Simulation theory, a response

So recently I stumbled upon a philosophic metaphysical claim that we are living in a simulation. This argument intrigued me because unlike other philosophical theories of existence, this one seemed to allow for a “god of sorts.” Afterall, if our world is a computer program, then there must be a higher being functioning as a programmer. It is important to note that this programmer need not have the characteristics of the traditional Christian theistic deity. In fact, it is more likely that the programmer is not omniscient, nor infinite. Thus if the simulation theory is true, then it will radically change our perception of God.

The Simulation Argument

So the argument that I will be working with is based on Nick Bostrom’s 2003 paper, “Are we living in a computer simulation.” In this paper, Bostrom makes three propositions:

  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.

Bostrom argues that one of these propositions must be true. He assigns probabilities to each of the propositions. “If there is a possibility that our civilization will make it the posthuman stage and they will run ancient simulations, how can we guarantee that we are not one of those simulations.”  In order to build his argument, Bostrom makes two assumptions.

  1. Mental states can supervene on physical substrates (The Assumption of substrate-independence)
  2. Current empirical information about computers indicates that at some point in the future we will have computers fast enough to convert planets into enormously powerful computers.

It is these two assumptions that I would like to explore and challenge.

The Response to the substrate-independence assumption

So I define mental states as the beliefs, desires, knowledge, thoughts, mental images, emotions, moods, perception, and sensations that occur in the mind. Bostrom wants to assume that these states that occur in the mind are entailed by the physical brain. In other words, if an identical copy of your physical brain could be made, then that copy would give rise to the same mental states. Therefore, a computer can stimulate the same mental states that a human brain creates. I deny this assumption and argue that mental states do not supervene on physical substrates.
I begin my argument by demonstrating that physical substrate cannot establish mental states. In order to establish this claim, I will be using the thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson.

Imagine that you have spent your whole life in a black and white room. You have been told what colors are and you have been told that certain things have color. For example, you have been told that an apple is red, but you have never seen an apple. You also have all the physical knowledge regarding how the mind works. You know that certain c-fibers when activated produce ‘red,’ but this knowledge is all you have. Do you know what red is?

Most people intuitively know that you in the black and white room do not know what red is. Rather the knowledge of ‘red’ or any mental perceptions requires something more. This something more is subjective experiences. The idea that mental states contain some sort of subjective state is expressed in the philosophical term qualia. So qualia properly defined refers to the introspective nature of the mental phenomenon. The thought experiment above shows that even the most exact physical replica could not tell us what it was like for us ourselves to experience it. Since physical models cannot give rise to the qualia of a mental state, the substrate independence assumption is false. If this is false then our consciousness, as we understand it, cannot be stimulated. Since we want to retain that we are conscious beings, then our world cannot be a computer simulation.
Chalmers’ zombie argument is another way of disproving the idea that mental states can logically supervene on the physical.

  1. A zombie is a creature that is physically & behavorallly similar to you, but has no concious experience
  2. If mental states logically superviene on physical states,  then zombies would not be conceivable
  3. Zombies are conceivable
  4. Thus mental states do not logically superviene on physical states
  5. Mentals states are something above physical phenomena

If mental states are something above the physical, then, replicating the physical structure of the brain into a computer program will not create mental states. Thus it is impossible to replicate consciousness on a computer program. If this is impossible, then our brains cannot be simulated by a computer. Thus simulation theory is false.
One objection to the above argument is that the idea that we have phenomenological experiences (qualia) is illusionary. We only have the psychological experience ( Awakeness, introspection, reportability, self-consciousness, attention, voluntary control, knowledge, awareness”). However, the idea that our subjective mind is an illusion is counterintuitive to what people claim to experience, and thus the burden of truth is upon the person, who argues for its nonexistence.
Having attacked the first underlining assumption, the conclusion should follow that simulation theory is false. However, for those who accept the substrate-independence assumption, there is another assumption that one can attack. This argument attacks both 1. the idea that there can be a computer fast enough to convert the world, and 2. that we can make ontological statements from mathematical equations.

The assumption about computers.

 In order to understand why computers will never be able to truly stimulate the physical world, we must have a surface level understanding of quantum mechanics and Bells theorem. The first thing to understand is the difference between a particle and a wave. Particles, when thrown towards two slits, will either travel through one or the other slit. Waves, on the other hand, when encountering two slits travel through both. We can imagine throwing a stone into a lake of water. This action creates waves. Furthermore, we can imagine that these waves head toward a wall with two slits. The waves that emerge from each slit interfere with each other. This interference creates a series of peaks and valleys. Now imagine that there is a detector on the other side. This detector can reproduce this pattern. It is called the interference pattern and looks like this:


We can also imagine that a person shooting multiple projectiles on the wall would create two strips on the back wall. Scientist performed such an experiment with electron particles.  This experiment is the double split experiment. However, the electrons did not create a two strip pattern like you would expect from a particle, rather the electrons created the interference pattern like a wave. The experiment was repeated, but this time the gun shot the electron particle one at a time. However, even then, the particle manages to behave like a wave and make an interference pattern. This would mean that the one electron is somehow going through both slits and interfering itself. The experiment was repeated, but measuring devices were placed at the beginning of the slits to determine which slit the electron traveled through. The electron started to behave like a particle and no interference pattern was observed. This seems to indicate that the behavior of an electron particle depended on observation.

If electron particles behave like water or sound waves, then they can be measured mathematically. A wave function is a solution to the mathematical equation that can tell you the probability of the location of an electron before it is measured. It can never tell you the precise location of the electron particle since the particle has wave-like properties. One consequence of the wave function is that it gives rise to the idea that prior to measurement the particle can be in two or more places at once. This is known as quantum superposition. A second consequence is entanglement. A wave function has the ability to describe a system of particles. When these systems of particles cannot be broken down into individual particles, the particles are said to be entangled or linked together. When two particles are linked together, they have opposite values. So if particle A and B are entangled, when particle A is up, particle B is down. When we measure particle A, we can know B without measurement.  This holds true even if the particles are separated long distances. For example, imagine particle A is on the earth and particle B was on the moon. There is a scientist that measures particle A and finds that it is up, Particle B is measured as down every time. It was suggested that, rather than the particles sending information faster than the speed of light, thus falsifying relativity, there must be some hidden code within the electron that makes the entangled pair have opposite values.
Bell’s theorem disproves the idea of hidden values. Bell uses mathematical probability come up with Bell’s inequality. It states that when dealing with photon particles at different angles through a polarized lens, the likelihood that the angle would match is 33% if there are hidden values. If Quantum Mechanics is right, the likelihood would be 25%. For example, if we have three angles A, B, C and we measure a single photon through both A and B, the likelihood that they match is at least 33%. However, when an experiment was conducted, the matches occurred 25% of the time. This means that there are no hidden values governing the behavior of quantum particles.
Proponents of the simulation theory claim that since electrons and other quantum particles do not exist until measurement, it functions similar to a video game. In most video games, the graphics do not render until the player is in the location. They argue that the fact that electrons do not have precise locations until measurement shows the actions of a computer saving disk space by not rendering until observed.
My objection is that computer systems have hidden values or codes that tell the computer when to render the graphics. Quantum particles, on the other hand, do not have hidden values as proven by Bell’s theorem. Therefore, in order to duplicate our world accurately, a computer would have to produce all possible quantum superpositions and then collapse those superpositions upon observation without hidden values. Bostrom acknowledges this, “Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible unless radically new physics is discovered.” (Bostrom, Nick). Since Quantum physics cannot be simulated, it seems very unlikely that we are in a simulated world.
Lastly, Bostrom makes the mistake of making a metaphysical claim based on mathematical principles. The Wave Function is a very accurate mathematical solution able to predict the behavior of quantum particles, but the mathematical equations does not entail anything about reality. It does not entail an idealist metaphysical claim on reality. There have been plenty of quantum interpretations that support realism. Just because the Wave Function appears to collapse upon measurement does not mean that reality only exists through observations.
The simulation theory, while intriguing, fails to support the various assumptions that it relies on for its argument to be sound. Thus, God remains still a mystery.


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