Do you concede that at some point in our future it may be possible for us to program/create a system that is inhabited by self-aware entities oblivious of our existence?

If this is possible wouldn’t the chances of us currently being in the very first top level system be vanishingly minute – and wouldn’t the burden of proof be reversed? – you would have to prove that we’re not living in such a system.

If you accept this wouldn’t you be more correct labeling yourself Agnostic instead of the more fashionable Atheist?

Posted: November 1st 2007

flagellant www

The most interesting and critical part of your question is the inclusion of 'self-aware’. If we produce self-aware life, why would we want such an entity to be unaware of our existence? Even supposing that we could do it, why would we? I can think of plenty of reasons why we wouldn’t but only one why we would: to attempt to emulate the fictitious character 'God’. Perhaps some people would want to play god but, scientifically speaking, it would be far more interesting to have full interaction with such a life form. At the practical level it would also, for example, be possible to get this life form to do things for us.

Apparently, Craig Venter (first sequencer of the human genome) says that he is about to undertake some experiments to create artificial life. He expects to produce self-replicating asexual 'life’ some time in 2008. This will be done chemically, not by gene-replacement in an existing life form. The projected bacterium will be doing exactly what I mentioned earlier: working for us.

There is also the problem that, even if we tried, it would be extraordinarily difficult to keep some other self-aware life form ignorant of our existence. We would be bound to reveal ourselves inadvertently. Given this problem, if you reverse the argument, why does 'God’ hide from us if it is so very difficult? The obvious conclusion is that s/he/it is just a figment of our imaginations. In other words, God is a human creation and s/he/it exists only in our minds.

Posted: December 5th 2007

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brian thomson www

Sure, we can imagine that we were living inside a simulation, but if so, what does it matter? If it was a complete and perfect simulation it would not be possible for us to prove that we were inside it, or not. (It may as well be inside your head, and that way lies Solipsism, which is ultimately pointless.)

If that were true, Agnosticism would be the correct label – the position that the question of God can not be answered. For an Atheist, Agnosticism has its place as a purely philosophical proposition, and (as already pointed out) the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

The “gods” in such a simulation would be the creator(s) of the simulation, but if they are invisible to the inhabitants of the simulation, we would have no natural reason to imagine that they existed. The burden of proof remains on those making positive assertions about the nature of our reality.

However, Agnosticism is not necessarily enough, because you have to wonder about the implications. Saying that a question can never be answered is to give up on it. It makes for an easier life, sure, but do we know the answer is not out there? That’s another assertion that requires evidence to back it up.

This is why I say things like “Think Agnostic, Act Atheist”: I think Agnosticism is a valid philosophical (theoretical) position, but if you’re looking for a way to describe how we live, work and think about the future, Atheism is also accurate. In the absence of evidence for gods, we have to work on the assumption that they’re not out there, anywhere they could be any use to us.

Posted: December 2nd 2007

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bitbutter www

Just a small point I’d like to mention:
bq. If you accept this wouldn’t you be more correct labeling yourself Agnostic instead of the more fashionable Atheist?

Your question implies that an agnostic could not also be an atheist, but atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive.

Posted: November 12th 2007

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George Locke

You really believe that we’re little sprites running inside some computer program? I doubt it. If you don’t believe it then you shouldn’t expect others to be convinced or ascribe any weight to the argument.

The scenario you present, essentially a brain-in-vat scenario, may be possible, but hardly probable (see the responses to the scenario in that link, there are some possible internal contradictions). The main reason to dismiss the hypothesis is Occam’s razor. Whatever system maintains our illusory existence, it must be more complicated than the universe which it simulates. Since the hypothesis adds no new practical knowledge and there is a simpler theory which explains the data equally well, we choose the simpler theory. Another reason to dismiss the argument is that there is no direct evidence that it should be so (aside from the deductive argument you present).

You assert that if the hypothesis is tenable, then the possibility exists for an infinite chain of simulations within simulations. So, you infer that since the chain is infinite then the likelihood of our being in it is certain. However, I can formulate other infinite chains which explain the universe; they can’t all be certainly true! For instance, suppose that the world we see around us was created by God. Suppose God was created by a Super-God. Suppose that Super-God was created by Super-Duper God. And so on.

Also, the brain in vat hypothesis emphatically does not imply God. Their might be some creator who put the brain in the vat and maintains the vat, etc, but to call this person God is pretty silly. God is usually characterized as being the source of moral knowledge, and it certainly seems odd to want to derive one’s morality from an illusionist. There’s no reason why you couldn’t call this kind of creator “God”, but you should be clear about it that this God has no relationship to any received religion. This “God” is in no way divine. Strictly speaking, the brain-in-vat hypothesis does not even imply a creator, since the simulation could have arisen by chance or through some natural process.

Quite the contrary, if the hypothesis is tenable, then we know nothing whatsoever about the 'real world’, including whether there is a God or not. Keep in mind that if the hypothesis is tenable, we are still not assured that it is in fact the case, so we don’t even know if we are brains in vats or not. We know nothing whatsoever.

Finally, there are no practical consequences to the scenario you present. Even if I knew for a fact that I was a computer program running inside a simulated environment, I’d still have to work for a living, I’d still get sick if I didn’t take care of myself, etc. I suppose I could kill myself if I decided that nothing mattered, but there’s no reason why I should, unless I were suffering terribly. The only consequences that come close to mattering are moral ones. However, the moral consequences are identical to those of the no-creator world that we surely do live in. We know nothing of any possible creator or its motives, so we are left to derive our own conclusions about how to live.

Posted: November 5th 2007

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Aliens with superior technology must not be equated to Gods.

Since proving a negative is impossible, trying to move the argument in that direction is unhelpful.

Posted: November 3rd 2007

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