a rock.
“Question: does this story raise the probability that we are subjects in a simulation game? Suppose that we are: do we now have clues that this is our situation, if only we interpret them rightly?”
Putting aside the technical objections I’ve raised. The question: Can we identify any objects or events that seem anomalous enough to constitute clues that we’re pawns in a hypothetical simulation game? The fact that people report alien abduction experiences, for example, isn’t good enough because there’s no real physical evidence and the experiences could at least as plausibly be explained as hallucination. Maybe if I were abducted myself. Having been involved over the years in projects requiring statistical sampling I’ve generally found the verifiable correlations between sample and general populations — for which no causal, physical explanations of any sort exist — puzzling. But I’m also convinced that there’s a lot of stuff out there in the world which we’ll simply never be able to explain because our brains aren’t evolved to explain them. So for me the answer is no, I guess not, no clues I think I’ve detected.
There is one thing, though, which is sort of related to the statistical correlation issue I noted above: what’s called Synchronicity. Celebrated of course by The Police, and very well too. Ran across this just the other day:
“… A phenomenon involving the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli [Nobel, 1945]. It refers to the effect he seems to have had on technical appliances and laboratory equipment in general. Whenever he was in a room where an experiment was running, it would invariably fail or produce irregular results. Pieces of machinery would inexplicably break down and furniture collapse, just because he was in the vicinity. It is said that he always felt a strange tension before such accidents, and was secretly relieved, when something did break down or go wrong.
“In 1948 the Zürich C.G. Jung-Institute was founded and as a foundation member, Pauli was invited as Patron. When he entered the room, a chinese vase fell down, for no reason and without exterior influences. When he visited Princeton, a fire broke out in the cyclotron of the university, destroying it completely. The cause of the fire in this piece of lab-equipment remained unsolved.
“This personal aura of his was widely known and feared amongst his colleagues, especially experimental physicists. Otto Stern is said to have refused Pauli entry into his laboratory because he feared such an incident. Pauli himself took his ‘talent’ seriously, but also humorously and often joked about it. He saw it as a case of synchronicity, i.e. a connection of results complementary to causality: two effects happen simultaneously, but not accidentally or as a result of causality, but because of contiguity, the spatial closeness of two objects (one of which could be Wolfgang Pauli, in this case). Synchronicity is thus referred to by Jung as Principle of non-causal relations.
“Whether he was jinxed, sent out some kind of psycho-kinetic force, was a kind of quantum fluctuator (causing quantum particles to behave abnormally) or just was a victim of weird coincidences will never be known, but as the Pauli-effect is so well documented by his collegues and himself, it remains a mystery to ponder…”
Would it follow that the aliens who wrote our simulation must also presumed to be living in a simulation, and so on ad infinitum? Or could there be a condition which exempted our creators from that possibility; and, if so, why could that condition not apply to us?
I just stipulated that they were not, but they could raise the possibility that they are in a simulation, controlled by super-super-beings. My point is that we might have evidence that we are in a simulation, because the simulated world we experience has pockets of unintelligibility.
Sounds like you need to read Permutation City by Greg Egan, in which he explores this very scenario (except that *we* are the superior aliens) to its limit.
Or Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World” (1958), Dick’s “Time Out of Joint” (1959), or Galouye’s “Simulacron-3” (aka “Counterfeit World”) (1964).
In some story (not sure it if was one of those), the protagonist gets a clue about his situation when he makes a spur-of-the-moment detour and the end of the road leads up to nothingness.
Good metaphor: trying to understand things can be like a road to nothingness.
Why this presupposition that we would experience “bugs” in the game? Let’s assume for a moment that there are the occasional bugs- that I pick up a rock, and the rock doesn’t move. If that happens, why can’t the aliens “hit pause”, roll back time, fix the bug, and let things go on their merry way? Assuming that I was writing a simulation I would do exactly that- they would want us to find the designed inconsistencies, not the accidental ones. There is no reason to assume that our perception of time (and our resultant memories) would be out of the programmer’s control in this thought experiment.
What I don’t get is the “unintelligible” bit. Our world seem very intelligible to me (once you get that we humans already live in a kind of personal simulation produced by our own brains which is prone to an endless variety of fanciful notions.) I guess there are a few troubling results in basic physics – like, entanglement, the long term entropy curve – but these might only be weird due to a lack of understanding. Otherwise, the world seems – to me, at least – remarkably consistent and yielding to investigation when and where we look, despite having a lot complexity and unknowns.
The other problem with the simulation is more of a numbers thing. It would require massive computational power. For example, to really simulate a tree – close up – you would need programs and data that were about a complex as a … tree. (Maybe you could just use a handy tree.) Then you’d need all the bits of cabling to connect it to other programs like birds, fruit, and sky, not to mention the rack space, cooling systems and so on. The power bill wouldn’t would not be mistaken for the utility’s call line number, it would be more like an irrational number. Why not just borrow a planet somewhere? Even if they don’t exist in the real universe where the simulation is occurring it would probably be cheaper to make one. This assumes that the simulation can’t totally lie to us about its complexity but, hey, I think I’d pick that up.
In the end, this is just a tech’d-up version of Berkeley’s immaterialism. Which brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s refutation:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
(Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.)
The skeptical hypothesis is that the areas of unintelligibility (such as those I mentioned) are the result of simulation, not our lack of understanding. This is one theory of our epistemic predicament, to be compared to other theories. What if in three hundred years quantum theory is just as paradoxical? It’s mysterianism against simulation.
What if it’s not? Empirically, we find science is making relentless progress in most areas. While basic physics has some big, basic unsolved problems there is ongoing progress at the very least in defining the problems rigorously. Historically this has lead to solutions. Some of this stuff is actually hard and requires new paradigms and multiple new analytical layers.
But yes, if they haven’t got in a few centuries, or maybe even a bit sooner, it is clearly time to consider some more spooky reasons for the impasse.
On the other hand, one standout characteristic of humans is that when we don’t know something we make shit up! That could include this particular forray, plus every religion, and possibly some of the weirder bits of current physics that go way beyond any (possible) evidence, like M-branes and multiverses. Almost anything that is repeated often enough can become normalized and believable; this is an absolutely brilliant evolutionary development but also leads to an awful lot of hanging out in blind alleys. :\
Assume that the simulation is designed unintelligibility (using the super-being standard of intelligibility).
Assume that simulated sentient beings developed via evolution (obviously within the simulation). In other words, set aside claims such as “the super-beings just popped us into existence, along with the world, on March 12 2015.” (If, however, the super-beings ‘popped’ us into existence but with an implied history of the world and of our evolution, then for the purposes of this assumption, that works just as well.) A good reason for this assumption is that ‘popping’ us into existence would be too large an unintelligibility by the standards of the thought experiment (assuming its detectability).
If that is the case, then our psychology is determined in part by the constraints of this simulated world. Given those constraints on our psychology, why might we agree with such super-beings that this world is unintelligible? We might maintain that what the hypothetical super-beings describe as unintelligible is simply a matter of unintelligibility-to-them, but not to us. In other words, I’m making the case that as sentient beings proscribed by the scope of *this* world, our standard of intelligibility may be vastly different to that of the super-beings, to the extent that everything they call unintelligible in our world is intelligible to us.
This case is more than merely based on psychology; I don’t mean to pass the question off to research psychologists. I believe it hinges on our understanding of ‘intelligibility’. Of course, if you mean ‘unintelligibility’ to mean ‘logically inconsistent’ then the answer is a no-brainer: either logic is broken or we are in a simulated impossible world, and I would answer that we are in a simulated impossible world. The question is more nuanced if we restrict the term ‘unintelligibility’ to exclude ‘logically inconsistent’ as a partial definition.
I cannot make neither head nor tail of using a concept of intelligibility that is either mind-independent or dependent on super-beings. If I ask you whether a set of complex equations regarding prioritarian-egalitarian-utilitarian social welfare functions is intelligible to you (assuming you aren’t a quantitative political economist), then of course you would say: “No, this is not intelligible to me. But it surely is intelligible to some other rational human.” I believe that when we talk about intelligibility there are various factors that make something intelligible or not: relevant expertise, for one. Another factor is the constraints on rational human psychology: we predominantly access data about the world via our sense-experiences, which we interpret using our reason. But it is precisely the fact that these experiences and interpretations come through *our* senses and reason that sketches the fundamental limit of intelligibility.
So, given understanding of intelligibility, it is either the case that all things in this world are intelligible or some things are not. If all things are intelligible, the answer to the thought experiment is clear—humans have denied the second premise. If only some things are unintelligible, then it still does not lead us to the conclusion. Why? Because the argument outlined in the thought experiment operates from the perspective of the super-beings: they are the ones who designed the unintelligible objects or facts; but the fact that they interpret them as unintelligible has no direct bearing on what is intelligible to humans—only the structure of the world does via its constraints on our psychology. In other words, I’m denying that there is a transitivity between what the super-beings consider intelligible to what humans consider intelligible when a) there are vast differences in our psychologies and b) we are in different worlds. This is a denial of the first premise.
The world is apparent but the world may be unintelligible. But this should not lead us to think that we live in a simulation. Note, however, that it could still be the case that we live in a simulation. Nothing I have said should lead us to deny that (though in the absence of other reasons for believing that we live in a simulation, we should believe that this world is real).
I take it the game has been constructed to not-make-sense. If not, never mind. If so, there is no way out of the game through that door. If nothing makes sense, then the in-game observation “nothing makes sense” does not make sense. So, allowing logic in the game, in-game, things do make sense. But that in-game observation doesn’t make sense. Therefore, things don’t make sense.
Perhaps you recognize this as an infinite regress. It means some part of the initial proposition is false. It’s opposite is “some things make sense”. The corollary is “some things don’t make sense”. It won’t be possible to tell before a piece degrades and is removed—and do note: we are sure the pieces have such a lifespan, even if the rules don’t say it—if something doesn’t make sense or is merely a subject of ignorance (will make sense in the future).
From this set of logical moves, by which the pieces are constrained, it is not possible to exit the game except by luck or accident, so it is not much more than a very complicated roulette wheel. (Or is the Grand Society for Responsible Gaming not familiar with the “roulette wheel” concept?)
Finally, things are as they seem, unless we have reason to believe otherwise. I have no evidence, therefore no reason, to believe any of us are just pieces in some game. Even if we were, it wouldn’t prevent us from being persons with the limitations we do have, but it might give us some insight into the gamesters as persons. For example, they are willing to enslave several billion persons for their amusement, which should earn them a rather sharply negative moral accounting.
There is an old story explaining why the laws of physics are so peculiar.
Apparently, if you are a good enough physicist, once you die you’re allowed to make any changes you wish to the physical laws for the universe, as long as your changes are consistent with all prior measurements.
So physicists today are struggling to keep up with a massive practical joke being run by Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.
I like this: the idea of “intelligent unintelligible design”.
One of the ‘telltale incoherencies’ here is that “consciousness depends upon the brain”. I take it the point is the incomprehensibility of how brain activity can generate qualia. But by the same token, it is incomprehensible how simulation can produce qualia–i,e, how simulation can produce subjective experiences in the simulatees, not merely simulated “behaviors”. So one of the same clues that the apparent world is unreal would also rule out that it is a simulation.
Clever, but in the simulation scenario we do not need to suppose that anything “physical” is the causal basis of consciousness–as we do in the apparent world. What if our heads were (apparently) full of cabbage? That would be totally unintelligible as a foundation for consciousness. But in the simulation story we can leave it completely open how consciousness is produced by reality.
One’s position of being inside the game renders it impossible to reach a conclusion that the world did not exist. Any observation would be included in the view of the world and would be considered a simple state of reality, whether consistent with the game’s rules or a glitch. As an example, think of the elaborate explanations of retrograde motion of the planets before the Copernican system was accepted. In retrospect those explanations appear implausible but were firmly held positions at the time. We find patterns in the generally chaotic world and would find the same in a glitched world much as we see objects in clouds. Unless there was a way to get outside the game and view it as an observer or, if the programmers allowed one to see behind the wizard’s curtain, there would be no way to make a determination that it was all a game.
Your friend, the Evil Scientist, invites you into his laboratory where you see a Brain in a transparent Vat resting upon a column and immersed in a nutrient fluid. Numerous wires sprout from its stem which lead to somewhere outside the vat. You are startled to hear an artificial-sounding voice announce, “Hello, Visitor! I am a Brain in a Vat!”
“Indeed,” you respond. “And just how do you know that?”
“I am at this moment viewing a video image of myself in my vat with you in the foreground,” replies the Brain.
Although the Brain is indeed making an objectively factual statement about the world and its own place in that world you and the Evil Scientist find its declaration risible and laugh aloud. “And how can you know that with anything like reasonable certainty if you cannot leave your Vat and see for yourself?” you ask. “The image you see might be another brain in another vat with another visitor and a different scientist viewing it.”
“I’m sorry,” says the Brain, “but that sounds like metaphysical obsfucation.”
Should note that the misspelling of “obfuscation” is part of this rather specialized joke. The Brain speaks Vat-English (an English of the virtual world) while you and the Evil Scientist speak (real 3-D world) English.
Worth noting that in my simulation story we are not brains in a vat, because that would raise the mind-body problem, which belongs only to the apparent world. It is part of the fictional world that we have brains; in reality we have some quite different nature (though we are really conscious beings).
It was Zeno who first started to notice problems with our world: motion is not possible (though apparent motion is). He could have guessed that he was living in a simulated world. And have his paradoxes ever been decisively resolved?
Of course you can run at the wall and break your nose, or actually hit the ball with your racquet, which might seem to be experimental resolution of some Zeno paradoxes. Quantum theory suggests a physical lower bound at the Planck length — the continuum hypothesis thus being rendered moot. If true. The famous calculus finesse is of course simply that … a finesse.
Aren’t paradoxes antinomies, demarcating one or another boundary of possible knowledge and human intuition? Aren’t our minds a conglomeration of valid observations and insights mixed together with a lot of cobbled-together hacks and dubious heuristics which sometimes work and sometimes don’t?
Zeno would say that he has disproved objective motion, so what you are seeing and feeling when you collide with something is only apparent motion. You would need to undermine his skeptical argument to defeat him.
I remember Feyerabend has an argument out of Aristotle where you juggle space and time so they cancel one another out and motion becomes possible. Unfortunately my library is in a storage locker at the moment so I can’t quote but I know it’s in a paper called “Some observations on Aristotle’s theory of mathematics and of the continuum” and reprinted in Farewell to Reason. There’s another argument along similar lines employing Special Relativity that has Achilles running through a barn with doors at both ends and he’s holding a spear that’s longer than the barn but manages to get out with the spear even though both doors appear to close at the same time while he’s still inside.
The Brains-in-a-Vat scenario — for sake of discussion, assume a relation between brain and consciousness, since if someone scooped out the appropriate part of my brain my consciousness would be qualitatively altered — is of course an argument against skepticism that appeals to the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem thereby supposedly demonstrating that such skepticism is logically incoherent. More subtle than Dr. Johnson smiting the rock with his foot. But does it work against Zeno and if so how? Dunno.
It is, of course, entirely conceivable that Zeno’s argument hinges on at least one fallacy. One possible fallacy is to believe that there’s a one-to-one mapping between mental picturings of the world and its processes and the way the world actually conducts its business. That possibility may somehow involve the simulation fallacy. One example of the simulation fallacy goes like this: (1) Protein folding is computationally hard (i.e., an algorithm to fold protein would take longer to discover than there is time remaining in the universe). (2) But nature folds proteins real fast all the time. (3) Therefore nature regularly solves at least one computationally hard problem. No! No! That’s bullshit. There’s no evidence whatsoever that because some natural processes can be simulated on a computer nature operates computationally. Aristotle supposedly says somewhere that “That which moves does not move by counting.” Might be relevant here.
There would be no point to the game as described. Who cares which of the ten billion agents figures it out first?
The real game is figuring out how many optimizations you can make to reduce the computational complexity of the universe before the agents realize they are in a simulation.
The players could bet on when someone figures out the truth, or who does, or whether they are male or female, etc.
It still needs to be determined what the clues should be. You probably don’t want to violate physical laws. Don’t mess with immediate causality. Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to expect certain regularities. Maybe you need a program of gradual increase (followed by temporary decreases) in coincidences. Maybe work up to (and possibly go beyond) something like crashes of two planes both carrying the exact same number of passengers (say 243) within that number of minutes of each other. With or without disturbed co-pilots. Keep slowly upping the ante, easing back, then letting them have it again. Play with probability.See how much they can take. I’m already starting to enjoy it.
The real human pieces on the virtual board would need to be in a sense envatted, though. As in The Matrix. What other way would there be to make the production work? No need to actually kill the crash victims, of course, just retire them humanely.
Maybe 234 passengers would be better.
Hmm. I suppose there are betting games where the players don’t have complete visibility into the mechanics, and where they have no investment in the playing pieces beyond their stake.
Like horse races and gambling in general.
With the quantum theory and sub atomic probabilites, we can definetely say the word “simulation” gives us a meaning of whole life. The language is insufficent to tell anything about the big picture. We’ve invented the simulation and it’s a closer meaning of life nowadays.