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Unknowable Somethings
by James Patrick Kelly


In the thirteenth century, a Dominican friar and philosopher published a treatise called “On the truth of the Catholic faith against the errors of the unbelievers.” In it Thomas Aquinas presented his “Five Ways,” arguments that he had developed over time to prove the existence of God. While not strictly logical, they are what we might now call logic adjacent. He believed that, although we can’t know what God is, we can nevertheless glimpse the Divine substance by knowing what it is not. Three of the Ways deal with Aquinas’s complicated ideas of causation, most famously the Second Way, which presents his case for a First Cause. Since a causal chain can’t be infinitely long, in Aquinas’s opinion, he maintains that all causal chains—including those from which our reality springs—must derive from an uncaused cause. He then asserts that this anomaly must be “what everyone understands to be God.” This is his fallback position when he gets to the part where he tells us what he has “proved.” Again and again the arguments for each of the Ways point to an Unknowable Something that is “what everyone understands to be God.” But what kind of God? Here the philosopher falls silent and the Domincan friar steps forward with Catholic doctrine. If you’re interested in Aquinas’s headspinning attempts to finesse the problem of infinite regress, check out this video Aquinas & the Cosmological Arguments

So what do the writings of Aquinas have to do with the current science fiction scene? It seems to me that conjuring an Unknowable Something out of the mysteries of causality is of a piece with the Unknowable Somethings proposed by the Simulation Hypothesis In 2003 Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published an audacious paper entitled Are You Living In A Computer Simulation? Here’s how it begins:

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears.

Of course SF fans were intrigued by Bostrom’s ideas. Just four years earlier we’d been amazed by The Matrix Thanks to its Academy Award winning sound, sound effects, and visual effects, we had no trouble imagining how immersive and persuasive a far future superscience simulation might be. Moreover, in 2003 revenues from video games exceeded 11 billion dollars, so the gamers among us were very familiar with the sensation of losing themselves in the artificial worlds of Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda, and yes, Enter the Matrix

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get it?

For those of you still on the blue pill, here’s an executive summary of the Simulation Argument, although really you should click over to the excellent The Simulation Argument and screen some of the many interviews in which Bostrom explains his conceit.

Consider the last fifty years in the evolution of video games, say from Pong (1972) to the photorealistic shooter Call of Duty: Vanguard (2021), which was 2021’s best seller. Then pull on your Oculus headset and step into virtual reality for a looksee. While the current iterations of VR tech step down from the highest of resolutions, they offer an immersive three dimensionality.

Now imagine state-of-the-art-simulations not just fifty years in the future, but five thousand or fifty thousand years on. Not only would they be immense in scale and complexity; they might also be indistinguishable from reality and filled with an intelligent population who were wholly creatures of the simulation. In video game terms, the population of such a simulation would be advanced forms of NPCs or Non-Player Characters The simulation would also be accessible to players from the base reality civilization that created it; they could enter and interact with the sim world and the NPCs who were native to it.

While it’s possible to imagine all kinds of simulations, what was of particular interest to Bostrom was something he called ancestor simulations In his paper he posits a planetary-mass computer with the computational power of 1042 operations per second. It could “simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second.” So, maybe not just one ancestor simulation, but many. You might think of Call of Duty:Vanguard as a proto-ancestor simulation, in that it gives players simulated shooting experiences in various theaters of conflict during WWII.

Once you wrap your mind around the idea of ancestor simulations, it’s time to decide whether you buy the Simulation Argument. Note that it’s not the same as the Simulation Hypothesis. In the Argument, Bostrom claims that only one of the following statements can be true. 1: Humanity will go extinct before reaching a posthuman civilization capable of creating these simulations. 2: Future civilizations will lack either the ability or the interest to create them. 3: Posthuman civilizations will create ancestor simulations—and potentially a staggering number of them. (As a mundane and very rough comparison, consider that the Call of Duty franchise has sold 400 million units since 2003.) If this third statement is true, then what follows is the Simulation Hypothesis, which suggests that we are almost certainly living in a simulation.

Bostrom and those who entertain his ideas acknowledge that the Simulation Hypothesis is carefully constructed of maybes Maybe climate change or some resource war with a nuclear kicker wipes us out—in which case, game over. Maybe we don’t build simulations but aliens do. But then why would they fill theirs with humans like us? Maybe humanity survives, but we never build that planet-sized computer. Or maybe we do, but future us decides that ancestor simulations are immoral. Since Bostrom is imagining some future posthuman civilization with capabilities far beyond our own, maybe we are in base reality and it will be our children’s children’s children42 who will create these simulations. Sure, but how to assess the probability of that? Accepting that Unknowable Somethings can make simulations with their superpowerful planetary computer, then it is likely that there will be many more simulated people than those who live or lived in base reality. Since everyone is equally convinced they are real without being able to prove it, Bostrom invokes the Indifference Principle, which maps possibilities onto probabilities when we don’t have hard facts. Say that the simulators are/have been/will be busy making simulations teeming with simulated people, so that 50 percent of all people who have ever existed are simulated. Then the indifference principle tells us that our chances of being simulated are 50 percent. And if they’ve been really, really busy, so that 90 percent are sims. . . ?


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ultimate conspiracy

We first met Nick Bostrom in this space in 2012. Since then, interest in the Simulation Argument has waxed and waned. Pundits of varying credibility have weighed in. For example, Neil de Grasse Tyson told Larry King in 2017 that “It’s hard to argue that we aren’t living in a simulated world.” In 2020, however, he recanted somewhat, downgrading the probability that we’re all simulated to just fifty-fifty. In 2016 Elon Musk told an audience that the chances we’re in base reality are one in a billion. Meanwhile, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argues that The Simulation Hypothesis is Pseudoscience, and cosmologist George Ellis is “astounded that serious scientists and philosophers can propose that the universe could be a computer simulation.”

The Simulation Argument is having another moment in popular culture as I write this, influenced by three 2021 films: The Matrix Resurrections, A Glitch in the Matrix, and Free Guy Sheila doesn’t pay me to be a movie critic, so I’ll just say that I liked The Matrix Resurrections okay, although, like all the sequels, it falls short of the original. It had a lot on its mind and I appreciated what it had to say about the franchise-ization of art, but the deus ex machina ending felt flat to me. Free Guy doesn’t take itself so seriously, but I really liked how all the NPCs took the reveal that they were sims in stride. What else could they do?

The troubling documentary A Glitch In The Matrix explores the impact of taking the Simulation Argument seriously. It features a series of interviews of “witnesses,” CGIed into bizarre onscreen avatars so that we’re unable to read their faces for signs of irony or insanity. They tell their stories of delusion, solipsism, and alienation, leavened with dollops of techno-optimism and posthuman yearning. There are also sober-minded talking heads, including Bostrom and scholar Eric Davis

For this science fiction writer, the centerpiece of the film is the many excerpts of Philip K. Dick’s famous and bonkers Metz Speech, “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.” In a 1977 Guest of Honor talk given at a science fiction festival in Metz, France, he presages both The Matrix and Bostrom with this dead serious assertion:

We are living in a computer programmed reality and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed and some alteration in our reality occurs, we would have the overwhelming impression that we are reliving the present, déjà vu, hearing same words, I submit these impressions are valid and significant.

Since his untimely death in 1982, Dick’s works have come to be seen by the world as the gold standard of the science fiction imagination. Screen this confused and rambling speech and you’ll understand how the themes of mental illness that pervade his fiction arose from personal experience.

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So are we living in an ancestor simulation created by Unknowable Somethings? I don’t know.

Nobody does.

And what difference does it make if we are?

Copyright © 2022 James Patrick Kelly

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