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If I'm Living in a Simulated Environment, At Least I Have Kosher Food

Yesterday, the Science Times section of the New York Times ran a fascinating article: "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy's Couch" by John Tierney. A philosopher named Nick Bostrom at Oxford University has proposed that it is a mathematical certainty that we are living inside someone else's computer simulation.

The argument goes something like this. If we assume that future technology could eventually produce a computer powerful enough to run any simulation, no matter how complex, then people could end up running simulations of their ancestors. And the number of virtual ancestors would have to be greater than the number of real ancestors. There would be no way for a simulated ancestor to know whether their world was real or virtual, but one incontrovertible fact would be that if there are so many more virtual than real ancestors, then the probability that you yourself are virtual instead of real would be close to certainty.

Tierney's article describes this a little more clearly, and I encourage everyone to take a look. But even though Bostrom puts a new spin on the idea, it's not really a new one. Tierney mentions the movie "The Matrix," of course, but the idea is even older than that.

I remember reading a short story in the book "The Mind's I" edited by Douglas Hofstadter on this very subject. (My copy is in storage, but using the Internet I've just discovered a copy in my local library, so I'll check it out this afternoon.) In the short story, written from the first person, a computer scientist describes an experiment he's performing. He's created a simulated world inside a computer, and in that box "people" who appear to display self-awareness are born, grow old, and die. The scientist notes with amusement that these simulated people have begun to speculate about his existence, some believing in a creator, and others professing atheism. The believers think that there is a "heaven" and a "hell" afterlife, and the scientist considers the possibility of setting up two more computer boxes connected to the original. The believers would have their program transferred to the "heaven" box after they "die," and the rest would go to "hell." He doesn't end up doing it, but the speculation is still there.

The story fascinated me. If we did live in a simulated world, would there be a way for us to figure it out? In the end, I decided that this was fun to speculate about, and it might lead to stories and philosophical discussion...but in the end, it's like the argument about free will versus determinism. Even if I believed in determinism, as far as I can see, the world works in a way that I can't help but act as if I have free will. And so it goes.

As for the kosher food...an article in today's Times, "For Kosher Emergencies, Manna From a Machine" by Kim Severson, notes that a company has begun selling kosher food via vending machine. Hopefully these machines will sweep the country any day now.

Comments

A Mind Forever Voyaging (Infocom)
Right! I had forgotten about that one.
Andrew Greeley also wrote God Game.
a movie that's even closer to what he's talking about was the thirteenth floor, which had the bad timing of being released a mere two months after the matrix and so was seen as being merely a bad derivative of same. but it's as you say: the concept is far older.
The Mind's I.

I had forgotten all about that. No wonder memory bells were ringing when I read Tierney's column.

Somewhat related was an Asimov short about a scientist who figures out we are merely cultures on some giant petrie dish. Every now and then, someone genius enough figures it out, and strays too close to the rim, where the PTB have placed a ring of antibiotics, which is why the genius in question is sickening. I read it very young, so I don't remember the title, but it was powerful enough to have stuck with me all this time.
I'm afraid if I could prove that I was living in a simulation I would totally cut deals with Mr. Smith so I could be a lifelong bestselling novelist. :)

Either that or I would see if I could find a big tower and exit the simulation ala Bruce Boxleitner in Tron.
Not to mention Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson.

The vending machine thing is definitely needed. For years I've been saying that if I win the lottery I'd set up a non-profit business making kosher sandwiches available at every airport in the USA. Even charging airport prices, I don't think it could make a profit, given the cost of shipping fresh sandwiches to all these locations every day (the potential for local sourcing is very limited), but it would be a public service. But these guys look like they've hit on a way to do the same thing and make a profit, which is even better.

(Another thing I'd like to do with such a non-profit is to find vegetarian restaurants in odd locations and persuade them to go kosher, subsidising the initial expense and charging money only if they showed an increase in business after the switch. (Vegetarian because it's much easier to convert those to kosher.))
In order to determine if we were actually a simulation, I propose that we set up some simulations and look for virtual empirical evidence. Or maybe empirical virtual evidence. Or perhaps virtual virtual evidence. Empirical empirical evidence seems unlikely, though extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof.
I never saw "Defending Your Life." Albert Brooks, right?
indeed. a lovely little romantic comedy, with more depth than one would expect.
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) talks about the NYT article in his blog entry for today. It's pretty amusing.
Heh. Ever notice how you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same room together? :-)
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