A couple of commentators on a previous post pointed me to an Arc Digital article by Thomas Metcalf which contends that the Simulation Argument (SA) ought to be taken more seriously. (Metcalf’s article wasn’t written in response to mine, although it appeared a week or so afterward: post hoc sed non propter hoc.)
I don’t think there’s anything in the article that poses any problems for the arguments I gave in my post. Rather than respond to every point, I’ll just quote a few sections and make some comments.
Metcalf observes that the SA has two key premises:
The Empirical Premise: Most of the “people” who think they’re real, flesh-and-blood humans are actually conscious computer programs.
The Indifference Premise: If most people are simulated, then you are probably simulated.
As I explained in my earlier post, I think the first premise is false, and necessarily so. It’s not metaphysically possible for a computer program to be conscious, assuming that the computer in question is a purely physical mechanism. (I think Metcalf actually commits a category error in his statement of the Empirical Premise. A computer program is abstract in nature; it’s a set of instructions that can be run by one or more physical computers. So a computer program wouldn’t be conscious; it would be the computer running the program, if it were possible for a computer to be conscious.)
The second premise looks problematic too. Metcalf elaborates:
The idea behind the Indifference Premise is simple: If most people have some feature, then absent other evidence, you should guess that you probably have that feature.
Most people have the following feature: not being me. Should I therefore guess that I’m probably not me too? Perhaps the “absent other evidence” clause is supposed to foreclose such trivial counterexamples. But what kind of evidence is in view here? Observational evidence? Surely that’s not the kind of evidence that would confirm my self-identity. Self-identity is known a priori. Couldn’t I also know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation? Well, if I can know a priori that no purely material object can be conscious, then I can know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation. All this to say, both premises of Metcalf’s SA seem to hang on the controversial notion that a computer can be conscious.
(Spoiler: Betteridge’s law applies.)
I’ve been asked several times recently how I would respond to the claim that we are (or might well be) living inside a computer simulation. I don’t think the folk who pose the question to me are themselves worried the claim might be true; rather, they recognize it as a new kind of skeptical challenge and they’re curious to know how Christians might respond to it. Also, I suspect they’ve encountered some unbelievers who use the simulation hypothesis as a kind of nuclear option to derail serious discussions about the evidence for Christian claims. (“How do you know you haven’t been brainwashed into believing Christianity? How do you know you’re not being deceived by a malevolent demon? How do you know you’re not in a dream right now? How do you know the entire universe isn’t just an elaborate computer simulation? Huh? Huh?”)
As it happens, there are some smart people who take the simulation hypothesis seriously: Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Scott Adams, among others. They don’t necessarily believe it, but they don’t think it’s implausible. So what can be said in response? Can the hypothesis be refuted?
Neil Postman, writing three decades ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 1986):
In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.
You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into—what else?—another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing. (pp. 68-69)
Prior to the 1984 presidential elections, the two candidates confronted each other on television in what were called “debates.” These events were not in the least like the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as, What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer was determined by the “style” of the men—how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. In the second debate, President Reagan got off a swell one-liner when asked a question about his age. The following day, several newspapers indicated that Ron had KO’d Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen by the people in the Age of Television. (p. 97)
How far things have come since 1986!
I bought a Kindle Keyboard 3G last year, and at first I didn’t like it one bit. My wife, on the other hand, quickly took to it; she was thrilled to discover how many classic works of literature are available for free or $0.99. After that I could barely prise it out of her hands. On a whim, while on vacation, I decided to buy a copy of Mark Steyn’s After America and a subscription to The Spectator (UK edition, of course). Steyn’s side-splitting jeremiad is a riveting read, and the Kindle subscription to The Spectator (delivered instantly on the day of publication each week) is a fraction of the price of an overseas subscription. Together they cured me of Kindle-phobia. In fact, I’d find it hard to live without it now. (I had to buy a second one for my wife.)
Recently it occurred to me how useful it would be to have the Hebrew OT and Greek NT on my Kindle. (For an English translation I already have the free ESV for Kindle — thanks, Crossway!) I did some hunting and found the following, which I thought I’d pass on for interested readers:
Several years ago I created Bible Refalizer: an extension for Firefox that automatically hyperlinks Bible references in any web page to an online Bible. I’ve made a few minor improvements over the years in response to user feedback, but I haven’t implemented the most commonly requested feature, namely, the option to add tooltips containing the Bible passage to the hyperlinks. I haven’t added that feature because, in all honesty, it would take too much work and I don’t have the time and motivation.
Until now, that is.