Aug 22, 2007

virtual morality, virtual ontology

I've been thinking about theodicy lately--a summer habit--and so I've noticed an intersection between the problem of evil and Nick Bostrom's simulation argument. As I've summarized it:
If we grant that a sufficiently advanced civilization could create a workable simulation of existence, we have every right to suspect we inhabit that simulation.
Brent Silby, in his critique of Bostrom's reasoning, raises the moral issue:
But morality, like all cultural phenomena, evolves. It is a conceit to assume that our current state of moral reasoning will remain unchanged. Highly advanced civilizations may find it morally abhorrent to create a universe and populate it with living beings. Consider life on Earth. We live on a planet full of creatures that have to destroy each other to survive. Humans, who have arguably the highest level of intelligence on Earth, kill animals, pollute the environment, torture children, tell lies, commit crimes, and kill each other for greed. Would an advanced species think it is a good thing to create another universe that could possibly contain this level of pain and suffering? Its possible that a future species would choose not to create a simulated universe because doing so would increase pain and suffering in the world.

The assumption that an advanced species will want to create a simulated universe relies too heavily on the idea that they will share our moral standards. We cannot make such an assumption, so the likelihood that we exist in a simulated universe may be a great deal lower than originally thought. I am not saying that it is impossible. All I am suggesting is that more thought needs to be put into the look of future moral reasoning
I agree that we have to be careful when assigning probabilities to the purported actions of civilizations that could conceivably will us into existence--but I have two in-principle objections to the objection.

First, though morality may evolve, it doesn't prohibit people, ultimately, from acting immorally. Silby's list of human ills is proof enough. A rogue simulation technician might be running our universe as a screensaver, in defiance of The Future's norms.

Second, a simulation is not real. No one at present mourns the death of digital characters, at least not seriously--I hope. We view their suffering as only apparent. Perhaps the simulation engineers of The Future are unaware that their characters have a subjective existence (assuming, of course, that I am not the only character in a solipsist simulation). Since our suffering and pain aren't "real," there is no perceived moral risk in programming us to suffer.

Silby makes an interesting comparison:
Supporters of the Simulated Universe argument may complain here, and state that there is a fundamental difference between their view and the Cosmological argument. They may suggest that their argument is different because it is based on the existence of real creatures that have a biology and use technology, while the Cosmological argument is based on a supernatural God. But I am not sure the there is a difference. From our perspective there is no difference between a supernatural God and a super intelligent species from another universe. Both entities are equally difficult to describe. We can never know the nature of a parent universe. We cannot know about how their biology works because we are unable to visit and have a look. Creatures in the parent universe are unknowable, and from our perspective they are all-powerful.
There is a high epistemic barrier to the Simulation Argument, to be sure. But extrapolating from known technological processes isn't just making stuff up.

I'll admit I had a similarly Clarkesque thought after mulling over Bostrom's argument: the better humans get at creating technology, the less we are "wowed" by omnipotence. In fact, the unintended consequence of the Intelligent Design movement could be that it succeeds--by deflating our view of the divine. Maybe that's the Canny Valley of I.D.

[Shamelessly borrowed from the Uncanny Valley pictured here.]

No comments: