Tuesday, January 5, 2010

God By Committee

From Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City:

"Simulated worlds theory says that computing power is inevitably going to rise to a level where it's possible to create a simulation of an entire universe, in every detail, and populated with little simulated beings, something like Biller's avatars, who sincerely believe they're truly alive. If you were in one of these simulated universes you'd never know it. Every sensory detail would be as complete as the world around us, the world as we find it."
"Sure," said Perkus. "Everybody knows that." He tried to dismiss or encompass Oona's description before she could complete it. "It's common knowledge we could be living in a gigantic computer simulation unawares. I think science established that decades ago, for crying out loud. Your Junrow was--huh!--behind the curve on that one."
"Right, right," said Oona slyly. "But here's the point. If we agree that the odds are overwhelming that it's already happened, then we're just one of innumerable universes living in parallel, a series of experiments just to see how things will develop. You know, whether we'll end up destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons, or become a giant hippie commune, or whatever. There might be trillions of these simulations going on at once."
"Why couldn't we be the original?" I asked.
"We could be," said Oona. "But the odds aren't good. You wouldn't want to bet on it."

This is an old philosophical musing, akin to life as a dream and vice versa, but why is it at once so compelling and so idle? It shows both the potentially maddening limits of our knowledge and the total lack of practical implications for these limits. If it could somehow be shown that our universe is in fact a virtual simulation, this would not, and should not, change anything about what we do. This thought experiment also undermines our now millenia-old assumption that God is singular...


Retriever said...

Thinking of the people in the locker in Men in Black II, or the Matrix. Then again, there is always the Platonic cave metaphor for life as a mere shadow of the true reality.

I never could understand that "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream" refrain to Row Your Boat, unless it is an Epicurean (sic?) reference to Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die...

If one had that horrible 18th century view of God as the Cosmic Watchmaker, one could also imagine God running a gazillion experiments simultaneously, ruthlessly ending most, following others....I can't quite imagine it, tho.

It would be too much like some person playing the field with multiple romantic partners, each of whom was deeply in love with or at least obsessed with him or her. It would be not only unkind, but against the nature of love. If one believes, as I do, that God so loved the world, one believes in that singularity thing. Only One God. With a heart big enough for all of us.

The analogy I come up with is that He's like the teacher more important to the student than vice versa (or doctor and patient, or any other relationship where someone is important to many). But it's known. And he wants all the experiments to work and lacks objectivity about them...

Excuse mindless blather (have a cold, brain-dead today)

Anonymous said...

'If it could somehow be shown that our universe is in fact a virtual simulation, this would not, and should not, change anything about what we do'

Won't humanity just nihilistically spiral out of moral control? -- Intentionality and consquentiality are virtual simulations; hence all murder is pre-determined/programmed fiction/nothing.

Novalis said...

I guess I no longer believe that determinism implies nihilism. What matters for a conscious being is that she herself not know her future decisions and their outcomes; that some other being(s) may be privy to this knowledge is irrelevant to her moral choices.

If she herself became privy to such omniscience, this in itself would alter the deterministic chain into something new. And our decisions--about right and wrong, about how one ought to live--construct the deterministic chain as well. A fatalistic attitude just doesn't usually make for a happy consciousness. Consciousness is itself the "feeling of freedom," whether or not this feeling is metaphysically accurate.

As your first comment suggests, the crucial emotional issue is not so much reality vs. simulation, but the all-too-human need or hope to be *loved* by God(s). On this issue, despite myriad religious writings and beliefs, I can't help feeling that the universe is silent. Many feel otherwise, and they may be happier for that conviction.

A lovely Jenny Lewis song comes to mind that begins, "I was born secular, and inconsolable...I heard that He walked, He walked the earth..."

Novalis said...

Then again, on the same marvelous album Lewis sings, "You are what you love/ Not what loves you back/ I'm in love with illusions/ So saw me in half..."

Speaking of *wisdom*, out of the mouths of (alluring) indie pop singers...

Anonymous said...

I guess the 'emotional issue' of my comment has more to do with social responsibility/accountability and the need to be loved by other humans, not God/s. A universe with the empirical truth of godless existence still has the capacity for infinite morality. Belief in God's existence can just be statically factual, not a moral call to benevolent action. If humans are self-dependent (not god-dependent) for the ethical purity of their beingness, they become more pro-active in formulating a good life for themselves and others.

If humans are aware of their simulational status, the unreality of their existence, how can that not affect their behaviour? A godless universe can still be 'real', but a simulation is, by virtue of it's ontology, not 'real'. Simulation makes moral backsliding into brutish existence so 'natural', even desireable since the consequences aren;t 'real'.

The feeling of reality will always be contaminated by the knowledge of unreality.

Maybe simulated universes can start off deterministically, but later develop consciousness and free will; they become severed from their umbilical existence hitherto and gasp their first breath of 'reality', completely unbeholden. But how will they know they are no longer simulations?