Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Whom we live, move, and have our being

World of Warcraft's characters often seem intelligent, but human players soon learn that the poor things are hopelessly dumb and can be easily defeated. Other computer games have better AI (Artificial Intelligence), but game AI is still light years behind real intelligence. However, I am persuaded that real, self-aware AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), of human and higher level, will be achieved someday, perhaps by the computer gaming industry itself, and perhaps in the next couple of decades. Then, computer games will contain sentient, intelligent persons like you and I.

If computer game characters can be intelligent and sentient, perhaps we are sentient and intelligent computer game characters? Is our reality, including ourselves in it, a computer simulation? These questions may seem strange at first, but they are not easily dismissed, and philosophers have been asking similar questions for centuries and more. Today, reality as a simulation is a frequent discussion topic in transhumanist interest groups. Who is running the simulation? Perhaps unknowable aliens in another level of reality have invented us and our world, but a frequent assumption is that future humans run our reality as a historically accurate simulation of their past (our present).

Of course we should not imagine the computers simulating our reality as similar to today's computers. No, they will not be more powerful boxes running a slightly better future release of Windows. A computer able to simulate a reality as complex as ours, and containing conscious observers, must be many orders of magnitude more complex and powerful than anything we have today, and probably be based on very different hardware and system software. Many AGI experts think consciousness can, and does, emerge from a sufficiently complex computational system. Many transhumanists believe humans will merge with AGIs once Mind Uploading technology is developed, and super-intelligent human-AGI hybrids will spread to the universe. The last chapter of Hans Moravec's "Robot - Mere machine to Transcendent Mind" has a fascinating preview of this "Mind Fire".

So if we are living in a simulation, the computational system simulating our reality is not a what, but a who. Not an inanimate machine, but a thinking and feeling person, orders of magnitude smarter and more complex than us. We don't live in a mere machine, but in a Transcendent Mind.

In a 1992 essay titled Pigs in Cyberspace, Moravec may have been the first to formulate (in modern terms) the idea of our reality as a simulation: "An evolving cyberspace becomes effectively ever more capacious and long lasting, and so can support ever more minds of ever greater power. If these minds spend only an infinitesimal fraction of their energy contemplating the human past, their sheer power should ensure that eventually our entire history is replayed many times in many places, and in many variations. The very moment we are now experiencing may actually be (almost certainly is) such a distributed mental event, and most likely is a complete fabrication that never happened physically." By "almost certainly is" Moravec refers to the idea that observers living in simulated realities may vastly outnumber observers living in original physical realities. In his "Simulation Argument" Nick Bostrom has proposed a more quantitative formulation.

If those who live in a simulated reality can themselves simulate lower level realities, perhaps upper case Reality is nothing more than an infinite cascade of realities simulated within higher level realities (dreams within dreams, or turtles all the way down). This may well be the simplest explanation of the world, since assuming an infinite regress permits doing without a "base reality" which generates all other realities.

Moravec may have been the first to formulate in modern terms the idea of our reality as a simulation, but the idea is much older. Influenced by previous thinkers, Bishop George Berkeley thought that the reality we perceive, and ourselves in it, exist in the mind of "that supreme and wise Spirit, in whom we live, move, and have our being": God. In "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists (Third Dialogue)", Berkeley wrote, quoting Paul: "there are only things perceiving, and things perceived; or that every unthinking being is necessarily, and from the very nature of its existence, perceived by some mind; if not by a finite created mind, yet certainly by the infinite mind of God, in whom 'we live, and move, and have our being.'". In other words, we and our whole reality are thoughts in the Mind of God. It is easy to see that Berkeley and Moravec are saying very similar things, each in the language of his philosophy and age.

Apparently, there is an important difference between Berkeley and Moravec: As a 18th century Christian and a representative of the Church, Berkeley believed in supernatural phenomena, in principle understandable by science, while Moravec, as a modern engineer, believes reality is fully understandable and explainable by science. Moravec's simulated realities will be developed by future engineers, within the framework of future science. If our reality is a simulation, everything in our universe can be understood in terms of the physical laws of the higher level reality in which it is simulated.

But... this is only true from the point of view of those who are simulating lower level realities. From the point of those who live in a simulation, Moravec's simulation cosmology may well contain supernatural phenomena: The reality engineer up there, the Transcendent Mind, may choose to violate the rules of the game.

Make this simple experiment: Run a Game of Life program, for example this, choose an initial pattern, and let it evolve for a while. Now, stop the program, flip a cell, and resume the program. You have just performed a miracle: something that goes against the physical laws (the simple cellular automata evolution rules of Life) of the lower level reality that you are simulating. The Game of Life is too simple to contain conscious observers, but hypothetical observers within the game would observe an event that cannot be understood in terms of the physical laws of their universe. A miracle.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Berkeley and Moravec are not only saying similar things, but they are actually saying the same thing, with different words! Moravec's Transcendent Mind is, by definition, omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipresent (always and everywhere present) in the simulated reality He thinks. He is Berkeley's "supreme and wise Spirit, in whom we live, move, and have our being": a God.

Perhaps prayers are heard: if you receive an IM to warn you that a favorite virtual pet is hungry or unhappy, wouldn't you pay some attention and intervene? Many Foopets users do. Perhaps The Secret is true. Perhaps sometimes the Mind illuminates a person in our reality, and this person becomes a shaman or a prophet. Perhaps, just perhaps, all that we have been told is true.

Including the greatest miracle: resurrection. According to our best scientific understanding, it seems that the dead stay dead. But if we live in a simulation, the Mind can copy us to new simulation. This is illustrated by the short movie "CA Resurrection", which I made with a Game of Life program. The protagonist pattern is doomed to certain death by interaction with an environment that, except in very carefully controlled conditions, is very unfriendly to the stability of patterns (sounds familiar?), but is copied before death and restored to life in a friendlier environment.

CA Resurrection (Youtube)
CA Resurrection (

See also my article CTRL-ALT-R: Another Life.

This is all very beautiful if we live in a simulation, but, what if we don't live in a simulation? What if our reality happens to be the primary, original physical reality? Despite Moravec's assurance that our reality "almost certainly is" a simulation, most people assume that it is the primary reality. If you make this assumption (and you probably do), then all I have written above is useless: it may apply to "them", but it does not apply to "us".

Or does it? Moravec (again) comes to the rescue. Even if our reality is the primary, original physical reality, posthuman Transcendent Minds may be able to "upload us to the future" by copying us from the past and injecting us into one of their simulations.

In Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, Moravec writes: "In Chapter 6 robots sweep into space in a colonizing wave, but then disappear in a wake of increasingly pure thinking stuff. A "Mind Fire" burns across the universe in Chapter 7. Physical law loses its primacy to purposes, goals, interpretations and God knows what else.". In the last page of Robot he writes: "When we die, the rules surely change... Perhaps we are most likely to find ourselves reconstituted in the minds of superintelligent successors, or perhaps in dreamlike worlds (or AI programs) where psychological rather than physical rules dominate. Our mind children will probably be able to navigate the alternatives with increasing facility. For us, now, barely conscious, it remains a leap in the dark.", and concludes with Shakespeare's immortal words "To sleep, perchance to dream...".

From a 1995 message of Charles Platt to the Cryonel list: "The question has been asked, is robotics researcher Hans Moravec serious about the possibility of reconstructing a human being from "clues" left behind on an atomic level? The answer is "yes."... I recently did a long interview on this and other topics with Hans, which will appear in the October issue of Wired. He derives a genuine feeling of comfort from his "resurrection by AI" scenario.".

From the Interview with Hans Moravec by Charles Platt:

I'm a little less hard-core in my atheism than I used to be. And my ideas about resurrection in some ways are not so different from those of early theologians, or from the Greek thought that fed into that.
Moravec foresees a kind of happy ending, though, because the cyberspace entities should find human activity interesting from a historical perspective.
We will be remembered as their ancestors, the creators who enabled them to exist.
As Moravec puts it, "We are their past, and they will be interested in us for the same reason that today we are interested in the origins of our own life on Earth."
Assuming the artificial intelligences now have truly overwhelming processing power, they should be able to reconstruct human society in every detail by tracing atomic events backward in time. "It will cost them very little to preserve us this way," he points out. "They will, in fact, be able to re-create a model of our entire civilization, with everything and everyone in it, down to the atomic level, simulating our atoms with machinery that's vastly subatomic. Also," he says with amusement, "they'll be able to use data compression to remove the redundant stuff that isn't important."
But by this logic, our current "reality" could be nothing more than a simulation produced by information entities.
"Of course." Moravec shrugs and waves his hand as if the idea is too obvious. "In fact, the robots will re-create us any number of times, whereas the original version of our world exists, at most, only once. Therefore, statistically speaking, it's much more likely we're living in a vast simulation than in the original version. To me, the whole concept of reality is rather absurd. But while you're inside the scenario, you can't help but play by the rules. So we might as well pretend this is real - even though the chance things are as they seem is essentially negligible."
And so, according to Hans Moravec, the human race is almost certainly extinct, while the world around us is just an advanced version of SimCity.

These ideas, anticipated by Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov and the Russian Cosmists, have been also proposed by Frank Tipler.

In "The Physics of Immortality", Tipler proposed that intelligent beings of a far future epoch close to the gravitational collapse of the universe (the so called Big Crunch) may develop the capability to steer the dynamics of the collapsing universe in such a way as to make unlimited subjective time, energy, and computational power available to them before reaching the final singularity (Omega Point). Having done so, they may wish to restore to consciousness all sentient beings of the past, perhaps through a “brute force” computational emulation of the past history of the universe. So after death we may wake up in a simulated environment with many of the features assigned to the afterlife world by the major religions.

Tipler's mechanism for resurrection is often criticized on the basis of its cosmological assumptions, that are not supported by current observations. Even if this is the case (that is, even if the Universe "left to itself" would not spontaneously evolve an Omega Point -like cosmology), Tipler thinks that we may be able to engineer conditions suitable for the emergence of an Omega Point. This "fix what you don't like" is the transhumanist attitude supported by Ray Kurzweil's last sentence in "The Age of Spiritual Machines": "So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein's so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right."

Perhaps we won't have to wait for the End of Time. Some of the most suggestive resurrection scenarios have been proposed by science fiction writers. In "The Light of Other Days", Sir Arthur C. Clarke (who else?) and Stepten Baxter imagine a near future world profoundly transformed by the invention of a "Wormcam": a remote viewing device that permits scanning every position, including in the past, by using micro wormholes naturally embedded with huge density in the fabric of spacetime. At some point things start to progress very fast, and soon after scientists develop the capability to resurrect the dead by copying them from their past (our present) and uploading them to their present (our future).

In conclusion:

- We may be living in a simulation performed by a Transcendent Mind in Whom we live, move, and have our being.
- If this is the case, we live in a universe which permits resurrection of the dead. After our death, the Transcendent Mind may choose to copy us to another simulation.
- If this is not the case (that is, if we live in the original physical reality), future Transcendent Minds may be able to copy us from the past and upload us to one of their simulations.

These conclusions seem a good foundation for the "new scientific theologies and spiritualities" analysed by James Hughes in "Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies".
In the New Good Argument (see the recently revised version) the Mormon Transhumanist Association has re-built Mormon traditional cosmo-theology in a form explicitly compatible with the conclusions above.