Is your life real? Or are we all living and dying on the whim of some unknown entity that is pulling the strings in the universe’s biggest supercomputer video game? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Gary Deel talks to Dr. Steve Wyre about simulation theory.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about simulation theory. My guest today is Dr. Steve Wyre. Steve is currently an Associate Professor for American Public University, teaching philosophy courses. He completed a master’s in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Phoenix, where he’s also worked as the Director of Academic Affairs at their Chattanooga campus.
His research covered critical thinking and metacognition. He’s married with four grown children, three of whom are in college to become teachers. Steve, welcome to Intellectible and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. Steve Wyre: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Our pleasure. This is an interesting concept, and I think that many fans of science fiction may be surprised to know that a lot of people who are respected, as arguably talented or brilliant thinkers credibly believe that there’s some truth behind the idea that we might, in fact, be living in a simulation.
In the interest of educating folks who may never have been introduced to this concept before, could you share with us a little bit of the history behind the idea in the abstract of simulation theory, and this, of course, goes all the way back to René Descartes and the idea that our reality may be not quite what it seems.
Dr. Steve Wyre: Descartes is interesting because, in a way, what we say about his scenario is not really true. He does imagine that all the things that his senses are telling him were fake. He does mention the fact that he thinks that he could be in a situation where he’s being tempted by an evil demon. But, by the time you get to the final Meditation, he’s dismissed all of that. In fact, he claims that because of his situation, it was all laughable – at best – because he’s absolutely convinced that he was created by a non-deceiving God, and because he clearly and distinctly believes that, or perceives that, that it’s something he cannot not believe. If you look at the Meditations, you have to kind of take him in a fun way because if you look at the letter to the Sorbonne, he’s basically trying to get their blessing so that he doesn’t end up like Galileo. But you get people who put things into this and read things into it that they want to.
There was a paper written, I think it’s , it was written by a guy named Hilary Putnam, and it’s about a brain in a vat. That had a bigger wave because he really was talking about that if you were a brain in a vat, the situation would entail that you would never know that you were a brain in a vat or that you could never tell that you were a brain in a vat.
It’s a fascinating paper and it sparked a lot of other conversations about that, but this conversation has been in philosophy for a long time. I mean, I remember in the ’90s, when I was in school, we would have … It’s extreme solipsism. It’s like, imagine that you are someone else’s imagination.
What if someone is dreaming you? What if everything you believe about yourself is not real, but it’s part of this person’s history that they’ve made up for you? They may be in a coma and just imagining you exist, and if that person ever wakes up, then your entire life will be gone. It doesn’t really get anybody anywhere because if it was true, then life would be completely meaningless and there we are. Life would be meaningless.
Although, there’s a good chance life is meaningless anyway. You get to Bostrom, and if you read his paper, he makes some assumptions that are just unfounded. For example, he makes the assumption that if we could create a computer simulation that could directly mimic the function of a brain, that that simulation would gain consciousness.
But there’s no real reason to believe that, because even if we get to where Elon Musk talks about with these games that are indistinguishable from reality, it’s still a human person in there or it’s the program. The program’s not going to develop its own consciousness, even though they’re talking about the stuff it’s like making leaps and bounds. There’s a great institute in [Switzerland], and it’s called The Blue Brain Project, and you could look them up, and their stuff is absolutely fascinating, but they have been trying to digitally recreate a mouse brain.
They’ve been working on this mouse brain since 2005, and they’re not done yet. They’ve been working for quite a while to create a mouse brain, and their hope is that once they create this mouse brain, that they’ll be able to do things with the digital copy that they don’t want to do to an actual mouse, like change the synaptic connections, change this, change that, simulate various kinds of brain damage, to extrapolate things from that towards humans, but they haven’t figured it out yet.
One unanswered question is once they finally get this mouse brain completely put together, will it wake up? If they can enable it to have something called vision, would it actually see another mouse and go, “Uh-oh, that’s one of me?” We don’t know. The idea that you can create a computer simulation that would gain consciousness is really a step that goes probably a little bit too far.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. That opens a number of additional lines of inquiry here, so that “brain in a vat” idea comes back to the notion that if we could simulate all of that for you, you’d have no way of knowing whether you are, in fact, experiencing something that’s real or you’re just being fed a stream of inputs, sensory inputs, that makes you feel like the world around you is where you are. What is to say that we, you and I, having this podcast right now, aren’t existing in some type of advanced video game of a civilization that’s been around for millions of years?” This is Grand Theft Auto 47, and we are in the most recent version, and we’re just computer programs. We can’t recognize it because we feel real, and yet, this is all a video game to us. How would we know that it’s not? I think those are staggering implications.
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Dr. Steve Wyre: Yeah. We’ve talked before. I mentioned that even though I’ve got my own conviction that we’re not, it wouldn’t take a whole lot to change my mind, and with consciousness, I’m really kind of divided because I really do believe that consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of a normally functioning brain, but, I mentioned this before, that if you take someone who’s been born blind, they never dream of things they haven’t seen.
And just the way the normal brain functions, if you look at the way it develops, you’ve got this synaptic pruning after the baby is born. The baby has to have a certain amount of stimulation or connections don’t get made. There’s a girl named Genie who was horribly abused, basically a feral child, and even though she was rescued, because she missed these windows of opportunities, she can’t speak, can’t function in society in a normal way, so it’s like your brain has to have actual stimulation through your senses to have the kind of brain connections you’re going to have.
There’s just so much about the human brain that requires that kind of interaction. Now, I guess it could be possible for a sophisticated computer to simulate that, but I have to wonder like, “To what point?” Here’s an example.
If we look in the space in the night sky, and I know I’ve seen Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about the fact that the programmers could build what they need when they need it and that we can’t go faster than the speed of light because that’s what time it takes them to build out farther into what they do. But we know, unless we’re all being duped, that we can see 92 billion light years away. We can actually process light that came at us from billions of years ago, and I don’t know why a computer would do that.
I had an interesting conversation a few decades back with a guy who was a “young earther,” he wasn’t young, but he believed the earth was only 6,000 years old, and I said, “What about all these fossil and things?” He looked at me right in the eye and he said, “God deliberately created the appearance of age to fool the non-believers so they’ll burn in hell where they belong.” Who would want to serve a God like that?
It’s like, “What would the purpose be behind all of this expanse?” and we know that the cosmos is still expanding. We know that if physics is true, it will be a few billion years. We’re going to end up, if our planet is not one day consumed by the sun, that we’ll be a cold, dead rock in a dark sky. It’s inevitable.
It’s coming. Why would someone build that into the program?
Then, I also think of things like, I’m pretty sure my wife is a real person, or at least a person, but how can we witness events, very different memories of how it went? You would think if a programmer was doing this, there would be the ability to program us with the same memory, or at least the same observations about the same event. But I can tell you that that’s just not true. We remember things very differently sometimes, and I’m pretty sure sometimes she misremembers them, but she would say the same thing about me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think there’s variations there that obviously have to be reconciled or explained in some way, and so I think in my view, you’d have, if you were leaning in the direction of the simulation theory, you could argue that either A, the variation or the variability was programmed in to create some sense of distinction from one individual to the next so you don’t have a cookie-cutter, everybody’s exactly the same.
Or this could potentially be explained through the fact that even today’s software, when you look at it, is imperfect, so you have … Sometimes you would like to retrieve a file, but the program says, “I can’t find the file anymore because there was a mistake made somewhere, and I really wish I could help you do what you want to do, but somewhere along the way, the programmer had an error, and there you go.” We’ve been speaking with Dr. Steve Wyre about the implications of simulation theory. We’ll be right back after a short break.
The arguments coming from people like Musk and others would say that this could simply just be nothing more than creative expression of some civilization, so as to say that we are sort of a digital ant farm of sorts that simulates what the imagination, as you pointed out earlier, of some, whatever you want to describe as “real” civilization producing the equivalent of a novel or a video game that plays out a story, and we’re all just sort of characters in that story.
You could think of a real ant farm, and they’re watching us through a digital looking glass as we kind of bump around in this video game and experience challenges in our digital lives and our fictional stories, and they’re watching us like a movie. That’s confusing to many and frightening to many, but what is interesting to me is the argument about probabilities. I don’t know how much you’ve been exposed to this, but thinkers like Musk go so far as to argue not just that this is a possibility, but that it’s almost a mathematical certainty based on just simple odds of the situation.
Have you seen any of that with respect to the arguments that go further than to say yes, it’s possible we’re in a simulation, but that it’s almost a definite conclusion that we are?
Dr. Steve Wyre: I have, and it’s kind of a numbers trick. You really can’t extrapolate anything from a sample size of one. So at the moment, we’re the only universe that we know of, we’re the only planet that has life that we know of. Now, when the James Webb telescope is fully functional and starts sending back information, that may change, and then it may need to be revisited, but right now, all we know of is us, and to try and imagine even 1,000 years in the future would be very, very difficult. It’s like statistically …
I’m trying to think of Lisa’s last name. She was on the one video that you shared when they were doing the Isaac Asimov conference with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and she said that “If we’re going with the statistics that they use, then I should be Chinese. Because if you look at all of the people on the planet, there’s a greater percentage of Chinese people, so the statistics would support me believing that I’m Chinese, even though I’m obviously not.”
But you could also use the statistics to make a claim that when I was born in 1958, there were less than three billion people on the planet, but now there are almost eight billion people on the planet. By those statistics, when I was born, believing that I lived on a planet with eight billion people would’ve been justified even though it wasn’t, because more people makes it a greater chance that I’m living in this group of people. That seems kind of odd to me.
The book by William Poundstone, who, it’s called The Doomsday Calculation, that I got a lot of material from it, it was Mark Twain that said that there are lies, damn lies, and then statistics, and you can really prove a lot of things with statistics that’s just not real. It’s not really a good thought.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, depending on your scope, you can certainly be misled by the implications of statistics in general, and particularly correlation versus causation. I’ve found quite a few really humorous examples throughout my career of situations where you have a simple coincidence of correlation that amounts to a laughable comparison in reality and in context. I’m taken aback by the argument from, and I guess it is a statistical plausibility argument that says that, “Look, let’s imagine,” and this is essentially Elon Musk’s position on the issue. “Let’s imagine that there’s one ‘real civilization’ that develops the first iteration of digital consciousness.” And so Musk simply says, “Well, if you have that, if you have one ‘Real reality,’ and then any number of 10,000, a million, a billion digitals, and we know that we’re somewhere in that chain, as we’re having this conversation, what are the odds that we’re the real one that has yet to give rise to the first digital consciousness versus any number in between, any one of the digital layers?” That’s hard to wrestle with for the mind.
Dr. Steve Wyre: That’s the key though. David Kipling, who is an astronomer at Columbia University, took argument from, I believe Sean Carroll, which is the same kind of a thing. You have base reality that it spawns some generations, some which do, some which don’t, and then Carroll was saying that with each iteration, you would lose computing power. You would have things, the ability to take up cycles of whatever, which go down. It would degrade, that by the time you get to the fourth or fifth level, you basically have the garbage universes, the universes that will never be able to do it.
The math that Kipling uses to work on his site shows that since we are currently living in a reality where we do not have the capability of creating a simulation or simulated reality where consciousness would exist, he said there’s a 98% chance that we are living in base reality.
But he also states that if we get to the point as a species where we can create the simulation that produces consciousness and sets about a world like we have now, the statistics flip. But the argument is pretty good. It looks pretty good to me, so I can take a 98% chance that I’m in base reality and a 2% chance that I’m not, but some of it, we’ll just have to wait and see. I would love to look forward to retirement someday. It might be nice to go and enjoy the stuff I built. That’s another good thing that might go against a simulation.
If you look at the stock market, a little bit ago, I pulled it up, I was looking at it, and you can see if you’ve got the software, how many shares are trading for different companies. So, when I was sitting there watching something like Google, and you can see hundreds of thousands of people buying and trading shares, looking at Apple, millions of people trading shares. You could go in and look at stock options, and unless someone’s just programming numbers to be fake, I don’t know why they would do that. The market is, above all things irrational, and I don’t know why someone would create a stock market that was irrational, and that actually opens a door to the ethics. I don’t ever hear anybody talking about the ethics. We have people die.
We have people get into tragic accidents. We have people get into situations. Children die of brain cancer. That gets to the creator problem. I mean, if the programmer is deliberately setting that up, then isn’t there something a bit twisted about the programmer who would put that much pain on one of his or her creations?
So if you’re creating this reality, why would you create something like that, but that gets into the whole problem with evil thing and the whole deal with God, God either choosing not to stop evil, but it does seem kind of bizarre because the program is literally snuffing out fake consciousness, if it’s fake consciousness, or we should have a lot less consideration for humans because if we are in a simulation, then somebody can just hit replay.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. These are interesting applications that sort of could cause you to spiral into a nihilistic attitude about the whole thing because none of it matters if we are in a simulation, and as you were describing that, I was thinking about here in the real world, most of us don’t really lose sleep over the idea that we might even inadvertently step on an ant and we treat our video games with far less consideration than the ant. We do unspeakable horrific things in video games, and frankly, I’m a party to that. I played Grand Theft Auto before, and if you’re familiar with that game, I mean, it promotes the most despicable kind of criminal behavior. In fact, the whole purpose of the video game is to be a successful criminal, which includes robberies and murders and all manner of things.
Obviously, the vast majority of people who play these games and do horrific things in the video games would not do them in our reality, but it is interesting to think about, “What does that mean for the ethics of a simulation, and would anything matter anymore?”
Dr. Steve Wyre: Exactly, and again, we can actually have this conversation now about any sort of deity because the evil still exists, whatever you want to call it, to think that people are deliberately programming it, and of course, it just all flies out the window. It’s bizarre. One more thing that I think, to me that’s fascinating, is our health. I have something called essential tremors. No big deal.
It’s not anything, well, it’s kind of neurological, but it’s no huge thing, but if I don’t take my medication, anytime I try to hold something with two hands, my hands shake, so you could call that a glitch if you want to, but it just seems like if it were a computer program, what an odd glitch to make, or getting a cavity, or losing a tooth, breaking a finger? These are just little things. Why would you work that into it?
This is bizarre, but I worked for American Airlines for a number of years and broke one of my toes multiple times. To fix that, they actually had to go in, open it up, take a planer, plane off some of the bone pieces and pull them out and make it work. I’m pretty sure when the guy was taking the little bone fragments out, he wasn’t going, “This guy’s not real,” “I’m not really here,” “We’re not really doing this,” “The pain that was alleviated wasn’t real,” “It was all just in my mind.” That just seems rather odd to me. I think we could find enough normal situations just in life just like, “Why would somebody put that into a computer program?” and it just doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. The question becomes whether that was by design or like you said, as a result of a glitch. Well, this has been really interesting, and I’m glad, I think we covered a lot of the different topics here. There’s a lot to this and there’s sort of an endless spiral of thought that comes out of “If we were in a simulation, how would we ever know it?” Probably we couldn’t, and what would that mean for us, what the statistical probabilities are, but it is interesting to ponder. But I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics today, and thanks, Steve, for joining me for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. Steve Wyre: And thanks for having me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various American Public University sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.