3

I have serious doubts about the reliability of the thesis raised by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his paper Are you Living in a Computer Simulation?

Even in its weakest version, where two or more simulations on the same level of reality are enough to make it more likely that we live in a simulation, there are too many hidden assumptions to make plausible a probabilistic analysis:

  1. What is the probability that it is possible to build at least two simulations?

  2. What is the probability that there's anyone who can do it?

  3. What is the probability that this someone has done it?

Since 1, 2 and 3 are unknown variables, why should I believe this hypothesis without an act of faith on 1, 2 and 3?

  • There is mounting evidence that we are living in a numerical simulation. But that's unsurprising since our primary tool for inspecting reality is mathematics. It's like looking tbrough a kaleidoscope and then claiming that reality looks kaleidoscopic. Except that the maths we use does predict things quite well. Anything prefixed with 'I believe' is an act of faith really. I'm just over 50% sure wr're in a simulation. The most sure I get is just shy of 100%, that the sun will rise tomorrow. – Richard Apr 15 at 12:52
  • 1
    generally 'faith' asks something of us, morally or spiritually, and i don't see a reason for that, unless we end up solipsists or something equally as strange. just my opinion (i got bored of endless reiterations of the simulation argument on here!) – another_name Apr 15 at 14:00
  • 1
    Doesn't the conclusion of any argument rely on faith in its premises? But I suspect that even Bostrom himself does not believe what he is arguing, it is more of a provocative "spot the flaw" intellectual puzzle. Your three points open up a bigger one: Bostrom attempts to argue from what "posthuman civilizations" are likely to do, and how, with no basis at all for judging what they are like. It ends up being a cartoon of us, "only bigger". Like that 1894 prediction that "in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure". And that was just 50 years, not millennia. – Conifold Apr 16 at 4:23
  • I'll try to formulate a summary as an answer here, but you may be interested in my book-length series on this and other related questions that is currently appearing on Partially Examined Life. The first post is here, the most recent one is here. – Chris Sunami May 13 at 18:09
  • ...and this is the one that most directly addresses your current question: here – Chris Sunami May 13 at 18:35
3

The answers to the three questions

  1. What is the probability that it is possible to build at least two simulations?

  2. What is the probability that there's anyone who can do it?

  3. What is the probability that this someone has done it?

could be anything one wants between 0 and 1, from impossible to necessary. If you find it hard to believe that simulations are real you could set those probabilities closer to 0. This would be your belief.

Eric Schwitzgebel describes belief as follows:

Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term “belief” to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. To believe something, in this sense, needn't involve actively reflecting on it: Of the vast number of things ordinary adults believe, only a few can be at the fore of the mind at any single time. Nor does the term “belief”, in standard philosophical usage, imply any uncertainty or any extended reflection about the matter in question (as it sometimes does in ordinary English usage). Many of the things we believe, in the relevant sense, are quite mundane: that we have heads, that it's the 21st century, that a coffee mug is on the desk.

One can then look for justifications for whatever beliefs one has about simulations. Be aware that one can rationalize things that aren't true. Regardless, how would one rationally justify the belief that these probabilities are not just close to 0, but are exactly 0?

One could argue that any simulation of our universe would have to, in particular, use a Turing machine to simulate human understanding. John Searle's Chinese Room Argument suggests that this is not possible. If Searle is right then the probability is indeed 0 for all three questions and a rational justification of setting the probability to 0 for all three has been found.


Schwitzgebel, Eric, "Belief", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/belief/.

  • 1
    A turing machine can, and is used to create neiral networks which can learn. – Richard Apr 15 at 18:21
  • @Richard Not according to Searle, but if you take the view that simulations are likely, then you would assign probabilities to those three statements closer to 1 for the beliefs. – Frank Hubeny Apr 15 at 18:30
  • 1
    Searle is wrong. Turing machines are simple, but capable of immense complexity. Like natural.selection. – Richard Apr 15 at 18:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.