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Some speculation on the Simulation Argument

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

If you haven’t read Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument, read it first. I’ll wait. Done?

Now, for some unfounded speculation:

1) How would you trick the scientists?

Nick proposes two ways to fake the environmental details of the simulation: 1) calculate the details on-demand and 2) mess with the agent’s minds to hide glitches.

To me, this sounds problematic. An intelligent agent to inspect individual minds in the simulation seems amateurish to me. If you were interested in the agents’ behavior, such manipulation would bias your results, and if you were not interested, there would be no point in manipulating them. If you did not manipulate any minds, how would you build the simulation to make it glitch-proof? How could you guarantee that if the agent looked at any detail of the simulation, it could generate detail on demand while maintaining narrative consistency?

For example: Let’s say two agents looked at neighboring regions of space — whether through a microscope or a telescope does not matter. The details would be rendered as they went along. But what happens when their patches of detail intersect? They need to appear consistent, as if they were “there all along.” But if the details are generated algorithmically on demand, how could that be ensured? You would either have to structure the mathematical model to make all such merges consistent (which seems impossible), or to make the inconsistency a part of the fabric of reality so as to make it seem “normal.” (Quantum weirdness?)

Another option: if the universe is finite, you could model it entirely. Perhaps your model would be could simulate “chaotic” (non-biological) events at a high level so that only the environment of living beings would need high detail. For example, if a human being never sees a supernova in galaxy NGC 2770, there is no need to “remember” exactly how it went on.

2) What would you want to discover?

Here is another possibility: perhaps there is no intent to deceive or even to harbor intelligence. Perhaps the operator is a physicist modeling potential universes in an attempt to solve the problem of heat death, and intelligence is just an accidental behavior of the system. He couldn’t care less about whether the intelligences realize that they are in a simulation or not.

Here is an interesting empirical question: could we discover anything to indicate the computational nature of the universe? So far, it seems not, as the universe seems analog (continuous rather than quantized). But on the other hand, perhaps quantum mechanics is a very weird science as a consequence of its simulated nature, and we are just not aware of the computational implications yet. Or, perhaps the simulation is analog. Looking for physical laws that imply an underlying computational substrate could be worthwhile.

3) What factors would you alter?

Let’s speculate about the reasons a posthuman operator might have to build the simulation. Presumably, he would not merely repeat the same scenario: he would alter various “seed” elements to see how they affected the outcome. One obvious candidate would be the laws of physics. What might be the goal? Perhaps he wants to model a universe that is most suitable to life, or to a particularly creative form of life. Perhaps he wants to model new intelligences to see whether they are productive or destructive before creating them in vivo.

Suppose that most posthuman operators want to create a simulated universe that is more harmonious (however they define it) than their own universe. We might imagine an iterated chain of such simulated universes, where each attempts to better the ones that create it. Perhaps that becomes the ultimate goal of every new universe: to develop beings who will go on to create a simulation that is better (less entropic, creative, happy, long lasting, etc.) than one that created it. Shortly after the singularity, the entire universe is converted into computational substrate for the next simulation.

4) What’s the ratio of humans to post humans?

The last scenario could offer a mathematical explanation for the Doomsday argument: the majority of intelligences are primitive mortals because shortly after the singularity, the universe tends to be converted into a population of operators who create more primitive simulations.

Let’s suppose that all the living agents of every simulation become a fixed population of immortal operators who create yet more primitives, and so on. What is the ratio of operators to primitives? Whether each immortal operator spends his entire time “managing” one universe or an infinity of new ones, you could have an infinite number of operators and still have even more primitives. And this could be true regardless of whether the operator reproduces as long as his offspring also spend their time building simulations that in turn create their own simulations.

The above scenario sounds pretty far-fetched. But it’s also unlikely to that each young civilization is somehow destroyed before the singularity, and yet we find ourselves as the very unlikely citizens of a young civilization. To me, the idea that every post human civilization would bypass “inefficient” experimentation in reality and create a “more efficient” simulation to discover whatever truths it is after is appealing.

expression versus communication

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

It is far easier to express oneself than to communicate. You can express yourself to a rock just as well as to a human being. But to communicate, you must understand how your words will be processed by another mind. You must estimate their level of knowledge, their potential for misunderstanding, their emotional response to your ideas, their capacity for new ideas, and their willingness to listen.

As social animals, we evolved to optimize our communication by relying on non verbal feedback in one on one interactions. When communicating in writing, the challenge is doubled, and doubled again when ongoing feedback is not provided. No wonder then that so few people learn how to be effective writers.


by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

There is no such thing as “chance” or “randomness” in nature. Chance is just what we say when we don’t know why. There is only causality.

The double standard of creationism

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

Let’s consider the double standard posed by Creationists. They insist that we must see something directly for it to exist. Since we did not see the origin of the universe (actually we can still see it today, but never mind that), the formation of the earth, or of life, they insist that we cannot know how these happened. But THEY know, even though they never saw Genesis themselves, the seas parted, the dead come to life, and ghosts rise into to the sky. They don’t need evidence, because they have a book. We have thousands of independent data points which all point to the age of the universe and the earth and the common ancestry of all life, but this evidence does not count because we learned these things indirectly, through systematic observation and induction. But they have a book, and since they operate entirely on the primitive level of concrete-bound perception, deduction from the words in a book trumps any kind of inductive evidence.

The amazing and unique thing about human beings is that by the use of reason we can know all kinds of things that we cannot see with our senses: we know that matter is made of atoms, we know the earth is round, we know the shape of our galaxy, we know what dinosaurs looked like, we know what the continents looked like hundreds of millions of years ago.

There are many things we knew in detail before we ever saw them and then confirmed by observation: for example, we learned about atoms over hundreds of years and only “saw” them for the first time a few years ago. But there were no surprises in seeing atoms because we had indirectly learned all the relevant facts from indirect observation. We knew the earth was round long before we saw it from space. We sent probes to precise destinations at the edge of the solar system across billions of kilometers by deriving the universal laws of gravitation from dropping weights on earth.

Even as they deny our kinship with other animals, creationists demand that we operate on a pre-human animal level: reject everything but the lowest-level perceptual induction, abandon the scientific worldview which makes your civilization possible and uncritically accept the theology you grew up with. This incidentally is the cause of ideological and religious violence: those who abandon reality as the arbiter of truth have nothing but raw coercion to convert the unfaithful to their side.

Here is the one way that Creationists are more consistent than theists who accept evolution: they recognize that if the systematic application of reason in science spreads to ethics, politics or metaphysics, it would invalidate all religious beliefs not based on evidence, and thus they reject reason in science, against all the evidence in the world.

On infinite causal chains

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

I wrote a One Minute Case Against the Cosmological Argument in 2007, but looking back, I would put it simply as:

Infinities do not actually exist. Each specific set of entities is discrete. But the causal chain itself is not an existent. It is the set of all entities that have ever existed. That is a theoretical construct (like infinity or a singularity in mathematics) rather than a discrete set of entities that we can point to. If I walk from one side of the room to the other, my body exists in an infinite number of locations along that path during the time it takes me to do so. But it only exists in one location at any specific time.



On stardust & entropy

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

Stellar nucleosynthesis is entropic because the proton-proton reaction radiates 0.7% of the original mass as 26.73 MeV energy. Additional reactions produce heavier elements until finally supernova nucleosynthesis produces everything up to uranium in the last few seconds of a star’s life.

We can calculate the entropy cost of the elements to create planets and life forms. Many stars had to die to create enough elements for life. Did life therefore evolve as soon as enough heavy elements were created to sustain sufficient organic chemistry for life? Or maybe life evolved earlier on other planets, but could not reach our level because the element mix lacks sufficient “entropic debt.”  Will a more metal-rich universe be suitable for even more complex life, or is there a plateau of the right element mix to construct life?

It’s interesting to think about a brief “habitable era” when there is enough entropy for life, but not so much that there are no more main sequence stars to power life or perhaps other conditions (excess heavy metals, novas, or dwarfs) that inhibit life.

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

We are informational beings in the eternal now

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

What are we? What sets us apart from the universe?

We believe that we exist in limited time and space. We believe that we are defined by hereditary and environmental influences, leaving room for only a nebulous core of individuality. There is some truth in this perspective. But there is more.

What is time? The present is the sum of everything that is past, and the future evolves from the present. We only see the past as fixed and future as malleable because our minds process information in one direction. But every existent can only act in accordance with its nature and causality. The future is as firmly defined as the past. Every grain of existence implies by its identity the sum of all it has been and everything it will ever be. Time is not a dimension that we move through. Time is the iteration of the possible states of the configuration space of the Universe. It is a single system slowly revolving through all the configurations both possible and necessary to it. All that exists is the eternal present. Time is one’s perspective of the Long Now.

What makes us – us? We are machines, built out of matter and energy, but more importantly, we are information processing structures, the total of which defines our unique configuration.  The molecules and cells composing our bodies are regularly replaced by our growth and repair mechanisms.  Only the information patterns encoded in genes and consciousness persists.  Many mistakenly place emphasis on either the genes or environment as determining structures. But there is no fundamental difference. Genes are triggered, expressed, or suppressed in response to environmental stimuli. Whether we are healthy or sickly because of good genes or good diet makes no difference to the end result. What matters is not our genotype, but our total phenotype — the sum of genetic and environmental influences. The particular combination is only important to biologists.

As human beings, we contain two complex information-processing systems: the genetic and the mental. Of the two, our mental structure is the far more important. We are each unique configurations of information-processing systems that spend our lives gathering up memes and observations and spitting out conclusions and actions. Our mental structures work in method much like our genetic systems, absorbing, modifying and sharing memetic structures through Darwinian processes. On a rare occasion, we cut, paste, and synthesize ideas to form a new unique yet stable and contagious meme-structure and add it to the shared pool of ideas, sending ripples through our shared meme-space and the physical environment through which we enact our ideas.

Mentally and physiologically, we are unique to a very basic level — it is just as unlikely for two people to have identical chromosomes as to have an identical understanding of an idea. Yet on both the fine details and the broad pattern of large structures, we share almost all of our mental and genetic identity with our species and genetically, with all life. There is no need to seek our identity in a mystical hidden soul. We are the unique yet utterly common sum of everything we inherit from the Universe. Our bodies are made from atoms created in the heart of dying stars and designed by a three billion year old genetic inheritance — each a unique information-processing system.

As individual biological systems, our slice of the Long Now is small. But as information systems, we inherit all that is and contribute to all that will be. As the latest expression of the evolving complexity-generating process of nature, we are seeds of the growing intelligence of the universe.

Bob the Intelligent Designer creates the Universe

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

People who claim that the earth is younger than it is (4.54 ± 0.05 billion years) tend to do so for two reasons: either because they claim the evidence points to it or because it was created recently but made to look as it were old. Considering that all the evidence shows the universe to be 13.75 (± 0.11) billion years, a claim that it is literally millions of times younger requires massive ignorance of obvious observations – such as starlight or canyons cut into bedrock. But let’s consider the other common argument – that the universe was only made to appear young. Perhaps the stars were put in place with the light beams already in progress. That is an interesting philosophical question. What are the implications of an Intelligently Designed universe?

To avoid taking sectarian sides, let’s call our creator Bob the Universe Builder. How would Bob’s universe-creating activity change the way we look at the world? Let’s consider a few scenarios:

Some people believe that Bob “got things started” via the Big Bang or some other mysterious event, and then let things run on their own, much as they would in a purely naturalistic universe. In that case, cosmology would certainly be different, but biology could generally be left alone. This view was plausible until recently, when physicists and cosmologists began thinking about and finding answers for how the Big Bang got started and why the laws of nature are what they are. Suddenly the starting point is not so mysterious as to need a supernatural explanation. What is the creation theorist to do – retreat once again to the next frontier of scientific discovery? Perhaps we can make a more general argument.

Whether the universe was created 13 billion or 6 thousand years or yesterday, we can generalize the creationist argument and make some conclusions about it. Suppose we grant that the universe looks as if it evolved purely by natural laws, but in fact some intelligent agent created it more recently. What would that imply?

Let’s first consider the universe going forward. If the universe is naturalistic from the present onwards (gravity causes rocks to fall, horses don’t become unicorns, etc.), then we can assume that it will remain so in the future. So as far as our understanding of new phenomena around us, the existence of a non-interventionist creator makes no difference. But what about the past? If we assume that all the evidence points to a natural universe (for example the stars look billions of years old, even if they were only put up there yesterday), then it makes no difference whether the universe only looks natural or it really is natural.

Before he could create the universe, Bob would have to calculate the precise makeup of the universe on his computer (which could be his “brain” – the details are irrelevant) to determine the initial state of his Creation. For example, if he creates the universe after the Triassic period, he will have to figure out where to place all the dinosaur fossils. If he wanted to maintain the pretense of age, he could not place them just anywhere. He would have to carefully arrange sedimentary layers to simulate geological processes.

The only way to do this consistently would be to simulate the entire history of the observable universe on his computer. There is no way to shortcut the process. So, for example, if a dinosaur fossil is 200 million years old, Bob must calculate its gravitational effect on every atom and subatomic particle in a light cone expanding to 200 million light years over 200 million years. Alternatively, consider the implication for evolution: even if did not happen in “real” reality, to create a plausible explanation for the variety of life on earth and their fossil predecessors, Bob would have to calculate the form of every ancestor by playing out the life of every plant, animal and bacteria in his “virtual” earth to derive their fossils and their present form. Because the present state of any object in the universe is the total of all the interactions of that object with all the other objects in its sphere of influence, and there is no way to know the sum of all these states without calculating all of them sequentially.

To avoid glaring inconsistencies from being discovered by scientists, Bob would have to calculate the interaction of every entity in the universe with every other entity in its causal sphere to the minutest level of detail. And given the sub-atomic perspective granted by modern science, that detail must be very fine indeed. This would mean that there couldn’t be any observable difference between a simulation of the universe and the real thing. Whether the universe was ever a simulation in someone’s “imagination” or is simulation today makes no observable difference and this has no relevance to our understanding of reality.

My conclusion from this chain of thought is this: There is no essential difference between “Young Earth” Creationism and the more “respectable” theory of Big Bang Creationism. Neither is there any point speculating about a perfectly simulated universe (aka various theories that the universe exists “in the mind of God”.) The only logical conclusion is to regard the universe as always having been purely naturalistic.

Warning: relying on magic and anecdotes is bad for your health

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

In my post on evidence-based medicine, I said that “when valid scientific principles are not followed, no valid conclusion can be reached.”

Why not? Why don’t anecdotal claims (such as personal experience) count as evidence? Here is an example of what I mean:

A young woman who was a Christian Scientist told me that various relatives of hers have been healed by prayer. For example, her sister was revived from death by the prayer of her family. I have two comments about her story:

  • The observations that she told me about (that her sister was physiological dead, that her family prayed for her, and that she was revived) are probably true.
  • There was no dishonesty on her part: she sincerely believed her story

Despite accepting her observation, I disagreed with her conclusion about the causal relationship between prayer and health. How could I know that interpretation is wrong? For one, I was not there. Furthermore, after I expressed skepticism at this story, the young woman gave me many more examples, all from her direct personal experience of various friends and family being healed by prayer. On what basis could I reject them all without any personal experience on my own?

This was the essence of my reply:

I cannot object to the events you observed, as I was not there. But this does not mean that I must accept your causal explanation for those events. I have three reasons for this:

  • I have a certain understanding about the nature of the universe and of the means by which things happen. We call this cause and effect. In my experience, cause and effect happens according to certain rules, which we formally call the “laws of nature.” If someone presents an explanation that is inconsistent with my basic understanding of the laws of nature, they should have overwhelming evidence. Otherwise, I must conclude that their understanding of causality is wrong, even if their observations are true. This is especially true in observations regarding human health.
  • There are good reasons for scientists to reject personal experience and informal observations as sufficient basis for conclusions. There are many forms of cognitive bias can we can honestly make unless we follow strict rules to eliminate errors. In many fields (such as fixing a car) trial and error is good enough. There are no lives depending on a car working perfectly. In others, such as human physiology anecdotal evidence cannot lead to correct conclusions no matter how honest or smart you are. The forms of error take many forms: availability bias, post hoc ergo propter hoc, hasty generalization, placebo effects, selection bias, regression to the mean, bias by prior beliefs, social influence, etc. Even if you are aware of the biases, you cannot fully escape their effects; only try to structure your research to minimize them. In other words, when trial and error is not good enough, there is no substitute for proper science.
  • I categorize causal explanations into three kinds: true, false, and arbitrary. True explanations correspond with what I know. False explanations contradict what I know, but with further evidence may be proven true. Arbitrary explanations are neither true nor false because they do not refer to anything. They are “magical theories” because there is nothing that we can point to as the causal mechanism. How does prayer work? It just does – no mechanism is possible because it by definition exists outside of causality. Because arbitrary claims they cannot be proven or disproved, once identified as such, we can only dismiss them from consideration. We should be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes causal claims based on arbitrary/magical explanations. In the rare cause they point out a true causal connection, it is only by accident, and has no value to anyone as we have no more basis to believe that idea than any of their other claims.

If personal anecdotes are not acceptable as evidence, what is? A good theory:

  • is supported by many different kinds of observations
  • is consistent with existing knowledge
  • is possible to confirm by repeating the observations
  • has high predictive value: it should predict what will happen as well as what will not happen

“A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that has only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.” (Stephen Hawking)

Further reading:


On modesty

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

The popular notion that sexual acts should be performed in the dark and under the sheets is derived from the Judeo-Christian dogma that human beings and thus human sexuality are fundamentally corrupt, shameful, and evil. Because this dogma is still widespread throughout secularized Western societies and in secularized equivalents of original sin, it is now infecting and corrupting non-Western societies along with the positive elements on Western civilization.

It’s unfortunate that this is not widely recognized in those societies, but it’s no coincidence – the intellectuals and politicians of those states have found Western notions about the base nature of human beings very useful for furthering certain social/political goals. Much more deserves to be written about this…