Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Philosophical Critique of the Big Bang Theory, in Four Minutes

I've been invited to be one of four humanities panelists after a public lecture on the early history of the universe. (Come by if you're in the UCR area. ETA: Or watch it live-streamed.) The speaker, Bahram Mobasher, has told me he likes to keep it tightly scientific -- no far-out speculations about the multiverse, no discussion of possible alien intelligences. Instead, we'll hear about H/He ratios, galactic formation, that sort of stuff. I have nothing to say about H/He ratios.

So here's what I'll say instead:

Alternatively, here’s a different way our universe might have begun: Someone might have designed a computer program. They might have put simulated agents in that computer program, and those simulated agents might be us. That is, we might be artificial intelligences inside an artificial environment created by some being who exists outside of our visible world. And this computer program that we are living in might have started ten years ago or ten million years ago or ten minutes ago.

This is called the Simulation Hypothesis. Maybe you’ve heard that Elon Musk, the famous tycoon of Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, believes that the Simulation Hypothesis is probably true.

Most of you probably think that Musk is wrong. Probably you think it vastly more likely that Professor Mobasher’s story is correct than that the Simulation Hypothesis is correct. Or maybe you think it’s somewhat more likely that Mobasher is correct.

My question is: What grounds this sense of relative likelihood? It’s doubtful that we can get definite scientific proof that we are not in a simulation. But does that mean that there are no rational constraints on what it’s more or less reasonable to guess about such matters? Are we left only with hard science on the one hand and rationally groundless faith on the other?

No, I think we can at least try to be rational about such things and let ourselves be moved to some extent by indirect or partial scientific evidence or plausibility considerations.

For example, we can study artificial intelligence. How easy or difficult is it to create artificial consciousness in simulated environments, at least in our universe? If it’s easy, that might tend to nudge up the reasonableness of the Simulation Hypothesis. If it’s hard, that might nudge it down.

Or we can look for direct evidence that we are in a designed computer program. For example, we can look for software glitches or programming notes from the designer. So far, this hasn’t panned out.

Here’s my bigger point. We all start with framework assumptions. Science starts with framework assumptions. Those assumptions might be reasonable, but they can also be questioned. And one place where cosmology intersects with philosophy and the other humanities and sciences is in trying to assess those framework assumptions, rather than simply leaving them unexamined or taking them on faith.

[image source]


"1% Skepticism" (Nous, forthcoming)

"Reinstalling Eden" (with R. Scott Bakker; Nature, 2013)


Unknown said...

Thanks for keeping philosophy exciting...
..discovering 'H/He ratios' could be like "m/Q ratios" (Mass to charge ratio), then Mobasher's framework would be attracted to grounding at the beginning of a universe...subjecting 'someone' and anything about our universe to return to place in its definitive existence...

re: Ontology is the origin of "information science ontology"...

Anonymous said...

How is this an interesting or illuminating discussion of the big bang? It is trivial to imagine alternative, skeptical scenerios like these. And it is also a commonplace that the sciences make "framework assumptions." Nothing seems to be added to the conceptual questions about physics and cosmology by repeating a variation of Cartesian demons.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks.

Unknown: Yes, I see some connection here to the fine-tuning argument.

Anon: You have high expectations of what it's reasonable to aspire to achieve in four minutes for a popular audience! I would resist your suggestion that Simulation is necessarily a skeptical scenario (see Chalmers on this, for example) or the suggestion that it is as unjustifiably groundless as the Cartesian demon scenario (see Bostrom on that). I guess one other thing I will say in my defense is that the idea for these comments came directly out of discussion with Mobasher and the moderator (also a physicist), both of whom seemed to think that you're either doing hard science (H/He ratios) or "faith". I'm not sure whether you agree with them, but the main point of the comment is to push back against that idea, by suggesting that even far-out possibilities can be approached in a rational way.

howard said...

Don't you assume the originator of the computer sim lives in a world like ours?
We don't really KNOW, but maybe their world is so radically different from ours that they don't have computers. Maybe they have even different laws of physics altogether.
Maybe they have angels and dis embodied souls

George Gantz said...

Eric - Well said! Let's have some conversation on the framework assumptions. In a recent presentation/essay, I suggested 21st century science seems to have a consensual framework as follows:
1. the regularities we observe in the physical world are reliable, consistent and enduring
2. these regularities are rational and comprehensible
3. mathematics is the language by which we can best explore and describe these regularities
4. the world is fundamentally random - there is no purposeful intentionality or agency involved in its functioning.
5. the world is causally determined, from small to large, from past to future -- reductionism is methodologically exclusive
6. the physical world is all there is - there are no non-physical causes, no miracles and, to some, no mystery.

I have no real problem with the first three (except some observed phenomena like QP appear to violate Aristotle's principal of the excluded middle so may be irrational). I think the last three are wrongheaded and close off valid lines of inquiry - like the one you postulate (violates #4)! Not that I give the Simulation Hypothesis much credence - although I liked the Matrix movies.

What are these framework assumptions? Some might call them metaphysics. I call them "implicit tenets of faith," and the ones I listed above are for the framework I call the "empirical standard of knowing". While framework assumptions usually have some basis in one's experience, they cannot be proved. They also are not strictly falsifiable - counterfactuals, in one way or another, can be explained away while holding fast to one's belief. In this regard, the Simulation Hypothesis and Creationism are quite similar --- if you really want to believe, you will find a way to explain any counterfactuals, e.g. Those fossils were put there by God to test our faith!

For a link to a prepublication version of the essay: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/the-empirical-standard-of-knowing-faith-misplaced/

howard b said...

And, how is every little thing cosmically significant from within a sim!

ergun ahunbya said...

why "computer " simulation? computers are a transient phenomena. even 100-1000 yrs in the future it is likely that noone will know what they are

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, everyone -- sorry for the slow replies!

Howard: Less an assumption than a possibility to consider.

George: Yes, but I'm not sure "faith" is the right word? One concern I have with that word in this context is that it seems to remove these considerations from the domain of rational evaluation, whereas I think they can be rationally evaluated even if not decisively settled.

Ergun: Agreed. It partly depends on how liberally "computer" is defined, but I agree that digital computers as we recognize them now might be left behind in the future as we have left behind clockwork.

George Gantz said...

Eric - Faith is most definitely a matter for rational consideration. Quoting Swedenborg - "Now it is permitted to enter with the understanding into the mysteries of faith." For example, a person's faith should be consistent and coherent. That does not mean that rational consideration will lead you to faith, since faith is a matter of conviction, which engages the will and the heart, but it can certainly be discussed rationally, as Augustine, Aquinas and many others have demonstrated.

howie b said...

If we're in a sim, does that change the meaning of our lives or stuff like existentialism?
Are we just entertainment for the Gods? Or can we bracket that junk out, and carpe diem?