Thursday, February 7, 2013

Suppose we live in a sim World? What would be the point of it?

The following begins with a prompt I created for the philosophy/film class I teach and ends with my own attempt at a response. The films in question are Inception and The Truman Show


 In the film "Inception" we see simulated worlds imposed upon people by causing them to fall into dream states the contents of which can be carefully constructed. We also see that it is possible, using this technology, to impose dreams within dreams. We see characters unable to tell they are in dreams, others that can figure it out, only with great difficulty, characters that choose to spend their lives in the dreams, even characters becoming confused as to what is dream and what is waking life.

In the film The Truman Show, we see Truman has a simulated world imposed upon him. We see that those who craft the simulation have the purpose of providing entertainment for a television audience, using Truman as the center of a very life- like ‘reality’ show.

In our readings, and in our first discussion section for this unit, we have Descartes' detailed epistemological argument, which makes use of the notion of dreaming and imposed dreaming or simulation, in order to attempt to get a handle on what human knowledge is and how much of it we may or may not have.

In our supplemental readings, we have a set of modern philosophers who have, between them, crafted various arguments that purport to show that we are probably living in, and indeed created by, programs that generate simulated worlds, presumably running in some massive computing system.

LISTEN HERE to a brief discussion of this.

If this is true, that is; if it is true that we stand a greater than 50% chance of being in a world generated by something akin to intelligence using something akin to computer code, and ultimately also stand a greater than 50% chance of having been created by the programmers of that simulation, we have to ask; for what purpose were we and that sim world created?

These questions still stand even if we don't think we have been literally created by the sim, but that we have somehow been plugged into a sim. As far as these questions go, regarding designer intent, they still would loom large in that situation (think of the Matrix here).

So, this forum’s questions will ask you to go along with the assumption that we live in a sim. Assume it's true:

Is there any way to tell the ultimate purpose of this construction, from the nature of ourselves and the nature of the simulated world? Assuming the creators are much more technologically sophisticated than ourselves, are we really in a position to successfully argue analogically from our own case (that is; from cases where we create sim worlds or something like them for each other)?

Truman has hints of the purpose of his world and his being in it. He can tell, due to the product placements, for instance, that the world he is a part of is a television show funded by advertisement. Are there any similar clues in our world that let us know what purpose it was created for? They needn't be so obvious as the product placement, more subtle clues, perhaps hints from examination of our own nature.

This idea has obvious connections and similarities with religious traditions, as is tipped in the film. (The producers name is Christof). What, if anything, can we apply from our familiarity with such traditions, to the idea of a sim world? Conversely, how can the idea of a sim world inform and/or compare with religious traditions?

My Response:

Begin by looking at the framework, the most basic architecture of our universe. How does it appear to us? The world is rule governed, and thus makes decision possible. It is a world that allows for free action. What is more, this is an ongoing regular feature of our day to day lives. We are confronted with our freedom.  We are not in a world that only occasionally calls for our input. No, it’s an all-day-every-day unavoidable feature of our world.

In this respect, the sim world we find ourselves in is much more like gaming sim-worlds than the typical scientific simulations we have today, which are typically given some set of data and allowed to run for extended periods, in order to extract some prediction or analytic result.

In the audio interview of Bostrom we see that he seems to have a model more like the latter in mind, in that his argument uses the hypothesis of what he calls an “ancestor simulation” that is a simulation created by beings much more advanced than we, for research purposes. These “post humans” are interested in running simulations of their primate ancestors, presumably to discover more detail about their species’ past (through observing ourselves; we simulations are stand-ins or proxies for their apelike ancestors!)

He surmises that they would have advanced technology sufficiently enough to generate simulated beings which are free within the fabric or confines of an incredibly detailed massive simulation of their real universe. 

At present we have nothing approaching such capability and cannot see our way to doing such things.

However, at present, with gaming systems, we have beings which are free within the confines of the system only because they are avatars, connected physically to the real-world gamer, who is in fact the only thing involved that is truly free. Nothing within the sims themselves, considered in abstraction from interfacing gamers, is free. Game sim events follow from code instructions, the sim analogs of physical laws, and if left alone to run, would be boring and predictable. At each movement of a joystick or other interface device, a new train of events is initiated within the worlds of these sims. Those trains, however, will follow those same iron laws unless and until the gamer again moves the interface.

This situation is an analog for our situation vis the “real” world we inhabit. We appear to be free beings, with physical bodies in a physical world, the latter two interacting in what are largely deterministic and predictable ways, via physical laws and constants, unless and until we interfere, and fiddle with the interface (our bodies).

So, our experience, if you will, points us toward saying that our world, if it is indeed a sim, is more like a present day gaming sim than a present day research sim. One might protest, on behalf of the research sim hypothesis, that the level of apparent detail in our world suggests that alternative. Research sims can do impressive things in this regard, even if on limited scale. Given time, who knows?  In response, one can point out that the level of detail in game sims can be just as high. There is nothing precluding that, other than the will to do so. Still, that detail objection is a possible countervailing consideration. So proceed with caution we must.

So, assuming we can trust the relative closeness of analogy as a touchstone for reading purposes from sims, and assuming we do live in a sim, we have the result that our sim is more like the present state of gaming sims than the present state of research sims. So, we can haltingly infer that probabilities favor that hypothesis.

So, we can, with great caution attempt to read off the purpose of our sim-world with present day gaming sims in mind. What purposes do gaming sims have?

Well, the first and obvious one is entertainment or killing time.

Less obvious: they test or rather challenge skills and capacities, and allow one to develop the skills and capacities challenged.

Present gaming technology challenges a great many skill sets and capacities. There are games meant to challenge hand-eye motor coordination, and there are games meant to stimulate reason, logical and inferential thought. There are even simulations that are intended to develop moral capacities.

All of these carry out these ends by means of placing gamers in situations where they must make decisions, either quickly or with varying levels of time and deliberation possible.

Now, as to whether placing ‘players’ in such situations is the final end or purpose of the sim, or rather an intermediary end, serving as means to a further end, that will be much more hard to discover. But, once again, we can cautiously rely on our analogy.

Some sims are intentionally designed to allow players to develop skills and capacities so that they can be used in the ‘real’ world. Others unintentionally have this effect.

So, we can say that perhaps, that is the purpose of this world we inhabit, and that we players will eventually put down the controllers, come up out of our parents’ basement and apply what we have learned in some other world?

Sounds a bit religious doesn’t it?

This is one possibility.