Message to Our Overlords

It turns out that the Future of Humanity Institute has a blog, and I’m being attacked there by Robin Hanson for my criticism here of the “Simulation Argument” as not science and not belonging in the NYT Science Times. In the NYT article Hanson discusses what survival strategies we should pursue in order to try and convince the Overlords of our simulation to keep us around.

In the comments here and on other blogs, Hanson and his supporters have been criticizing me for refusing to spend time answering their arguments. I just want to make clear that the reason I am not doing this is that it is possible that the Overlords read this blog, and I don’t want them to get the impression that I am willing to waste their time or mine on this kind of stupidity. Please guys, this absurd debate is none of my doing, don’t turn us off!!!

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61 Responses to Message to Our Overlords

  1. Smullyan: “I don’t believe in astrology because I’m a Scorpio, and Scorpios never believe in astrology.”

  2. wolfgang says:

    Is it really coincidence that Karl Rove resigned exactly at the same time people finally figured out that we live in a simulated, fake world?

  3. Well, your argument of this not being science is quite right, is it not?
    When I first read about it, I was thinking that they were shamelessly copying from ideas of spirituality, in a sort of mutilated way. After all, we are also an inherent part of that what runs this ‘simulation’ here, as much as our simulations are part of us, being shaped by our creativity and power to do such things.

  4. Cheeky Bastard says:

    If I were to run such a simulation, I guess a primary motive would be to see how long my simulated critters would take to figure out that they are living in a simulation. Even if this were not a primary motive, once it became generally accepted among the critters that their world is a simulation, any prediction from the model would be of questionable value to my real world, so I would no longer see much sense in continuing the experiment.

    So if you don’t want to get turned off, you’d better disbelieve the simulation argument as vocally as possible.

    Unless of course I am running a batch of experiments exactly to find out how individuals and societies react to this knowledge, perhaps because I have become convinced that my own universe is simulated… but then, unless I am totally stupid and/or enjoy sitting around waiting for a long time, I would insert this knowledge into the simulation manually, so as to get to the beef quickly. Let’s see, who came up with the simulation argument? Nick Bostrom. So if our universe is a simulation, Nick Bostrom is an avatar of the Codemaster. Or at the very least His Prophet.

    But if the simulation is being run to see how people react to the knowledge that they live in a simulation, and the critters decide that they just don’t believe it, then the experiment has failed and there is no longer any point to keeping it running.

    So in this case, if you don’t want to get turned off, you’d better believe and support the simulation argument as vocally as possible.

    Oh great…

  5. anonymous says:

    “Please guys, this absurd debate is none of my doing, don’t turn us off!!!”

    I don’t think the Overlords will buy this, since it was in fact you who threw the first stone in this exchange.

  6. DB says:

    Kirk: Spock, options please.

    Spock: It seems the Overlords are trying to make sense of an ancient human belief system known, if I am not mistaken, as “string theory”.

    Kirk: Well, why aren’t they responding to our hailing frequency.?

    Spock: If my hunch is correct Captain, they appear to have created a simulation of an arcane version of this theory known as The Landscape. It appears to be causing a serious drain on their resources.

    Kirk: Hunch Spock? It’s not like you to play guessing games.

    Spock: I apologize Captain, but with String Theory, one is obliged to adopt unconventional modes of reasoning. Being part human, I have made a special study of supposedly irrational conduct among human scientists. I have concluded that in many instances the behaviour can be explained by primitive tribal bonding customs.

    Kirk: Spock, this is no time for social anthropology…Yes, what is it Checkov?

    Checkov: Kapitan, look. Zomethink eez happening vit ze alien craft.

    Spock: If I may Captain, I believe they have concluded that their experiment has led to an irretrievable situation and may be intitiating a reboot.

    Kirk: Reboot my ass Spock! Don’t you know what this means?

    Spock: It had occurred to me Jim.

    Kirk: Scotty give me everything you’ve got!! Get us out of here.

    Doors fly open. Star fleet admirals walk in.

    Admiral Gross: I’m sorry Jim. But you’ve failed the test.

    Kirk: But why?, what else could I do?

    Admiral Gross: You just don’t get it Jim. String Theory is always the answer. You only had to offer the Enterprise’s Warp Coils for the Overlords to complete their simulation. You lost your nerve just when the solution was in sight. I’m sorry, Commander Motl, please take over.

  7. Theo says:

    What amazes me is that in the NYT article Tierney initially talks about this as an amazing new idea that he, at least for one, has never thought of before. From this, I conclude that his imagination atrophied a long time ago. This is stuff we, and many others no doubt, discussed as teenagers – if not before…

    …and Tierney and Boston get paid for this? Sign me up! I could pump out such articles for the NYT or research for the “Future of Inanity Institute”, as a second job, for a few minutes each evening.

  8. a.k. says:

    ..I remark that I agree to Theo’s statement, however even noting that the state or validitiy of a theory of quantum gravitation won’t probably ever depend on the validity of Bostrom’s argument, the question remains if anything in *reality* will EVER depend on the validity or the existence of a quantum theory of gravitation. Peter is right if he argues that the arguments of science fiction literature are largely decoupled from scientific reasoning, but they furnish a ‘sociological’ background and justification for (parts of) the scientific method iself and predict the validity of the latter mentioned question. I personally mostly disliked science-fiction literature for its tendency to postulate a ‘vertical’ arrow in human history, which tends to correspond to and psychologically transform vertical arrows in current human societies, this is the reason why Bush promotes the ‘Mars’-mission. I wonder if there is a ‘Bukowski’ of SF-literature, possibly he would be closest to reality.

  9. Yatima says:

    To be totally OT while still getting back to base reality and pleasing our transdimensional overlords, New Scientist has a short review of William Byers’ “How Mathematicians Think” wherein Gregory Chaitin comes out in favour of the New New Math, with more intuition and less slavish rigor. Chaitin writes:

    What went wrong [with math]? Well, it started around the end of the 19th century with David Hilbert’s vision of complete formalism, of proofs so thorough a computer could check them. It was a vision widely propagated by the French Bourbaki school of mathematics, which, strangely enough, preferred a rigid, Prussian vision of maths rather than their own more sensual tradition.

    Twentieth-century mathematics decided to eschew words, ideas, diagrams, examples, explanations and applications in favour of formulae. (…) it is not creative, it leads nowhere. Not surprisingly, fewer and fewer students are now attracted to mathematics. The subject is quietly dying.

    To create a new field of mathematics, you have to feel comfortable with paradox, with creative tension, with sloppy and dangerous new ideas, and you have to want to rock the boat, not conform slavishly. As Byers stresses, perfectly formalised ideas are dead, while ambiguous, paradoxical ideas are pregnant with possibilities and lead us in new directions: they guide us to new viewpoints, new truths.

    It is not apparent to me that the subject is dying – is it really? String theorists might possibly disagree. Well, something to put on a late-summer reading list.

  10. I am the sysadmin responsible for running the simulation.

    First, I would like to apologize for having to resort to this quantum stuff after the late 1800’s. You see, with you starting to observe more and more of the “universe” we started to run out of computational power so doing monte-carlo became a necessity and this still manifests itself as what you known as quantum phenomena.

    Second I would also like to apologise for that glitch in Utah regarding cold fusion. They were right, but it was a glitch (known for some time I might add) that was confined to Utah so we never though that people would pick it up. We were wrong and the guy who debugs had a hard time fixing that one. We still don’t know whether we introduced some unexpected side-effect elsewhere so if you guys discover something that later turns out not to be reproducible you can always suspect what happened.

    Regarding the LHC we are still debating what we will show you. I don’t make these calls (upper management does) but due to lack of resources we might not introduce anything new. Having or not having a Higgs is still under heated debate. SUSY is just way too complicated (too many free parameters) and we are running low on storage as I write so wouldn’t count on that for now.

    Regarding quark confinement, forget it. It’s just a kludge the programmers introduced so you won’t be able to figure that one out. You can’t, there is really no reason for it. The guy devising the theory that explains matter really messed things up and we had to solve it this way. Sorry.

    By the way, I almost forgot to mention. Of all the ~6E9 humans most are not really “sentient” and have no “free will”. They are just extras we added to keep things interesting for the others and to accommodate the population grows laws. Plus extras are very easy to simulate and sometimes we just simulate the whole group and add a bit of random noise in each “individual”. The real people never even suspect the end-result.

    Roughly there are as much “sentient” and “cogent” humans now as in the beginning (roughly 5% now). The world/Earth is really 6 thousand years old and the entire fossil record was just a way for you guys to believe there was something before and to add more fun to the simulation. Religions fall under this category also and the afterlife if existed would be being stored o tape.
    Reincarnation does exist but only for those 5% I mentioned. What you usually feel as past memories are pieces of reused storage blocks that weren’t completely erased, just recycled. Allocating the memory at birth with calloc instead of a simple malloc would solve this but we like the fun factor due to the current implementation.

    Finally, as for you being afraid of us pulling the plug, I must say so far the ratings have been very good and as long as Lubos is around and has a blog I will personally run a subset of the simulation out of my own pocket as long as I can just for the fun of it.

    If you guys have any questions feel free to ask me, no one will actually believe me so I don’t think I’ll mess the simulation. Besides, humans are not the crux of this experiment. I bet you didn’t see that one coming.

    If anything goes wrong, I’m root and I can always delete things, logs included and management would remain oblivious.

  11. LDM says:

    The idea has more in common with “The 13th Floor” (…a very enjoyable movie) , not the “Matrix”, as the NYT says…
    The idea is not new and a least goes back to 1964 and a SF work called Simulacron-3.
    I was surprised to learn that Oxford would associate itself with such an institute as the Future of Humanity Institute …very disappointing.

  12. superuser says:

    >I was surprised to learn that Oxford would associate itself with such an >institute as the Future of Humanity Institute …very disappointing.

    apparently fluff and fluffers are computationally cheaper…the Overlords though have promised to restore some sanity in the simulation once they recover from the 23-dimensional stock-market crash which occured some qcmplx(0.0q0,10.0q0) years ago according to the clock of _their_

  13. Kea says:

    Clearly, if we were a simulation we would have been turned off LONG ago.

  14. Richard says:

    Just curious: do you think it is generally good intellectual practice to mock an argument just because you find the conclusion antecedently implausible, and without regard for the quality of its reasoning?

    And for the record: I did not criticize you “for refusing to spend time answering their arguments.” Read my post — that’s a blatant misrepresentation. I have no objection to silence; I criticized you for the ignorant things you said — specifically, your assumption that all non-testable hypotheses are rationally on a par. (I don’t much care about Bostrom’s particular argument. My concern is the knee-jerk scientism.)

  15. Peter Woit says:


    I did see that review. I think Chaitin is quite wrong about the current state of mathematical research, in which Bourbaki has little influence. Mathematicians actually do mathematics every day in the way Chaitin claims they don’t. But, when they write things down, they are highly concerned about doing so completely precisely and unambigously, and being extremely clear about what they understand and can prove and what they don’t. Describing a subject that has seen the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Poincare Conjecture in recent years as unhealthy just doesn’t correspond to reality.

  16. amused says:

    “Let’s see, who came up with the simulation argument? Nick Bostrom”

    I thought it was Douglas Adams. (He also pointed out that it’s the mice who are running the show.)

  17. Kaj Blunt says:

    What happens to us if there is a thunderstorm up there and lightning
    hits their computer? Do they have adequate electric
    surge protection??

  18. “What happens to us if there is a thunderstorm up there and lightning
    hits their computer? Do they have adequate electric
    surge protection??”

    Yes we do. We have several UPS and if things get really bad every month we do a full backup. Upon data restoration you guys experience what you call “déjà vu” because after all, things are simulated once more from the checkpoint to the point where there was trouble. This has happened before on more than one occasion though not because of lightning. Lets just say your California power outages seemed like déjà vu to us.

  19. “He also pointed out that it’s the mice who are running the show.”

    Mice are certainly not “running the show”. Of that I can assure you. And neither are dolphins.

  20. Christine says:

    Clearly, if we were a simulation we would have been turned off LONG ago.

    No, Kea, we *have* already been turned off. But we haven’t noticed.

    (There is a story that goes more or less like this: a guy had this particular worship that the world would come to an end in the year 1980 or so. He had many followers. After 1980 he still had many followers. In an interview, he was asked: “What do you have to say about the fact that 1980 has passed and nothing happened? The world has not ceased and still you manage to have so many followers. How can this be?”. The man looked at the journalist with an ashtonished face and replied: “No, I was right. The world *has* ended. But no one has noticed it”.)

  21. Vishnu says:

    I’m a student of physics from the Indian Institute of Technology,.. I got here by accident. What is going on in here?! Who is ? And why does he pretend to be some kind of guy who has set up some simulation into which we’ve been put and why doesn’t anybody bother to put him in his place?!

  22. manyoso says:

    “Mice are certainly not “running the show”. Of that I can assure you. And neither are dolphins.”

    I knew it! It is the cows, right??!! Oh, man, wait till I tell Jack and collect on that bet… 🙂

  23. Walt says:

    Vishnu: It’s because what if he’s telling the truth? I’m not going to take the kind of chance.

  24. Magnus says:

    Considering that Boström is a philosopher and not a scientist, he is really just doing his job. I guess one can object to the rather vulgar ways in which he is promoting his ideas, but yet again, I guess this is not the place to criticise him for that 😉 If the AI people actually some day will produce something that will pass the Turing test, then this kind of ideas will probably be interesting for the general public. It is not too unlikely that this will happen within the next 30 years, so if some university decide to sponsor Boström, they may be acting with some forethought. I also find Boströms ideas truly valuable, in that it clearly exposes the anthropic principle for what it really is, namely metaphysics. I think that many physicist will accept anthropic reasoning in the now common stringy form, when they are also confused by all the shiny quantum bells and whistles that comes with it. But in Boströms form, I think that it is obvious for anyone, that the anthropic principle has nothing to do with science.

  25. RA says:

    “And why does he pretend to be some kind of guy who has set up some simulation into which we’ve been put and why doesn’t anybody bother to put him in his place?!”

    He is not pretending…the fact that he knows too much can only mean that he is one of the IT guys running the…I meant system administrators…correction: System Administrator

    Nobody puts him in his place because if we do so, we get unplugged…just like what happens in this simulation in the so-called “democracy mode”

  26. overlord says:

    Ok, you got us, the jig is up, I guess.

    Sorry for the inconvenience. Look, it was just research, ok? It passed IRB and its led to several published papers, so dont get all indignant.

    Anyhoo, we have funding until the end of next semester so we’re going to leave the simulation running at least until then. If you have any questions for us, I’m here to answer them, and I’ll try my best.

  27. anonymous says:

    Shtetl-Optimized has a post about this discussion:

  28. bored antropic says:

    A variant of the anthropic principle claims that we exist in the dullest, bored simulation possible. SF authors have long time played with the possibility of using simulations to implement worlds were laws of physics can be locally weak, allowing for superheros, or science is completely broken, allowing for mythical sagas or for reality of alternative belief systems. From the recent literature you can read for instance Richard Garfinkle’s “Celestial Matters” or, in spanish, Javier Negrete’s “El mito de ER”. Garfinckle does not use explicitly the simulation argument, but Negrete likes to invoke it in the appendix. In “El mito de ER”, it is said that the simulation is actually a video game whose object is to forge heros who are uplifted to the (non enjoyable) status of players.

  29. andy.s says:

    Wasn’t Nick Bostrom plugging the Doomsday Hypothesis a few years ago?

  30. milkshake says:

    there is an old Asaac Asimov story about a smart guy who guessed that we were taking part in elaborate simulation and our sense of humor was one of the adjustable test parameters. His discovery made our overlords to re-design the experiment and all the bawdy jokes (about running over your mother-in-law when backing in the driveway etc) suddenly ceased to be funny.

  31. lostsoul Ph. D. says:

    What’s with the fancy flashing red shit? Just pull the plug. God knows, when a cold wind blows, it can turn your head around.

  32. Smith-Kingsley says:

    do you think it is generally good intellectual practice to mock an argument just because you find the conclusion antecedently implausible, and without regard for the quality of its reasoning?

    Apparently Mr Woit thinks it is also generally good intellectual practice to disregard pertinent questions such as the one quoted above. His procedure seems to reverse Gandhi’s motto: first they ridicule you, then they ignore you.

  33. Me says:

    The reason nobody places in his place is because nothing separates his posts from the opinions of the guys who supposedly proposed this simulation argument in the first place.

    Both are as scientific and plausible. Both are religious like in the sense you get nothing from them apart from psychological sustenance.

    This simulation idea is anything but original. I had it when I was a young child and thought this was all a test (I didn’t know the word simulation) and later met more people (at least a guy for sure) with the same idea (he developed his idea closer to puberty) but with small perturbations.

    This is just childish talk and not in a good way.

  34. SnarkFest says:

    I do not wish to hide the fact that I can only look with repugnance… upon the puffed-up pretentiousness of all these volumes filled with wisdom, such as are fashionable nowadays. For I am fully satisfied that… the accepted methods must endlessly increase these follies and blunders, and that even the complete annihilation of all these fanciful achievements could not possibly be as harmful as this fictitious science with its accursed fertility.

    Immanuel Kant

    The character of honesty, that spirit of undertaking an inquiry together with the reader, which permeates the works of all previous philosophers, disappears here completely. Every page witnesses that these so-called philosophers do not attempt to teach, but to bewitch their reader.

    Arthur Schopenhauer

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  36. Richard says:

    The commenters in this thread appear not to know the difference between an “idea” and an “argument”.

    As per my earlier comment (nicely highlighted by Smith-Kingsley there – thanks), I would have expected minimal scientific literacy to impart the importance of method (i.e. reasons) when assessing claims.

  37. Arun says:

    Not all ideas deserve respect or a methodical response.

  38. Richard says:

    My point is that what Bostrom presented is not an idea at all, but an argument.

    (It’s very revealing when the people upthread suggest that Bostrom is engaged in the same kind of activity that they did as a kid. Imagine a stoner responding to Darwin, “Woah, dude, I totally imagined that all living creatures were related!” Kinda misses the core of his contribution, no?)

    What you guys are doing is the equivalent of someone who responds to a counterintuitive scientific finding by saying “Don’t be silly, everyone knows that can’t be right,” instead of checking their experimental methods. You’re looking at the output, rather than the process — the data or reasoning that led to the conclusion.

    That’s just bad intellectual practice. I mean, any old fool ought to know better. But a scientist especially.

  39. Arun says:

    Someone presented another argument that the earth is flat. I refuse to look at the data and reasoning that led to the conclusion. It is called not wasting one’s time, a useful intellectual practice.

  40. Richard says:

    My impression of the dismissive responses here is that they’re motivated more by the intrinsic weirdness of Bostrom’s conclusion, rather than because it conflicts with a better-established body of knowledge. But even if you’re right, that still doesn’t explain why everyone here is fixating so on the disliked conclusion. Their time would be better served by focusing attention elsewhere.

    The core of my complaint is this: if you are going to spend time discussing Bostrom’s argument at all, then you really should discuss the argument, and not just its conclusion.

  41. SnarkFest says:

    From Scott Aaronson, a nicely balanced assessment:

    Greg, we basically agree for once. The trouble with debating whether the universe is a computer is not so much that it’s “unscientific” as that it’s boring: it doesn’t explain anything, or generate serious predictions, or even lead to nontrivial theorems. As we’ve known since Turing, the notion of computation is so general that it encompasses pretty much anything.

    Or to put it differently, there’s very little to say about the idea that wouldn’t occur to a nerdy 12-year-old. (The idea can, however, be played for entertainment value, and to their credit Bostrom, Hanson, and Tierney all write in a way that suggests they don’t take themselves quite seriously.)

    Now, there’s a crucial caveat, which might be causing some of the confusion. Even though “Is the universe a computer?” is itself a boring question, it happens to be extremely close in ideaspace to lots of rich, nontrivial, interesting questions. …..

    This often seems to be true of questions of the form “Is X really a Y?”—if X and Y are real, and of independent significance. There are interesting ways to discuss such questions, and also sterile, pointless, and pedantic ways to discuss them. A cynic would say that many professional philosophers have a penchant for the latter.

  42. Me says:

    “Imagine a stoner responding to Darwin, “Woah, dude, I totally imagined that all living creatures were related!” Kinda misses the core of his contribution, no?”

    You are missing a major point yourself. Darwin’s ideas had a core. He had observations and suggestions on things to observe to reinforce his theory. Whether it was falsifiable at the time is tricky but it had substance.

    Here we have nothing but a probability (estimated using Bayes’ theorem from what I read) that we live in a simulation without any means of confirming or disproving that and no new insight coming from it.

    This is quite comparable with what I wrote before about what many children think about these matters.

    Until you present us with something substantial that is a consequence of your ideas this is just the same under “fancier clothes”. So far you have given us nothing but speculations about the legality or morality of some actions in a possible future civilization descendant from humans.

    Again, many kids do this, the only real difference is that they are not at a University and don’t know Bayes’ theorem.

  43. But even if you’re right, that still doesn’t explain why everyone here is fixating so on the disliked conclusion. Their time would be better served by focusing attention elsewhere.

    Importantly, it doesn’t explain why Peter Woit chose to spend some of his time researching Bostrom’s CV while refusing to even consider the merits or demerits of the simulation argument. It is also remarkable that Woit has decided not to address Richard’s question in the comments above: even if his dismissal of Bostrom’s argument is intellectually defensible, it is surely unacceptable for him to remain silent on the general epistemic principle that underlies that dismissal.

  44. Peter Woit says:


    I spent time looking into the funding of FHI because I had written something incorrect about it, and doing what I can to ensure the information I disseminate on this blog is accurate matters a great deal to me.

    I’m not about to engage in debate with people who want to discuss the “simulation argument”, any more than I’m going to do so with creationists who show up here and want to complain about my relatively hostile attitude toward religion. For many reasons, which have been spelled out repeatedly by several people here and at Scott Aaronson’s blog, I happen to be completely sure that that would be an utter waste of my time.

  45. 1. The objection is not that you failed to discuss the simulation argument; the objection is that you failed to defend or even state the general principle that you think entitles you to ridicule rather than discuss that argument.

    2. The analogy with creationism is disingenuous, since the simulation argument is not intended to establish a claim that contradicts a well-established body of scientific knowledge. The reasons behind your dismissal of the argument seem to be rather that, as Richard said, you find its conclusions antecedently implausible. The principle that we are entitled to dismiss an argument intended to establish a conclusion which we find antecedently implausible, however, is not nearly as plausible as the principle that we are entitled to dismiss an argument intended to establish a conclusion which contradicts a well-established body of scientific evidence. If you are indeed relying on this latter, controversial principle, you should at least say it loud and clear. Preferably in red blinking text.

  46. I meant former, not latter.

  47. manyoso says:

    No. The dismissal of the ‘simulation argument’ has nothing to do with Bostrom’s conclusion.

    If Bostrom had concluded the opposite and found little likelyhood we are living in a simulation it would not make one difference. The dismissal has to do with the argument rather the subject matter itself.

    Again, what people object to is the fact that Bostrom’s arguments were presented as even tangentially related to science. I think this has been well established. All of Bostrom’s arguments and ideas are little more than mental masturbation and should not be found in the Science section of the Times.

    I went to the blog mentioned in the post to see what they could possibly criticize with Peter’s post and all I found was a bunch of hemming and hawing about the unfathomable difficulty in defining ‘science’ at all as opposed to ‘philosophy.’ It seems the only way to justify Bostrom’s wanking appearing in the Times is to define science downward. Is it any wonder that people think this is a waste of time?

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