Saturday, August 18, 2018

Cosmic simulation

I was asked a follow-up question on this post:

What you would say if an atheist said for the sake of argument that he accepted that the transcendental argument is valid and reason and logic do need a transcendent source, but that we’d have no way of knowing if that source is the Triune God or Billy the alien programmer? 

i) To begin with, the notion that we're virtual characters in a computer simulation presumes the possibility of artificial intelligence. But that's hotly-contested. According to the hard problem of consciousness, mind is not reducible to a physical arrangement. 

ii) An alien can't be the source of abstract objects. An alien can't be the source of logic because an alien is a contingent being, so he can't ground the necessity of logic. If logic is simply how he thinks, then logic lacks normatively. He's a fluid entity. 

iii) An alien can't be the source of numbers because he has a finite, timebound mind whereas numbers are timeless, infinite, transfinite objects or ensembles. 

iv) An alien can't be the source of possible worlds because he himself exemplifies a possible world. 

v) Can he be the source of truth? If there were no minds, there'd be no true beliefs. As a contingent being, his nonexistence is possible. If truth has a contingent source, then the nonexistence of truth is possible. But is it true that the nonexistence of truth is possible? 


  1. Out of sheer, morbid curiosity, what if they modify position to more of a matrix scenario, where it’s actually human minds plugged into a simulation?

    I suppose that’s just the brain in a vat scenario.

    1. If you're forcibly plugged into the Matrix by futuristic sentient machine overlords, or you've been kept alive as a brain in a vat by a mad scientist, or (reaching even further back) if you're under the spell of an evil Cartesian demon, then the following might be arguable:

      1. You know you can't necessarily trust your senses or perceptions. What you experience may or may not correspond to reality.

      2. You know you exist. You know you're real even if nothing else is real. Cogito, ergo sum.

      3. You know you have some idea of "God". The idea of God is independent of the existence of an external world. The idea of "God" is in your mind.

      4. Perhaps you could reason your way to the existence of this God. Perhaps you could arrive at this God's existence via an ontological argument. As such, you know God exists.

      5. Perhaps you could reason your way to the kind of God this God would be. Perhaps you could reason this God would have to be the greatest necessary being. Perhaps you could reason this greatest necessary being must be all powerful, all knowing, and all good.

      6. You could further reason this God is more powerful than anything else that might be in control of you (e.g. futuristic sentient machine overlords, mad scientists, demons).

      7. As such, you could cry out to this God for help. You could beg this God to free you from your dilemma.

      However, I'm no philosopher, and this is just a rough sketch. I expect a philosopher would criticize what I've said and be able to offer something far better.

    2. If there are (say) subatomic particles which we cannot observe with our senses or perception, but we are justified in believing they exist and are real because of their explanatory power, then perhaps the same could apply to the existence and reality of the external world given its explanatory power.

    3. An atheist can always dream up with ad hoc hypotheticals, but even in a Matrix scenario, there are variations on the cosmological and teleological arguments, because the Matrix is contingent and designed. Argument from reason, consciousness, and abstract objects (numbers, logic, possible worlds) remain in play.

  2. Ah. I see. So in the matrix/brain-vat case we’d have no reason to trust our sense perceptions or our understandings of reason or logic, or how they apply.

    I spend most of my time in Biblical studies/historical studies. I’m a rank amateur when it comes to philosophy. I’ve heard about the brain-vat thought experiment since my undergrad days, but I’ve never given much thought to it.

    1. In a sense, reason and logic would be unimpaired in a matrix-like situation. And we could come up with a priori arguments for God. Problem is, what we'd be plugging into logic is mostly illusion in that scenario. There wouldn't be much for reason to work with. The faculty of reason would still be trustworthy, but the stimuli would be untrustworthy, which is a bad combination!

    2. faith alchemist

      "Ah. I see. So in the matrix/brain-vat case we’d have no reason to trust our sense perceptions or our understandings of reason or logic, or how they apply."

      1. To my knowledge, the Matrix and brain in a vat scenarios could grant our senses are trustworthy or reliable, but deny the trustworthiness or reliability of what's fed to our senses, viz. the external world.

      However, an ontological argument for God along with variations in the other arguments Steve mentioned don't necessarily need to rely on our senses being trustworthy or reliable. These arguments don't depend on the trustworthiness or reliability of our senses per se, but can still argue God exists.

      2. If there are sentient machines or mad scientists who have put us in the Matrix or turned us into brains in a vat, then that would mean they would have created a faux reality that's so well designed that we could investigate it and describe it with complex mathematical equations and scientific laws (e.g. quantum mechanics, general relativity).

      Further, this faux reality would be populated by scores of other living organisms, each of which is so complex that we can't even recreate a single-cell organism from scratch. (Apparently Richard Dawkins is wrong that life has the appearance of design - it truly is designed! By sentient machines or mad scientists.)

      What's more, this faux reality would presumably have to be more complex than anything we are capable of achieving today. After all, arguably not all humans can investigate and describe this faux reality, but perhaps only the brightest among us (e.g. Newton, Einstein). And there's still so much more left to uncover.

      It's not as if sentient machines would know what it's like to be human. Minimally, it would take a team of mad scientists each of whom is a genius specialist in a particular field.

      In addition, for this faux reality to work well enough to fool us, it would seem to have to depend on the true reality to some significant degree. Otherwise, would the smartest among us be fooled? Otherwise, wouldn't the Feynmans and Hayses of this world detect glitches in the system? Yet, if it does depend on true reality to some significant degree, then exactly how false is our faux reality?

      This isn't necessarily a defeater, but together with other arguments, it seems to work against the Matrix and brain in a vat scenarios. These scenarios seem to have a lot more explaining to do than the more common sense belief in the existence of a veridical external world, especially in the context of Christian theism.

    3. At this point it seems to be indistinguishable from the problem with ancient non-Christian religion: Reality is ultimately irrational and unknowable because at any moment any god or programmer or mad scientist can change anything. But reality can’t be irrational and unknowable, because we can know it’s irrational and unknowable.

    4. In a matrix-situation, you can't distinguish empirical reality from illusion because it's all illusion. There's no empirical standard of comparison. That differs from optical illusions, hallucinations, dreams, &c.

      However, sensory perception isn't the only source of knowledge. We also have intuitive knowledge. Empirical reality isn't all there is.

    5. Ah. A chance for me to learn something! What do you mean by intuitive knowledge?

    6. Insights that aren't base on sense knowledge. Like moral insight, mathematical insight, hypothetical scenarios.

  3. I revised, better organized, and added a little bit to what I've said here.

  4. Here is my take on the issue. I made two brief YouTube videos exploring it:

    The "What If" Problem (Part One)

    The "What If" Problem (Part Two)