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“Simulation is the situation created by any system of signs when it becomes sophisticated enough, autonomous enough, to abolish its own referent and to replace it with itself”*…

It is not often that a comedian gives an astrophysicist goose bumps when discussing the laws of physics. But comic Chuck Nice managed to do just that in a recent episode of the podcast StarTalk.The show’s host Neil deGrasse Tyson had just explained the simulation argument—the idea that we could be virtual beings living in a computer simulation. If so, the simulation would most likely create perceptions of reality on demand rather than simulate all of reality all the time—much like a video game optimized to render only the parts of a scene visible to a player. “Maybe that’s why we can’t travel faster than the speed of light, because if we could, we’d be able to get to another galaxy,” said Nice, the show’s co-host, prompting Tyson to gleefully interrupt. “Before they can program it,” the astrophysicist said,delighting at the thought. “So the programmer put in that limit.”

Such conversations may seem flippant. But ever since Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford wrote a seminal paper about the simulation argument in 2003, philosophers, physicists, technologists and, yes, comedians have been grappling with the idea of our reality being a simulacrum. Some have tried to identify ways in which we can discern if we are simulated beings. Others have attempted to calculate the chance of us being virtual entities. Now a new analysis shows that the odds that we are living in base reality—meaning an existence that is not simulated—are pretty much even. But the study also demonstrates that if humans were to ever develop the ability to simulate conscious beings, the chances would overwhelmingly tilt in favor of us, too, being virtual denizens inside someone else’s computer…

Learn why gauging whether or not we dwell inside someone else’s computer may come down to advanced AI research—or measurements at the frontiers of cosmology: “Do We Live in a Simulation? Chances Are about 50–50.”

* Jean Baudrillard (who was describing the ways in which the significations and symbolism of culture and media are involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence… which may or may not, itself, be a simulation)

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As we play the odds, we might send dark birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche; he was born on this date in 1844. A philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist, he and his work have had a profound influence on modern intellectual history.

Nietzsche became the youngest person ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, but resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life. He completed much of his core writing in the following decade, before suffering a complete mental breakdown in 1889, after which he lived in care until his death in 1900.

Nietzsche’s writing spanned philosophical polemics, poetry, cultural criticism, and fiction, all the while displaying a fondness for aphorism and irony. He’s best remembered as a philosopher, for work that included his radical critique of truth in favor of perspectivism; for his genealogical critique of religion and Christian morality (and his related theory of master–slave morality); for is aesthetic affirmation of existence in response to his famous observation of the “death of God” and the profound crisis of nihilism; for his notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian; and for his characterization of the human subject as the expression of competing wills, collectively understood as the will to power. Nietzsche also developed influential concepts such as the Übermensch and the doctrine of eternal return.

After his death, his sister Elisabeth became the curator and editor of Nietzsche’s manuscripts. She edited his unpublished writings to fit her German nationalist beliefs– often contradicting or obfuscating Nietzsche’s stated opinions, which were explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. Through her published editions, Nietzsche’s work became associated with fascism and Nazism. But scholars contested this interpretation, and corrected editions of his writings were soon made available. Nietzsche’s thought enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960s and his ideas have since had a profound impact on 20th and early-21st century thinkers across philosophy—especially in schools of continental philosophy such as existentialism, postmodernism and post-structuralism—as well as in art, literature, psychology, politics, and popular culture.

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Written by LW

October 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”*…

 

Matrix

 

in Pensées (1670), Blaise Pascal famously outlined a proposition that has become known as “Pascal’s Wager”:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is…  [so] belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, philosophy professor Preston Greene updates– and inverts– Pascal’s logic.  Noting that scientists are proposing an experimental test of Oxford professor Nick Bostrom‘s assertion that we are living in an elaborate simulation, Greene argues strongly against it…

So far, none of these experiments has been conducted, and I hope they never will be. Indeed, I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe.Think of it this way. If a researcher wants to test the efficacy of a new drug, it is vitally important that the patients not know whether they’re receiving the drug or a placebo. If the patients manage to learn who is receiving what, the trial is pointless and has to be canceled.

In much the same way, as I argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Erkenntnis, if our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.Of course, the proposed experiments may not detect anything that suggests we live in a computer simulation. In that case, the results will prove nothing. This is my point: The results of the proposed experiments will be interesting only when they are dangerous. While there would be considerable value in learning that we live in a computer simulation, the cost involved — incurring the risk of terminating our universe — would be many times greater…

As far as I am aware, no physicist proposing simulation experiments has considered the potential hazards of this work. This is surprising, not least because Professor Bostrom himself explicitly identified “simulation shutdown” as a possible cause of the extinction of all human life.

This area of academic research is rife with speculation and uncertainty, but one thing is for sure: If scientists do go ahead with these simulation experiments, the results will be either extremely uninteresting or spectacularly dangerous. Is it really worth the risk?

The piece in full: “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.”

[Image above, The Matrix, back in theaters on the occasion of its 20th anniversary]

* The Wizard of Oz

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As we rethink reality, we might send elastic birthday greetings to Peter Hodgson; he was born on this date in 1912.  An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world.  As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,

The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.

That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.

“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.

“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.

Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.

Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…

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Written by LW

August 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Reality is broken”*…

 

Paperclips, a new game from designer Frank Lantz, starts simply. The top left of the screen gets a bit of text, probably in Times New Roman, and a couple of clickable buttons: Make a paperclip. You click, and a counter turns over. One.

The game ends—big, significant spoiler here—with the destruction of the universe.

In between, Lantz, the director of the New York University Games Center, manages to incept the player with a new appreciation for the narrative potential of addictive clicker games, exponential growth curves, and artificial intelligence run amok…

More at “The way the world ends: not with a bang but a paperclip“; play Lantz’s game here.

(Then, as you consider reports like this, remind yourself that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”)

* Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

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As we play we hope not prophetically, we might recall that it was on this date in 4004 BCE that the Universe was created… as per calculations by Archbishop James Ussher in the mid-17th century.

When Clarence Darrow prepared his famous examination of William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial [see here], he chose to focus primarily on a chronology of Biblical events prepared by a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher. American fundamentalists in 1925 found—and generally accepted as accurate—Ussher’s careful calculation of dates, going all the way back to Creation, in the margins of their family Bibles.  (In fact, until the 1970s, the Bibles placed in nearly every hotel room by the Gideon Society carried his chronology.)  The King James Version of the Bible introduced into evidence by the prosecution in Dayton contained Ussher’s famous chronology, and Bryan more than once would be forced to resort to the bishop’s dates as he tried to respond to Darrow’s questions.

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Ussher

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Written by LW

October 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Acedia est tristitia vocem amputans”*…

 

The Seven Deadly Sins may seem familiar and, with that familiarity, less a matter of life and death and damnation. Sure, greed and envy aren’t great, but who hasn’t overindulged in this or that without grievous consequences? But when the list of Christian cardinal sins was first created, they were a big deal: eight of the biggest threats to a devout life as a monk in the desert. Eight? One among those that isn’t included among the sins today, called acedia, was perhaps the greatest threat of all to those monks.

Acedia comes from Greek, and means “a lack of care.” It sounds a little like today’s sloth, and acedia is indeed considered a precursor to today’s sin of laziness. To Christian monks in the fourth century, however, acedia was more than just laziness or apathy. It was more like dejection that made it difficult to be spiritual, avoiding ascetic practices, boredom that led to falling asleep while reading, and frustration with life in a monastery—but the meaning is nuanced and has changed over time. The evolution of the word’s use shows just how much the concept of cardinal sin has shifted through the centuries…

Don’t worry, be happy at: “Before Sloth Meant Laziness, It Was the Spiritual Sin of Acedia.”

* “Acedia is a sadness that silences the voice”  a saying of Gregory of Nyssa, quoted by Aquinas

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As we work on our attitudes, we might send provocative birthday greetings to Jean Baudrillard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, he is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist philosophical school.

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“Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory.” *…

 

Because

* Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

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As we get in touch with our inner omnivore, we might send passionate birthday greetings to The Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc; she was born on this date in 1412.**  Joan entered history in spectacular fashion during the spring of 1429: following what she maintained was the command of God, Joan led the French Dauphin’s armies in a series of stunning military victories over the English, effectively reversing the course of the Hundred Years’ War.  But she was captured in 1430 by the Burgundians, a faction (led by the Duke of Burgundy) allied with the English.  The French King, Charles VII, declined to ransom her from the Burgundians who then “sold” her to the English. In December of that year, she was transferred to Rouen, the military headquarters and administrative capital in France of King Henry VI of England, and placed on trial for heresy before a Church court headed by a Bishop loyal to the English.

Joan was convicted and executed in May of 1431.  She was exonerated in 1456 when the verdict was reversed on appeal by the Inquisitor-General. She became a French national heroine, and in 1920 was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

** “Boulainvilliers tells of her birth in Domrémy, and it is he who gives us an exact date, which may be the true one, saying that she was born on the night of Epiphany, 6 January”  – Pernoud’s Joan of Arc By Herself and Her Witnesses, p. 98

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Written by LW

January 6, 2015 at 1:01 am

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