The Simulation Theory and the dangers of pop-science

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Summary:
The Simulation Theory is a posterboy for modern physics. Yet most actual physicists don't buy into it. Why isn't this talked about?
. I should preface by saying I'm a geologist not a physicist... Gotta say I usually avoid people who talk about the simulation stuff but I just saw a Tedx by George Smoot and it wound me up...

Anyway, the simulation hypothesis seems to me, and most other scientists to basically be a bit of a meme which has really spiralled out of control... I assume this is because the non STEM people struggle to distinguish between real science and popular mumbo jumbo.. You go onto Facebook and see IFLS and other ridiculous pop-science journalism and you can't be surprised that the average guy now thinks he's in a simulation, but he couldn't tell you why he thinks that...

My question is, do you think physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson are in the wrong for promoting this kind of stuff? People are gullible and easily convinced. I worry its giving physics a bad name!

Other popular physicists who are much more credible like Sean Carroll, Carlo Rovelli, David Deutsch and Sabine Hossenfelder (even the horrible Lubos Motl) make it clear that they think the universe is NOT a simulation... But their views are hardly recognised in pop science 'journalism'

I also think it hasn't helped the Nobel Laureate George Smoot did that Tedx talk on the simulation theory... Did you guys see that? It was the laziest least convincing bit of nonsense I've ever seen yet it has 3.5 million views! I can't tell whether he wants people to not take physics seriously... Thing is he's obviously a really clever guy but why is he endorsing something so skeptical?

So, what do you guys think about the simulation meme? I think it's losing popularity recently (realistically for good reason) And why do you think some poplular physicists talk about it? Money? Do you think they should be more careful?
And to round it off, what do you think about the simulation hypothesis? (I know this has been asked before and I know most think it's rubbish but hey its nice to talk rubbish sometimes)
Thank you!
 
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  • #2
PeroK
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And to round it off, what do you think about the simulation hypothesis? (I know this has been asked before and I know most think it's rubbish but hey its nice to talk rubbish sometimes)
Thank you!
I don't think it's rubbish, but I think assigning a high probability to it is wrong. There are always dangers applying probability theory to something you don't fully understand: and how likely future civilisations are to create simulations of the required complexity is something we have zero actual knowlege about. And you can never be certain of anything you have no knowledge about. In fact, you can't assign any meaningful probability to something you know nothing about.
 
  • #3
DaveC426913
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...basically be a bit of a meme which has really spiralled out of control...

My question is, do you think physicists ... are in the wrong for promoting this kind of stuff? People are gullible and easily convinced. I worry its giving physics a bad name!

... what do you think about the simulation hypothesis? (I know this has been asked before and I know most think it's rubbish but hey its nice to talk rubbish sometimes)
Thank you!
Asked and answered? :wink:

Seriously though. I think you're right in that it's pop sci. It's really just a conjecture, since there's currently no way of testing it.
 
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I don't think it's rubbish, but I think assigning a high probability to it is wrong.
I was wrong to call it rubbish. Its obviously interesting. But its like not taken seriously in an academic framework.
Issue is non academics take it seriously and I think that's an issue.
Like there are loads of people on places like reddit who take it completely seriously.
I think it's really strange.
I think physicists like Neil Degrasse need to understand that there are things more important than popularity.
 
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  • #5
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Asked and answered? :wink:

Seriously though. I think you're right in that it's pop sci. It's really just a conjecture, since there's currently no way of testing it.

Thing is it is conjecture, but it's conjecture that's largely doubted.
I think the way it's described in popular science is that almost entirely accepted. It's like pop science journalism is basically as credible as your average tabloid...

But it's far from it... Carlo Rovelli went as far as to call it bullshit....
 
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  • #6
DaveC426913
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I think the way it's described in popular science is that almost entirely accepted.
Think about how QM was seen by the public when they first became aware. There was much talk about how you could only say the Moon existed when you were looking at it, and could not say it was still there if you were not. Or talk about how - at least in principle - one could probabilistically find themselves suddenly on the other side of a wall.

I'm not sure if the general public believe such things are true, so much as they consider the implications of the possibility that they're true. They sure shake up our idea of a fixed, solid, unchanging reality.


I don't think you need to worry about what Redditors are saying. They also talk about how realistic Harry Potter's magic is, so there's an element of suspension of disbelief you must factor in before you get your shorts in a knot.
 
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  • #7
sophiecentaur
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But what evidence is there that can prove or disprove the theory. If it's not falsifiable then it's not Science. From what I see, it's no better than belief in Magic. Very attractive if you have a yearning for that sort of thing but, like a number of other beliefs, it seems to me to fill a gap in people's lives and not much else. At least (so far) it has been proved harmless - which one might expect from something that doesn't exist.
We could have a long discussion about where religions come in here but that would be off topic.
 
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  • #8
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I suppose its good to get the general public thinking about science.
When I was a kid it was dinosaur documentaries, toys and the occasional article in a pop science article that led me into geology.
But in a similar vein I find unnecessarily inaccurate dinosaurs so annoying. Like there is no reason in modern programmes to depict them in unrealistic ways, like in Primevil (if you ever saw that lol) the dinosaurs were just daft looking and unrealistic.
Its just stuff like that winds me up.. Why bother getting things wrong to appeal to a popular audience...
I feel like real looking dinosaurs are cooler than cgi, unnecessarily scary ones.

And I feel the same way about all sciences. Isn't the truth always cooler than nonsense?
Don't people actually wanna know how the world is?

But what evidence is there that can prove or disprove the theory. If it's not falsifiable then it's not Science. From what I see, it's no better than belief in Magic. Very attractive if you have a yearning for that sort of thing but, like a number of other beliefs, it seems to me to fill a gap in people's lives and not much else. At least (so far) it has been proved harmless - which one might expect from something that doesn't exist.
We could have a long discussion about where religions come in here but that would be off topic.

I agree..
Don't you think it's weird how people have somehow managed to turn science into what is basically religion...
I've seen popscience articles turn QM into basically religion. Deepak Chopra and other mystics who love to bring consciousness into it.
Also like Quantum Immortality... Why do people have to make everything anthropocentric?
 
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  • #9
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I guess that a simulation hypothesis is something that you have no choice but to consider if you want to think deeply and seriously about the big mysteries of our reality as a skeptic.
 
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  • #10
sophiecentaur
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Don't you think it's weird how people have somehow managed to turn science into what is basically religion...
Blame Hollywood and computer simulations. Oh - and creationists.
 
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I think it's worth thinking about, but not much more than that. It's not science.
Its definitely interesting and a unique perspective.
 
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  • #12
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Blame Hollywood and computer simulations. Oh - and creationists.
Maybe it would be reasonable to push all the blame to Keanu Reeves
 
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  • #13
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It could be studied, in some aspects, pretty rigorously using mostly just the formal sciences (mathematics, theory of computation, information theory, etc) and some laws of physics.

And I would say that putting it on the level of religion is sorta backwards. It's rooted in philosophical skepticism. Rather than a belief, it's one important component required to rigorously question beliefs (including beliefs based in physics).
 
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I agree one should always be skeptical...
But I think it more reasonable to be skeptical of those on Reddit pushing an unfalsifiable, meme status idea.
Solipsism is rooted in philosophical skepticism and a that's about as skeptical as you can get.
Obviously one should think about these things.
Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics for example can arguably lead to Solipsism, especially when consciousness is brought in. But, when an interpretation starts going down that road most assume something has gone wrong within the formalism...

So I agree being skeptical is vital. But only to a reasonable extent. Because, its the spaghetti monster all over again if not...
 
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hutchphd
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So I agree being skeptical is vital. But only to a reasonable extent. Because, its the spaghetti monster all over again if not...

I do not think there is a limit to skepticism. One must be at peace with less than certainty, and recognize a sufficiency for your purposes. The skepticism remains

In fact I was about to bring His Pastafarian Presence to the discussion. The discussion of Simulation Theory is to my mind exactly equivalent to comparisons of <insert religion here> and the flying spaghetti monster
 
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when an interpretation starts going down that road most assume something has gone wrong within the formalism...
This is the issue I find with the simulation hypothesis. It must start with a good formalization. What is a simulation, and how is it different than a non-simulation? Does it have to be intelligently designed? Self contained? Embedded within another reality? Depending on the formalism, you could argue that many religions are forms of simulation hypothesis.

The other issue I have is with Nick Bostrom's application of probability.

Anyway, as long as a hypothesis begs answering lots of deep mathematical problems, I don't see the problem.
 
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  • #17
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I think it's definitely a complex issue. But I feel as if it's not discussed intelligently..
I think you're right by the way with their being no 'limit' to skepticism...
we should obviously discuss ideas like this. If no one discussed seemingly crazy ideas no one would come up with anything new.

But I don't think the simulation argument is new its just rehashing religious ideas into a technological and apparently scientific context to fit in with modern, 'edgy' perspectives. That's why I don't like it...

I just think so much more exciting, real stuff is happening in science and I hate how crap stuff like quantum immortality, simulation theory, panpsychism and other dubious bits make their way into the news with tenuous links to real science...
 
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I think his answers are really reasonable and sum it up really well.
Like it's popular at the moment but that doesn't mean its true...
Obviously Hollywood and Elon Musk brought these ideas to the front line so it became popular

Trepanning was popular too but it just left people with brain damage...
 
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  • #20
Halc
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Summary:: The Simulation Theory is a posterboy for modern physics. Yet most actual physicists don't buy into it. Why isn't this talked about?
It's usually pop-sci rubbish, and often ill-defined. I don't know if that's the case here.

Anyway, the simulation hypothesis seems to me and most other scientists to basically be a bit of a meme
There is no one 'simulation hypothesis', so we need to know which one is being discussed.

A simulation is like a computerized car crash. You model a car in a computer and send it into a brick wall and you can crash the car 100's of ways in the effort of making it safe, all without having to wreck real cars. A car can be simulated, but a car cannot 'be in' a simulation. So it is a category error to posit that we're in a simulation.

One can however be in a virtual reality, which is an artificial set of inputs to our sensory systems. There are two kinds: The epiphenomenal one is a sort of theatrical experience where you experience a character from a first person PoV (Harry Potter say), but you're not actually Harry and you have zero control over his decisions. You'd probably remember going to the cinema to watch the movie.
The other kind you have control of a virtual avatar, like Tomb raider or the Matrix. If anybody posits being 'in a simulation', they're probably suggesting that sort of VR arrangement. It's pretty easy to test. You open up the head of the avatar and notice either a lack of brain, or a complete disconnect from whatever that brain does to what the avatar does. It has no free will and is entirely a slave of the experiencer that has possessed it. The only ones with the free will are the NPCs.

I don't see how that can be faked. You don't experience what it is like to be Lara Croft, you just experience what it is like to be you hooked up to Lara's senses. The experience might be totally different for Lara, presuming that she has the physical hardware to have any experiences at all. Lara is human, but who knows what you are since your senses are hooked up to Lara, not yourself. I'd have no evidence I'm even a biological thing.

do you think physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson are in the wrong for promoting this kind of stuff?
I don't know exactly what he's promoting. I skimmed through the thread for that answer without luck. Didn't really read it all. If he gets hits and money for promoting this kind of stuff, then mission accomplished, no? The simulation idea is very popular with people who've watched the matrix, so where they're hunger, somebody is going to feed the need.
 
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  • #21
In order for any kind of computer to simulate our universe, the computer would have to exist in a "real" universe at least several times larger than our own. Well, it must be larger if we assume it takes more than one "real" atom to simulate a simulated atom, and also the computer would not occupy the entirety of the outer "real" universe... would it? I think you want some space left over for, say, a "real" graphics terminal. On the other hand, if it takes just one "real" atom to simulate one of our pretend atoms, then the simulated universe would be only as large as our own, which means it is not exactly "simulating" our universe but rather just running a copy (?) of our universe by building in one "real" atom (like a memory location) for each pretend atom. Anyway, I think you can see that this inner dialog is nothing more than meandering imagination.

Want to build a simulation theory? Start by describing the universe in which such a simulation computer would have to be embedded. Is it made of atoms like our atoms? If not, calculate the properties of these "real" atoms. Is the outer universe the same size as our universe -- or much bigger?? Sketch the cosmology of the outer world. Next, knowing about the outer universe, deduce a few things about the design of the computer and what its software is like. Now, use your new knowledge of the "real world" simulation hardware and software to design a clever experiment that we can run here in our simulated world to find out whether there really is such an outer world containing a computer like the one we postulated.

You are almost there. You just have to find a department and an advisor.

Finally! That was the hard part.

Do a little writing, and you're practically holding your simulated PhD in your simulated hands.
 
  • #22
sophiecentaur
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It's such a human artefact. People invented computers that produce more and more convincing simulations and the next thing is that people start to think that everything is a simulation. Such a copycat idea.
Go back a bit and you can account for the creation of God figures which have always been made to fit the precise nature of humans. Of course, you can always argue chicken and egg - 'Man, made in God's image' etc. which can just as easily be stated the other way round.
 
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In order for any kind of computer to simulate our universe, the computer would have to exist in a "real" universe at least several times larger than our own. Well, it must be larger if we assume it takes more than one "real" atom to simulate a simulated atom, and also the computer would not occupy the entirety of the outer "real" universe... would it? I think you want some space left over for, say, a "real" graphics terminal. On the other hand, if it takes just one "real" atom to simulate one of our pretend atoms, then the simulated universe would be only as large as our own, which means it is not exactly "simulating" our universe but rather just running a copy (?) of our universe by building in one "real" atom (like a memory location) for each pretend atom. Anyway, I think you can see that this inner dialog is nothing more than meandering imagination.

Want to build a simulation theory? Start by describing the universe in which such a simulation computer would have to be embedded. Is it made of atoms like our atoms? If not, calculate the properties of these "real" atoms. Is the outer universe the same size as our universe -- or much bigger?? Sketch the cosmology of the outer world. Next, knowing about the outer universe, deduce a few things about the design of the computer and what its software is like. Now, use your new knowledge of the "real world" simulation hardware and software to design a clever experiment that we can run here in our simulated world to find out whether there really is such an outer world containing a computer like the one we postulated.

You are almost there. You just have to find a department and an advisor.

Finally! That was the hard part.

Do a little writing, and you're practically holding your simulated PhD in your simulated hands.
If we were in a simulation, we couldn't say much about the real universe. It may not have atoms, or similar physical laws.

When we make simulations, we make all kinds of simplifying assumptions, and we cut all of the corners we can get away with. It would be interesting to think about what kind of simulation would be both optimized and compatible with our observations. But first you need to know what kind of simulation or virtual reality you're talking about. Simulated egocentric first person experiences? Then it only has to provide an individual with a realistic experience. Multi-person simulated experience, then it only needs to make peoples observations and experiences make sense. Simulating the Earth? Then the far away stuff doesn't need to be fully simulated. Simulating the whole universe? We don't even know what that is, maybe infinite?

We know that classical information has intrinsic thermodynamic costs in our universe.
Quantum information I know less about. But one of the best known use cases for quantum computing is simulating quantum mechanics.

Advanced civilizations that survive the transition we're going through now will almost certainly have very large megastructure style off-world computers.

I think that the type of evidence you might find of a simulated reality would be inconsistencies in measurements of phenomena that arguably have little correlation with future events.

If the simulation were focused on observers, you might expect multiple-level-of detail in the simulated phenomena. For example, you might expect microscopic physics to be inconsistent with macroscopic phenomena, and in general, discrepancies in the physics across scales.
 
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  • #24
PeroK
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When we make simulations, we make all kinds of simplifying assumptions, and we cut all of the corners we can get away with.
This is close to a refutation of the Bostrom/Musk conclusion that we must be (or are very likely to be) living in a simulation. Future simulations might be very limited: a small village of simulated humans; or lacking the vast historical detail. There is certainly no guarantee that any future simulations would be the whole shebang.

In the same way that they argue that there a one in a billion chance we are real human beings, you could argue there is a only one in a billion chance that this level of detail has been simulated.
 
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But these numbers are entirely based upon assumptions. If you change one parameter an entirely new value comes up.
I don't think it's even kind of reasonable for numbers with zero real credence to have this much of a mematic impact...
I understand the logic behind it but I don't think it has anything more going for it than something like Laplace's Demon

It might tick some of the boxes but that doesn't mean much...
 

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