# More of the Usual Sorts of Things

On the pseudo-science front, the Resonaances blog describes a talk at CERN by string theory enthusiast Jim Cline, about a variant of the anthropic principle called the “Entropic Principle” as “pushing the idea to the edge of absurd.” For beyond the edge of absurd, there’s today’s NYT Science Times section, which features a piece by John Tierney about the ideas of philosopher of science Nick Bostrom. Bostrom runs a web-site called anthropic-principle.com and has made a career for himself in the anthropic principle business which now has him running a Templeton Foundation-funded [actually this is not accurate, see here] Institute at Oxford called the Future of Humanity Institute. The New York Times article is about Bostrom’s idea that there’s a significant probability that our universe is just a simulation being conducted by a more advanced civilization, an idea that he considers to be one of the “interesting applications” of the anthropic principle. He has yet another web-site, simulation-argument.com, where he propounds this argument. Tierney supplements the NYT article with an on-line discussion of how we should we all behave, given that we are just simulated creatures. Maybe we should be trying to entertain our creators so they will not turn off the simulation? Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to discuss these questions seriously is encouraged to do so at Tierney’s site, not here.

Today’s Science Times also has an interview with Gino Segre, who has a new book called Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, about the 1932 conference in Copenhagen hosted by Neils Bohr at the time of the beginnings of modern nuclear physics. Segre says that he became a physicist for an unusual reason. His father was an historian, brother of Emilio Segre, the co-discoverer of the antiproton, and the two siblings were estranged. When he was 15, Segre’s father told him “I think you should become a theoretical physicist, and I want you to surpass your uncle”, and he did as he was told.

American Scientist has a review of the Segre book, together with David Lindley’s recent Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science.

American Scientist also has an interview with Frank Wilczek about books he is reading and that have influenced him. He strongly recommends a book by an author I’d never heard of, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

Unfortunately two well-known scientists, mathematician Atle Selberg, and physicist Julius Wess, are no longer with us.

Victor Kac is giving a series of lectures on vertex algebras in Brazil, with video to be available here.

A Turkish mathematician, Ali Nesin, ran into trouble with the authorities for running a mathematics summer school without permission. Alexandre Borovik has set up a web-site with a petition about this. Latest news is that the summer school has been re-opened, although Nesin still may face charges of “education without permission”.

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### 51 Responses to More of the Usual Sorts of Things

1. John Baez says:

Star Maker is dated, but it’s a classic attempt at SF on a truly cosmic scale. Start with Stapledon’s Last and First Men, though. It’s a history of the human race over the next 2 billion years.

2. Martin Kochanski says:

It’s a pity that even previously sane people like Frank W. Tipler have gone round the bend over simulation. The whole thing is equally grotesque from a theological and a physical point of view.

Here’s a paper with a general reductio ad absurdum of all possible simulation arguments: On Not Simulating a Universe.

3. Tony Smith says:

Freeman Dyson, in his book “Disturbing the Universe” (Harper 1979), said, about the Dyson Sphere idea that is commonly attributed to him:

“… I [Dyson] took the idea from … Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker” .. which I [Dyson] picked up in Paddington Station in 1945 …[the]… passage …[said in part]…
“… every solar system … was … surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use …” …”.

Tony Smith

4. John Baez says:

I must be an unimaginative idiot. Reading good science fiction gets me fired up and makes me want to do something cool… like math and physics. It’s had that effect on me ever since I was a kid.

I urge mathematicians to get ahold of Greg Egan’s new story Glory, about two xenomathematicians unearthing artifacts from a species called the Niah, who had a very long tradition of mathematics, but then mysteriously died out.

Here’s a quote:

“The Big Crunch” had always been a slightly mocking, irreverent term, but now she was struck anew by how little justice it did to the real trend that had fascinated the Niah. It was not a matter of everything in mathematics collapsing in on itself, with one branch turning out to have been merely a recapitulation of another under a different guise. Rather, the principle was that every sufficiently beautiful mathematical system was rich enough to mirror in part – and sometimes in a complex and distorted fashion – every other sufficiently beautiful system.

5. still waiting... says:

Hi Peter,

Some time back you wrote [or rather I think I initially managed to encourage you, and you gleefully agreed :-)] that you would write something up (for undergraduates) on Rep Thry and particle physics. Do you still intend to do so? If yes, when may we expect the initial draft? [I’ve been sorta’ waiting for some months now.]

There’s definitely tremendous to be gained from studying RT; although I am by no means qualified [or even knowledgable] as practicing physicists would have it, I nonetheless sensed from reading Penrose’s for-laypersons-with-theory-physics-interests ‘Road to Reality’ that RT is a really important (i.e. big deal!) area. I’m more interested in this area, as well since Weyl / Atiyah (persons who are heavy-weights without question) took such deep interests in these topics…

Just wondering what drove them in this direction the way they were driven.

Regards

6. I’ve written my own refutation of Bostrom’s argument some time ago, on a logical ground. It’s there.
If you don’t mind english mistakes you can try this version.
I should really rewrite some parts but I don’t have the time for that.

8. Yatima says:

“Un raisonnement qui s’autodétruit” … end of story.

Greg Egan is still writing? I thought he went hermitian in disgust at the continuing move to the Dark Side of John Howard and the World in general.
Anyway, Egan on Simulation is a Good Read

9. Peter Shor says:

If you believe in the simulation argument, you should give up working on quantum gravity. It gives a very easy way to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity: There’s a bug in the code. When the first black hole evaporates, the universe crashes.

And apologies to Peter Woit if this starts up an off-topic subthread, but I felt I just had to mention the idea.

10. Peter Woit says:

I’ve deleted several comments of the “SF sucks!” “No it doesn’t!” variety, and don’t want to really encourage general discussion of SF here, something I have very limited interest in.

still waiting…

Sorry to report that it doesn’t look like I’ll be writing up anything at an undergrad level about math and QM any time soon. This year I’ll be teaching our representation theory graduate course, and concentrating on working on that and on research. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll get involved in trying to teach this topic to undergrads, then would write something up.

11. Garbage says:

“Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to discuss these questions seriously is encouraged to do so at Tierney’s site, not here.”

I wonder Peter why do you mention it in the first place? 😉

Sad to hear Julius Wess is gone, he may have taken SUSY with him, we will soon find out…

12. John Baez says:

Peter wrote:

I’ve deleted several comments of the “SF sucks!” “No it doesn’t!” variety, and don’t want to really encourage general discussion of SF here, something I have very limited interest in.

Okay. Unfortunately, you deleted a comment saying “SF is for unimaginative idiots”, but kept my reply saying “I must be an unimaginative idiot”. 🙂

On a completely irrelevant note: I urge you to think of blog entry titles that are slightly more fun and informative than “Various Stuff”, “More of the Usual Sorts of Things”, etc. You can just pick one of the things you’re talking about and highlight that.

13. Peter Woit says:

John,

OK, OK, I should have just deleted your comment too.

I’ve nothing against SF, read a lot of it when I was young, still do every so often (I’m actually now reading an SF novel someone gave me). But probably the main reason I find myself getting annoyed with discussions of it here is that generally it’s pretty irrelevant to the science I’m concerned about. Not only that, but a huge amount of damage is being done to that science by an increasingly large number of people who seem unable to tell the difference between science and science fiction. So, while in happier times I might enjoy discussions of SF for their inspirational value, at the moment I’d rather keep science and science fiction separate.

14. anonymous says:

I don’t see why Bostrom’s ideas about simulation are absurd. Could you explain your dismissal of them?

15. Peter Woit says:

anonymous,

What’s absurd is the idea that this sort of thing is science. It’s very much in the same category as religion, and different people can have different opinions about how worthwhile theology is, but it is inherently not science and it’s absurd and somewhat disturbing to find it in the Science Times section of the NYT.

16. Thomas Love says:

Who needs fiction when we have string theory?

17. anonymous says:

It’s not in the category of religion by any dictionary definition of religion that I’m aware of. It’s a speculative hypothesis, and maybe not the best thing for the NYT to be taking up their science column space with.

18. mclaren says:

Tierney supplements the NYT article with an on-line discussion of how we should we all behave, given that we are just simulated creatures. Maybe we should be trying to entertain our creators so they will not turn off the simulation?

Tierney’s behavior seems highly entertaining, at least to me. If he persists with this kind of peuodoscience gibberish I’m sure the hypothetical observers from a higher civilization will fall all over thesmelves laughing at his antics.

Not directly on topic, but speaking of the rise of pseudoscience, the Daily Mail has an article lamenting the rising tide of superstition masquering as science:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/15/endarkenment

And just to show that this isn’t just an aesthetic or educational issue, Goldman Sachs just lost a billion and a half bucks by buying into mindless mathematical pseudoscience:
http://www.dailyreckoning.com.au/wall-street-math/2007/08/16/

There’s an odd link to high energy physics in the Wall Street story, since it turns out that HEP physicists who can’t find work within the field wind up working on Wall Street churning out incomprehensibly complex financial instruments and wacky numerological schemes for allegedly “predicting” the market. Instead of “brighter than a thousand suns,” in this case it’s “dimmer than a thousand Uri Gellers.”

19. manyoso says:

“It’s not in the category of religion by any dictionary definition of religion that I’m aware of.”

Sure it is. At least it is metaphysics at best. The same thing as saying that we’re all living in someone else dream. Anyways, it is most definitely not science.

This is very much like saying the earth might really be only 3000 years old and $DEVIL just made it seem like its much older to fool everyone. IOW, it is all hocus pocus claptrap what ifs and doesn’t belong in any science discussion. 20. Peter Woit says: Please, if you want to comment on what’s science here, that’s fine, it you want to just talk about religion, please don’t do it here. 21. Steve Myers says: On Wilczek interview: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” is first class (with a good explanation of his theory of descriptions for non-logicians) and Weyl’s “Philosophy of Math …” impressed me 40 years ago. Weyl was a great mathematician — but even Pauli admitted he could do physics. 22. Mainland says: It’s not in the category of religion by any dictionary definition of religion that I’m aware of. It’s a speculative hypothesis, and maybe not the best thing for the NYT to be taking up their science column space with anonymous, I appreciate your concern about keeping the categories straight. Re Bostrom idea that we and our universe are a simulation run by smart aliens for reasons known only to themselves, could it be called a proposed myth or an explanatory fantasy intended for belief? Peter points out that Bostrom’s proposition is not science and he puts it “very much in the same category as religion”. You reply that you aren’t content with it in that category but would rather call it a “speculative hypothesis”. But an hypothesis is often thought of as testable. Something that could become science if a way to test it could be found. There is a fine line between that and mythology—more a difference in nuance. Myths, I suppose, come to be believed largely because they appeal to the imagination—-that is for literary or poetic reasons. As stories they delight us and bring about a willing suspension of common sense. Another category that might work is garbage. One could consider Bostrom’s ideas as either mythology or garbage, whichever one prefers. In the end the greatest harm done by pseudoscience is the corruption of language 23. anonymous says: Presumably it will be possible within the century either to create such simulations or prove that they are impossible. If we can prove that they are impossible, with a yet-to-be-discovered proof in a yet-to-be-initiated field of computer science, then Bostrom’s idea will be falsified. If it turns out that it is quite easy for us to create many such simulations, then his idea will gain some credibility, but won’t be proven. However, if that happens then you can bet that many people will turn their attention to figuring out ways of checking whether this is a simulation or not. Just because it’s very speculative does not mean that it’s not a valid hypothesis about the universe. It most certainly is a scientific hypothesis, even if discussion of it today should rightly be considered philosophy. Lucretius, Epicurus, Democritus et al. were philosophizing when they wrote about atomism, and had no means at their disposal for testing their speculative hypothesis. This doesn’t mean that atomism was a “proposed myth”, to use Mainland’s phrase (see above). It was a hypothesis about the nature of the universe that was borne out much later. Bostrom’s idea is analogoug. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss it as “hocus pocus claptrap”, as manyoso did above. One could easily have said the same about Lucretius et al., and no doubt the manyosos of antiquity did so with a good conscience. 24. Cheeky Bastard says: Dear anonymous, even if you were to prove that the kind of simulation envisioned by Bostrom is impossible in our universe, you could not logically conclude that our universe is not a simulation. For all you know, the laws of nature of the universe in which our simulation is running could be completely different from the laws ruling the simulation. Maybe somebody with a really twisted sense of humor invented quantum mechanics just to see how intelligent beings would rationalize it. 😉 25. Peter Woit says: “Just because it’s very speculative does not mean that it’s not a valid hypothesis about the universe. It most certainly is a scientific hypothesis…” This is exactly the kind of nonsense that is taking over some subfields of theoretical physics and threatening to destroy them as successful ways of gaining reliable knowledge about the universe. It’s depressing and seems to be a waste of time to keep explaining over and over again the basic principles of what science is and how it works. No matter what, people who want to do pseudo-science because it’s a lot easier than science will keep on justifying absurd, and inherently untestable speculation, claiming that “how do you know that a miracle won’t happen if we work on this? If we do, maybe we’ll find a real test!” People who do this behave exactly the same way as every crackpot I’ve ever made the mistake of arguing with, trying to draw you into an endless investigation of the dense thickets of their idiocy. Arguing with someone who thinks the “simulation argument” is a scientific hypothesis is just this kind of waste of time. Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll, who has a much higher level of tolerance for this kind of thing than I do, refers to the simulation argument as “meaningless”. If people do want to argue about it, you might have better luck with him. 26. Peter Woit says: I don’t want this blog to be dominated by pseudo-scientific discussion, especially when I don’t know that the people doing this are serious scientists. This is the kind of thing that destroys what I am trying to do here, trying to provide a place for serious discussions between people who know what they are talking about. I’ll be deleting most such pseudo-science comments, especially ones that are anonymous and such that I don’t have any reason to believe their author knows what he/she is talking about. 27. Luiz says: “Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll, who has a much higher level of tolerance for this kind of thing than I do, refers to the simulation argument as “meaningless”. If people do want to argue about it, you might have better luck with him.” Peter, Directing the crackpots to Sean Carroll is just mean 🙂 Just thought you could use a joke… Cheers. 28. anonymous says: “This is exactly the kind of nonsense that is taking over some subfields of theoretical physics and threatening to destroy them as successful ways of gaining reliable knowledge about the universe.” Peter, this is exactly the kind of rudeness that has ruined the blogosphere. My comments are not nonsensical. “It’s depressing and seems to be a waste of time to keep explaining over and over again the basic principles of what science is and how it works.” I have a solid understanding of the basic principles of science and how they work. I don’t need you to explain them to me, although I’d be curious to hear how your interpretation of them would lead you to lump Bostrom’s ideas in with religion. I’m a trained scientist, and I’ve studied the philosophy of science as well. I know you have a bone to pick with the way that speculative ideas in physics have caused the field to go astray, and I agree with you that these sorts of ideas should never be given too much importance. I don’t think Bostrom’s idea is important either. But they are interesting and stimulating to think about from time to time, even if we don’t take them very seriously because we cannot decide them one way or the other. This doesn’t mean that they don’t qualify as hypotheses. I suppose Newton wasn’t doing science when he hypothesized that light was comprised of corpuscles? Never mind that this hypothesis was eventually testable. Would you maintain that such a hypothesis is crackpottery just because testing it is beyond the means of science at the time that the hypothesis is put forward? How about in Mathematics? Would you lump mathematical conjectures in with religion as well? It is one thing to fight against speculation becoming dominant, and I’m glad that you are fighting that fight, but it’s quite another to dismiss any speculation by saying it’s religion. I know you’ve had a hard slog over the years, sparring with people like Lubos etc., and I know it’s probably exhausting, but don’t let it turn you into a bitter reactionary. 29. Cheeky Bastard says: Dear anonymous, as I tried to point out above, the simulation “hypothesis” is not testable even in principle, not just as a matter of technological limitations. Like the existence of God, or the proposition that the universe was created just a second ago along with all your memories, fossils in the ground and paleontologists pointing to them as proof against creationism, it’s just unknowable, untestable and therefore outside the realm of science. Believing in something unknowable is an act of faith, and so could reasonably be labeled as “religion”, in some wide sense of the word. …and yes, the anthropic landscape, as well as cosmological scenarios enertained by (among others) Sean Carroll, falls in the same category… 30. Peter Woit says: anonymous, I don’t see what the problem is with “lumping Bostrom’s ideas in with religion”. They’re not science and have similar characteristics: grandiose speculation about the nature of the universe which some people enjoy discussing for one reason or another, but that is inherently untestable, and completely divorced from the actual very interesting things that we have learned about the universe through the scientific method. I don’t happen to be such a person, and I don’t want this blog to turn into a discussion forum for those who do enjoy this. Sorry to be rude (and I’ll point out that I’m a lot less likely to be rude to people willing to put their name to what they have to say) but the thing which is likely to lead me sooner or later to have to give up and shut down this blog is not the Luboses of this world, but the large number of people who want to turn this into a discussion forum for crackpottery and various forms of pseudo-science. 31. Raghav Gupta says: I, for one, am very much interested in someone coming up with a formal theory proving that it is impossible for an entity to “simulate” itself accurately, or even another lesser advanced entity for that matter. That is the only way to permanently debunk this kind of science. On my blog, I’ve pointed out how hard (or actually, why it’s impossible) it is simulate even a teaspoon of water accurately. The only true way to make the simulation behave like water, is to have water itself. 32. anonymous says: Peter, I will gladly refrain from commenting on things like this in the future if you feel that such comments bring down your blog. If it bothers you to have people discussing things here which you consider to be crackpottery, you should probably refrain from posting about those things. My comments were discussing the post that you yourself wrote. As for my anonymity, I don’t see how it’s a problem unless people use it for purposes of trolling and being rude. 33. Robin Hanson says: We can distinguish hypotheses that are easy to check now, that might be checked in the next decade or so but at great expense, and ones that might take centuries or more to check. We can also distinguish “rich” hypotheses that if true would lead to many other interesting hypotheses, from “sterile” ones that even if true might not lead to much else interesting. I could see your complaining that Bostrom’s hypothesis is not worth much attention both because it is sterile, in that you can’t see much else it would lead to, and because you guess it will take a long time to check. But throwing out the word “psuedoscience” at such hypotheses seems to me way out of line. That word should be reserved, I think, for hypotheses that have a very low probability of being true. Nick’s hypothesis has a decent chance of being true, and he offered a solid non-obvious analysis which raised the probability in many minds. If NYT readers also find the hypothesis interesting, I can’t see why that isn’t enough reason for them to publish a discussion of it. 34. Robin Hanson says: If people come to accept that the word “science” only refers to ideas that can be checked soon, no matter what their other merits, they will become less interested in science, and more interested in whatever that other area is, where interesting but not soon checkable ideas are discussed. 35. Phillip Huggan says: “Bostrom runs a web-site called anthropic-principle.com and has made a career for himself in the anthropic principle business which now has him running a Templeton Foundation-funded Institute at Oxford called the Future of Humanity Institute” I too think assigning simulation arguments even a modest probability based upon a priori anthropic principle reasoning, is silly. I guess this would be 1/3 of FHI’s mission (though decision theory logic in a philosophy department is hardly out of place). To my knowledge, the other two thirds are examining regressive events and existential risks, particularly those initiated by future technologies. Surely we will come to a point where some of these technologies are engineerable and/or some similiar technologies will require MSDS handling instructions like those contemplated by the FHI thinktank. At that point, the existential risk knowledge base Bostrom made a career for himself in developing, will likely come in handy (until the aliens turn off their Earth-etch-a-sketch). 36. Douglas Knight says: an increasingly large number of people who seem unable to tell the difference between science and science fiction. Could you quantify or otherwise elaborate on that? I’m skeptical that this problem has gotten worse in the last 30 years. I’m not even sure it’s gotten worse in the last 50 years. 37. gunpowder&noodles says: “…and yes, the anthropic landscape, as well as cosmological scenarios enertained by (among others) Sean Carroll, falls in the same category…” There is a vast gulf fixed between speculation designed to explain some undoubted fact, and speculation for its own sake. SC’s speculations are aimed at things like the arrow of time. This is a prime example of an observed fact about our world that needs to be explained, and for which there is no plausible explanation currently on the market. The simulation theory, by sharp contrast, is designed to explain…umm…what exactly? In 1908 or so, Einstein was saying, “Maybe gravity is curved spacetime.” It was not a testable idea at that point; it was a suggestion for a place to start looking for a testable idea. But the main point is that it was an attempt to explain something that is experienced by all of us every moment, and yet was deeply mysterious. Exactly like the arrow of time. If we are going to dismiss all “speculative” ideas, then how are we going to make any progress? Then again, as I have said before, it seems that all speculations are equal, but some are more equal than others: it’s pseudo-science to speculate about other universes, but it’s perfectly ok to speculate about other numbers of spacetime dimensions, particularly those numbers which are obviously physically irrelevant. Such as 3. 38. John Rennie says: Olaf Stapledon is one of those quintessentially British authors (born about 15 miles from where I’m typing this). I read “First and Last Men” when I was about 12 and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I suspect I’d find it a bit naive if I reread it now. I’d go along with John Baez and recommend reading “First and Last Men” before any of his other books, as the later books can be hard work. 39. The man says: Wow, the NYT science section article on virtual worlds was really silly — especially wicked was the part where ppl were estimating probability that we’re in a matrix. I expect (and hope!) that next few days the paper will publish several letters from angry physicists saying that whatever it is, it is certainly not science. However, with this anthropic disease spreading rapidly in string community, perhaps its not likely. Peter, you should certainly write them a letter. “The Future of Humanity Institute”! hehe, reminds of the “The Human Fund” of Seinfeld. 40. mclaren says: Sean Carroll, who has a much higher level of tolerance for this kind of thing than I do, refers to the simulation argument as “meaningless”. If people do want to argue about it, you might have better luck with him. It’s absolutely hilarious to hear Sean Carroll describe the simulation argument as “meaningless,” since presumably he’s referring to the argument’s untestability. [long rant about Sean Carroll and string theory deleted, together with complaints that Sean deletes long rants posted as comments on his blog. This kind of thing adds conveys no new information to anyone, just increases the volume level and level of personal hostility] 41. anonymous says: “I could see your complaining that Bostrom’s hypothesis is not worth much attention both because it is sterile, in that you can’t see much else it would lead to, and because you guess it will take a long time to check. But throwing out the word “psuedoscience” at such hypotheses seems to me way out of line. ” Thank you Robin Hanson, for cutting through the noise and restoring some sanity to this discussion. I think your comment is the last word on the subject. 42. anonymous says: I see that there is a discussion of this discussion at the following link: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/pseudo-criticis.html 43. Richard says: I’ve a response here. 44. GeniusNZ says: I note (as I do on my site) that Bostrom’s simulation argument DOES NOT defeat the dooms day argument. WSince it uses the same sort of argument the two should come as a package. The dooms day argument applies jsut as effectively to the simulation as it did to the universe as a whole. It also applies to the people running the simulation. If we take the Dooms day argument to say we have maybe 5 generations to go unless we instigate major population control (which seems unlikely). The question for the simulation argument is then what will we do in those 5 generations and how many simulations will the other 50 billion odd people run in those 5 generations and how soon will we be able to totaly emulate a human experience. 45. AnonymousToo says: Just because something is not science, doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. The simulation argument is philosophy, since it cannot be tested empirically. Philosophy can be science depending on your definition of science. 46. anonymous says: You should retract the false statement about them being funded by Templeton (they’re not). 47. Peter Woit says: anonymous, Quite likely I misread something. Bostrom’s CV says he has held a personal Templeton grant, and that he was partly responsible for a$2 million grant from Templeton that funded a center at Oxford recently, but that was a different institute. The first item on their latest report about planned fund-raising activities is about their plan to try and get money from Templeton.

I’ll change the text, pointing to this comment so that it is clear that they want to be Templeton-funded, but aren’t at the moment.

Looking into this a bit further, the question of the funding of this institute is a bit confusing. The initial announcement of the institute refers to a founding grant of \$1,940,000 from a private donor (see here), but the full report of the institute makes no mention of this, referring instead to three much smaller private grants.