AS235: Do We Live In A Simulation?

It’s an argument I’ve seen floating around multiple places lately. In the future, simulations of universes will surely outnumber the one regular universe. Therefore, it’s more likely we’re in a simulation! I think it’s actually a terrible argument and I talk about why.

Plus, more on the soccer team pay discrepency from last week, as I delved into a lot more sources on that. I also address some of the many comments on the gender pay gap I received.

Here’s a good article on the soccer teams.

34 thoughts on “AS235: Do We Live In A Simulation?”

  1. Thanks for saying that I thought I was alone in being amazed at the reaction to Prince’s death. I’m like 9 months younger than him so it’s not like I’m too young or old to get it, but to me he’s the has been who did purple rain 25 years ago. When I saw the news I said to my wife “Prince died”, and she was like “I didn’t know he was still alive”.

  2. Two problems off the top of my head with the simulated universe thing. Is World of Warcraft for example a simulation of Azeroth, or is it the “real” Azeroth? Since it only exists in a computer it’s both a simulation, and “real”, or as real as any Azeroth is. Likewise if a universe was simulated to the point that it’s a perfect representation of a universe down to individual particles it’s no less real than a real universe.The second problem sort of dovetails on that. If you created a perfect simulation of the universe it would require a computer much larger than the physical size of a universe to store all the bits that make it up unless you could build a computer than used particles smaller than any in the universe for storage, and where that dovetails wouldn’t a simulated universe even just the size of a universe, just be a universe?

  3. I NEVER said we shouldn’t provide the money to women. We shouldn’t provide it to anyone. You seem to imply that women have no agency, that they get pregnant and their stuck having to have a baby, and care for it. No, they should do what anyone who can’t afford a child should do, get an abortion, or give it up for adoption if they insist on having it. I’m not suggesting we should sterilize poor people who breed like rabbits, but we shouldn’t encourage them to have children either. That’s ridiculous.

    1. I wanted to add that in your response you mostly replied with “we should do this (essentially treat childbirth as a god given right) because it’s what we do”. With no defense as to why we should beyond an appeal to emotion. We do it largely because of the edict “be fruitful, and multiply”, which is seen both as a right, and obligation. There is no practical reason to encourage procreation when there is no shortage of people. Particularly given that such policies encourage the poor who already reproduce at a higher rate to reproduce even more so. I suppose their might be a prodigal reason for this if you’re a business looking for more minimum wage workers, but I don’t think it’s good for society as a whole.

    2. Mike, I should really learn to not read your comments on here because they often make me angry and a little bit afraid. But I did, so…

      “No, they should do what anyone who can’t afford a child should do, get an abortion, or give it up for adoption if they insist on having it. I’m not suggesting we should sterilize poor people who breed like rabbits, but we shouldn’t encourage them to have children either.”

      So, you’re *not* in favor of sterilization, but would be in favor of forced abortions and/or confiscating newborns from their mothers if the mothers are considered unfit. Sorry, but to me that sounds like exactly the same thing. I’m sure you’ll come back and say that I’m mistaken and there’s a world of difference if only I were smart enough to grasp it, but sorry. If I were pregnant, I would certainly fall into your category of “unfit to be a mother” and there would be not a whit of difference to me whether I were sterilized against my will, forced to have an abortion against my will, or had my child confiscated against my will. Note the common denominator in those three scenarios is coercion.

      It sounds to me like you’re suggesting that the ability to have a family should be the privilege of the wealthy and educated, and that only rich women should be able to choose to have one. In doing so, this requirement would deny the less-rich their right to bodily autonomy and to do with their lives what they want, based solely on their socioeconomic class. That’s a fundamental violation of human rights.

      Even if we’re not talking about an absolute ban on poorer women having children, societal pressure (in the form of shaming, ostracization and exclusion, etc) would have the same chilling effect on lower and middle-income women’s autonomy. I certainly hope you don’t really think that; if you do, I hope you don’t vote.

      1. “So, you’re *not* in favor of sterilization, but would be in favor of forced abortions and/or confiscating newborns from their mothers if the mothers are considered unfit.”

        WTF are you saying? That makes absolutely no sense unless you’re conflating taxpayers not supporting people so they can have children they can’t afford with confiscating newborns, or forcing them to have abortions.

  4. Hi Thomas, I couldn’t quite follow your objection to the simulated universe idea. I just listened to Sam Harris’s podcast today and as I understood it, it comes down to statistical probability. If you accept that we could develop the technology to create simulations, then, due to the relative ease of creating a simulated universe versus an actual universe, there would be vastly more simulations. Therefore, it is statistically likely we are in a simulation. It didn’t seem to me to hinge on contingent facts about our reality, but please enlighten me if I’ve missed something

    1. Hmm I’m not sure what to say other than restating it. Let’s say premise 1 is “we could develop the technology to great simulations” Thats completely contingent on facts about the world we live in. We could just as easily live in a world without computers. The silicon chip could have never been invented. Since a simulation could have ANY possible rules, we can’t use premise 1, which was contingent on facts about our world, to then conclude that our world isn’t or likely isn’t the real world. An analogy would be the characters in a video game (which could be any reality, say Halo or Mario) drawing conclusions about the real world from their environment.

      1. Except they’re NOT drawing conclusions about the real world. Everyone agrees that IF we were a simulation, we couldn’t draw any conclusions about the ‘real’ universe because of the reasons you state.. Essentially this simulation discussion is a variation on the hard solipsism problem. If it were true, you couldn’t tell the difference between real and simulation (brain in a vat)

      2. OK, I get it. If we’re in a simulation, we’re using facts drawn from the simulation to conclude that people in the real universe could develop the technology to create simulations. Maybe you could put this to Sam or David Chalmers on Twitter etc. I’d be interested in the response

      3. I agree with Thomas. I have not listened to the entire podcast I’m at your point about not being able to determine it.

        I feel like the argument is much like the cosmological argument. Things that begin to exist have a cause, the universe began to exist therefore it has a cause. No, if the premise is true, the rule of causation is part of the laws inside the universe, the rules don’t necessarily apply to the universe itself.

        Which is the same as looking round and assuming statistically we are in a simulation. Just because we can statistically analyse how easy it is to create a simulation based on what we understand of simulations inside this universe, that does not mean we can apply those rules to the universe itself as a simulation.

        I hope this makes sense.

    2. “If you accept that we could develop the technology to create simulations, then, due to the relative ease of creating a simulated universe versus an actual universe”

      I completely disagree with the idea that creating a simulated universe would be relatively easy. Creating a simulated universe like world of warcraft that looks vaguely real from a visual perspective alone requires relatively little computer power, and on 40gb or so of storage, but to create one that was as real as reality would require incomprehensible computer power, and storage. I suppose some shortcuts could be done where the anything beyond our solar system was the equivalent of green screen, but still. I mean just imagine the computer bits required just to visually represent a single atom, and atoms aren’t even the smallest particles every one of which would have to be simulated not just physically but in every aspect including properties, and behavior. It’s a much more problematic task than the way it’s generally represented,

      1. Relatively easy: easy relative to creating an actual universe. “Incomprehensible computer power” may seem incomprehensible to us now, but not in the future. You only need to grant the hypothetical possibility that a simulation is possible. It would be pretty bold to claim it’s impossible and that at no point will we ever have the technology to do it. No one is saying it would be easy.

        1. ““Incomprehensible computer power” may seem incomprehensible to us now,but not in the future.”
          If a species were to survive long enough to get to that point which many people think we won’t, and is one hypothesis used to explain why we have never been contacted by extraterrestrials,

          “It would be pretty bold to claim it’s impossible and that at no point will we ever have the technology to do it. No one is saying it would be easy.”
          I agree, but the point I’ve been making is it’s not anything like a sure things as many seem to be implying. In fact if Thomas’ characterization is correct Daniel Dennett is convinced we’re living a simulation, That’s a far bolder claim than my considering it a very questionable claim.

  5. I too feel out numbered in saying that although I can see that Prince was a talented musician, His music did nothing for me and he seemed a bit odd.
    The idea of creating or living in a simulation seems be so far beyond our abilities to do or understand that it really doesn’t interest me. I suppose it provides a lot of ideas for the science fiction writers though.

  6. Good enjoyable episode again, well done! I actually agree with Paps that we should not encourage more people to have kids, but as (for some reason) most people seem to consider it as a right or something they need to do, I’m happy to leave this to other angles of attack, as it were. Decreasing religiosity, increasing education, womens rights etc. all seem to work towards this same goal.

    Talking about goals I also wanted to put out a comment about the USWNT soccer pay debate. I consider myself a bit of a soccer fan and of the women’s game as well. You Americans should be really proud of your women’s team because they have been really superb in the last few years. Just a reminder that the rest of the world is pretty envious of your domestic college set-up. Because the USWNT are on the crest of a wave, it must have seemed like a good time for the best players to push for more pay; whether you think they deserve it or not is another matter. The NYT article was pretty thorough, it was a good read. My take was that the top level players were earning a lot already (but within their rights to ask for more – you don’t ask, you don’t get – like with the per diem thing) but as soon as you get outside the top 20 or so, they were badly underpaid.

    The results of people asking for pay rises aren’t always fair, whichever way the decision goes. My personal view is the big players like your Morgans and Lloyds are probably getting paid enough as it is – certainly by US Soccer – what we don’t want to see is the same mess as the men’s game is in with some players earning 10s of millions now and much loved clubs facing bankruptcy as they can’t pay the stellar wages. I think the solution might involve the NWSL teams paying the players more instead, this might lead to the big players caring about the league a bit more too. Also help the NWSL attract better players. I’d rather see a more broadly equal pay range where the top few hundred players, many of whom work just or nearly as hard as the top 30 or so around the national squad, are paid least a decent basic wage. Hopefully this will then filter out to other countries as well.

  7. After this weeks show I thought I would leave you a fun reading list
    ThiGMOO by Eugene Byrne where a bunch of AI’s based on historical mindsets become self aware and end up taking over the world. When reading this book, and coming across the US President, please remember this was written Pre Bush II.
    Second is Scott Meyers Off to be the Wizard series about when some people realise they are part of a simulated universe and start hacking it.
    The third recommend is The Science of the Discworld Series written by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen where some Wzards from Unseen University create a Universe simulation (us) and try to figure out how a universe works without Narrativium.

  8. Thank you for addressing my comment on the podcast. It was not my intent to put you on the defensive with my thoughts.

    What is the point of men soccer players get paid more than women soccer players if it was not about fairness? And from the Wikipedia page, “the remaining 6% of the gap has been speculated to originate from deficiency in salary negotiating skills and sexual discrimination.” Sex discrimination sounds like unfairness to me. Probably not your intent to dismiss unfairness in the Tomentary, It is a factor, just not the main one.

    I intended to further the discussion by identifying the different arguments for the cause of the gender pay gap, so I was disappointed that you did not address the other two sections of my comment. I tried to insert some nuance into the discussion and you seemed to miss that. Maybe it is the limited time, or maybe it is the complexity of the topics, but your recent discussions on GMO and the pay gap did not contain much in the way of thought provoking inquiry that is normally present in your podcasts. For example in the GMO podcast, your guest’s comment that “I want the most stuff for the lowest price” went without any follow-up, when, in my opinion, that is the quintessential example of why smart people are skeptical of GMO proponents. In the gender pay gap discussion, Bea Haven’s argument that it exist because of the way women are socialized went with nary a follow up, when the PSF podcast goes into some detail. If fact Bea Haven’s response to my comment was more though provoking than your response.

    Also, yes women do take care of aging parents more than men. “Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, and they play many roles while caregiving-hands-on health provider, care manager, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker and advocate” with the value of the informal care that women provide estimated between $148 billion to $188 billion annually. See the Family Caregiver Alliance webpage for citations. 2 Minutes on Google would have prevented the miss information that it is “equally on men and women.”

    1. It would have taken like an entire episode to address all the parts of your comment to your satisfaction. I tried to pick a piece of it but it appears that I must have mistaken something in that piece, I guess. It’s actually hard to tell because you say that I implied or said things that I didn’t, so I’d guess that maybe we’re both mistaking each other somewhat?
      As for the GMO episode comment, I believe you’re mistaking a disagreement with a lack of “inquiry.” When it comes to feeding the world’s poor, I find absolutely no problem with wanting the most food at the lowest expense and I can’t imagine why anyone would have a problem with that. Feel free to comment and elaborate on your thoughts but it wouldn’t occur to me to bring up that objection in a million years.

      1. Most stuff for the lowest price is not the same as safest and most nutritious. Efficiency might be the way to go for GMOs but imagine a Mom concerned about her child’s health and try to persuade her to feed her child corn because it has been modified to grow faster. I wasn’t agreeing or disagreeing I thought you could have asked something like, you said you want the most stuff for the lowest price, how do you take safety and nutrition into account? I think that’s pretty non confrontational. Just because he doesn’t work for Monsanto doesn’t mean his priorities should not be scrutinized. You can still challenge someone’s position even if you agree. It better informs you listeners.
        Oh and I have a pretty low bar for satisfaction. You could have briefly mentioned the other two reasons for the pay gap in my comment. Sure it would take multiple podcasts to explore but only a few seconds to mention. Particularly since one of those reasons was held by your guest. I felt taken out of context when you responded to my comment merely as an unfair attack.

    2. Oh and as for the caregiving, nowhere did I mean to say that men and women performed those rolls equally. I simply meant that compared to pregnancy, which is only ever inflicted on women, the other two categories of leave were available to both men and women.

      1. “I simply meant that compared to pregnancy, which is only ever inflicted on women, the other two categories of leave were available to both men and women.”

        Again the implication that women have no agency when it comes to having children. I’m sorry Thomas but in 21st century western nations no one has pregnancy “inflicted on them”. It’s a choice that should be made by women when they are financially able to have children. If you truly believe it is inflicted on them you should oppose maternity leave, or child care credits given they support a system that inflicts it on women. It’s rather like subsidizing the sale of Burka’s, and arguing it helps women when in fact it assists in the subjugation of women.

      2. Not sure I’m tracking here. Sure the physical act of birth is restricted to women, but the time to recover from the physical trauma is not long. The FMLA allows men to take leave to care for a newborn, just not paid leave. Maybe I’m wrong but I think that’s the time you refer to and not the time to recover from the physical act of birth when you suggest paid maternity leave.

  9. Sorry, I have to disagree about ‘smart people’ disagreeing with GMO’s. That’s not an argument at all, in fact it’s very lazy. Linus Pauling was a VERY smart guy, who believed that Vitamin C would cure the common cold and extend life. He was demonstrably wrong. Being smart does not preclude you from being wrong, Phil.

    1. And Newton practiced alchemy not sure you got my point. There are reasons to be skeptical about GMOs that don’t just fall into the category of scared ignorant or looney. Besides it’s difficult to persuade someone if the argument starts with you must be ignorant or crazy to think that or trust me it’s to complicated for you to understand. That seems to be the default position of GMO proponents

      1. Your writing contains an awful lot of “you missed my point.” After seeing this comment which contains even more of you arguing against things I didn’t say, I’m forced to conclude the problem may not lie entirely with me. When did I say you were crazy or that it’s too complicated to understand? I would never say that. Or if you’re only saying that other GMO proponents have said this, what relevance is that to my comment which you again said missed the point? Meaning no offense, you are one the most confusing commenters I’ve ever come across, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to go ahead and leave this thread be, but feel free to comment again in the future if you want to start over and lay out your thoughts a little better or something. I’m truly sorry for not being able to follow your thought process.

      1. I wanted to add that I think they should be added because they give people the opportunity to express their opinion (with a like) without the fear they’ll be called out in a Tommontary. I’m not worried about that as any regular listener, or reader knows, but I know some people are.

  10. I think the main point you are missing in the simulated universe scenario is that nobody is assigning any kind of expectations at all. A simulation simply says, “here are the forces we know about and here is a singularities worth of energy. Go.” The big bang happens and the forces do whatever they do. The simulation will do whatever the simulation does. Perhaps only 1 in a 100 simulations creates life. Perhaps only 1 in 100 of those actually creates intelligent life. Perhaps only 1 in 100 of those actually creates intelligence suitable to create a new simulation.

    I think you think that someone behind the scenes is guiding the simulation to specifically create intelligent life. Not necessarily so.

  11. The simulated universe hypothesis is quite simply magical thinking.

    I’ve heard this idea a number of times and never understood why the most obvious objection that came to my mind when I first heard it was never raised by the obviously intelligent individuals discussing it.

    There’s one assumption that you must grant for the simulation hypothesis to get off the ground, and I think that assumption is mathematically impossible or contradictory. The assumption is this:

    You can build a finite information processor that is capable of greater than 100% efficiency and absolutely perfect accuracy. In other words, capable of processing more information more quickly than is required for the physics that operate the processor in its universe.

    I think this is mathematically impossible. If anyone can come up with a computing model that can do this, we can create an infinitely powerful (and infinitely fast!) computer in a finite space and time.

    I’m a software engineer, and have worked on some simulations in the past, as well as graphics engines, and more.

    The reality of simulations is that the simulation is always a gross approximation of something you’re attempting to model. People seem to forget that every operation performed on the simulated computer actually has to be performed on a real computer. Simulating a computer only adds an extra layer of inefficiency to performing an operation.

    Simulating computers has its utility (for example when testing a new chip design), but is always extremely inefficient compared to real hardware. And that’s just simulating the internal computing processes, not the physics of a universe in which stellar evolution takes place, leading to the eventual evolution of intelligent life somewhere in the simulation, leading to the eventual invention of computation and building of physical computers inside a simulation… That’s just ludicrous!

    Obviously I’ve never programmed a quantum computer, but I doubt even a quantum computer could simulate a quantum computer with greater quantum computing capacity than the original quantum computer has. If there’s an expert on quantum computation available to refute me, I’d love to hear it.

    Assuming you could create simulations that contain simulated computers with a greater capacity than the real computer running the simulation is the same kind of magical thinking that leads one to assume that you could keep compressing a large file until it is only one bit without losing any information. That’s not how compression works, and this is not how simulations work.

  12. As someone who has designed numerous computer systems, BOTH hardware and software over the years- I put off listening to this specific episode for a long time because I knew it would be sooooo annoying.

    This entire idea revolves around the assumption you can build a computer system powerful enough to simulate reality for numerous conscious entities. I fully agree with you that we should eventually be able to build self aware robots and those independent robots could interact with each other and with humans.

    But building a computer system large enough to host numerous self aware beings AND all their input is another matter entirely.

    Let’s start with one obvious fallacy mentioned in the program, Moore’s Law. Computer hardware’s ability keeps doubling every 18 months. Moore’s Law is an OBSERVATION made back in 1965. It’s not a law, and every study to date shows IT’s OVER. We are reaching the physical limits of our universe. Computer hardware no longer doubles every 18 months and there’s no path forward for this type of progress anymore.

    Now let’s consider an elementary problem in computer hardware design. Even when I designed my first commercial microcomputer back in 1978? I had to contend with this problem. Computer circuitry works at speeds FASTER than nanoseconds, but electricity only moves 11.8 inches in 1 nanosecond. So when you build a computer bus that multiple boards plug into, you have to take light speed delay into your hardware design. This is why all modern complicated electronics are small. They won’t work if they are big!

    A physically giant computer isn’t possible for that very reason. Signals would take too long to get from one part of the machine to the far side. You could build giant networks of little computers, say 1 computer for each intelligence, but they then have problems communication with each other due to light speed. And you need another network of computers feeding input to each simulated being. (There is no sentience without input, and most likely output that influences that input.)

    Next consider that computer hardware often breaks. When the processor running your simulated friend Bobby breaks down, something has to notice that, shut Bobby down, and fix him. And what about YOU? If you were talking to Bobby- do you have to be shut down? Then what about the people talking to you? Does the entire universe stop until Bobby is fixed?

    There are many other problems with the whole idea (including things like the computer would need more particles than exist in our universe), but I think you get the idea.

    The core assumption that a giant computer could exist within the constraints of our universe is absurd. If it’s outside our universe’s constraints, then we would have absolutely no reference point to discuss the concept. Like the idea of communicating with a being that doesn’t experience time. We don’t even have language that can bridge that gap.

    PS: I do listen all the time to atheistically speaking and open arguments. You can email me if you want more info.

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