Back to Navigation

The Simulation Hypothesis | Munk Debates

SEASON TWO - EPISODE #9

The Simulation Hypothesis

Be it resolved: We are living in a simulation

Guests
Rich Terrile
David Kipping

About this episode

The Matrix, The Truman Show, and now more recently Westworld. Popular culture has long been captivated by the notion that our lives and the world we inhabit in are nothing more than an advanced computer simulation. But it’s also an argument that is being given more credence by world renowned philosophers and scientists.

The leading proponents of the “simulation hypothesis” believe that the mathematical nature of the universe is itself the strongest proof we exist in an artificial reality. They point to human DNA and string theory in particle physics as but two of a growing number of so-called naturally occurring phenomena that behave remarkably similar to computer code - too close to be an accident.

The mainstream scientific community is taking exception to these claims. They say the simulation hypothesis is based on overly complicated hypotheses that verge on circular reasoning. They argue the universe can be beautiful, even harmonious, mathematically and empirically down to the smallest atom or strand of DNA. Occam's Razor or the maxim that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, is all the proof we need that the universe is real and not a computer program.

Share:

Guests

Rich Terrile

"I'm skeptical about our origin ideas of the peculiar universe that we're in. We're probably within a century of being able to create vast numbers of simulated self-aware minds. Could we be wrong about the assumption of where we came from?"

Rich Terrile

"I'm skeptical about our origin ideas of the peculiar universe that we're in. We're probably within a century of being able to create vast numbers of simulated self-aware minds. Could we be wrong about the assumption of where we came from?"

Dr. Rich Terrile is an astronomer and the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  He uses techniques based on biological evolution and development to advance the fields of robotics and computer intelligence.  Currently he is the Project Manager for the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) X-ray observatory.  He has a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the California Institute of Technology and has developed missions to Mars and to the outer solar system.  Dr. Terrile is the discoverer of four moons around Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and took the first pictures of another solar system around the nearby star Beta Pictoris.  His other interests include planetary rings, planetary geology, evolutionary computation and the development of medical instrumentation for tissue identification during neurosurgery.

David Kipping

"The mathematical nature of our universe is not evidence of a creator, any more than rain is evidence of a crying deity in the clouds. And there’s no certainty that we will ever be able to create a genuine self-aware consciousness on the computer. The simulation argument is an elaborate and unnecessarily complicated means to explain our existence."

David Kipping

"The mathematical nature of our universe is not evidence of a creator, any more than rain is evidence of a crying deity in the clouds. And there’s no certainty that we will ever be able to create a genuine self-aware consciousness on the computer. The simulation argument is an elaborate and unnecessarily complicated means to explain our existence."

David Kipping grew up in England and obtained his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University in 2007. He then went on to complete a PhD in astrophysics at University College London in 2011, where his thesis developed new approaches for the discovery of extrasolar moons. Kipping then moved to Harvard University as NASA Carl Sagan fellow where he launched the first observational program for exomoons. In 2015, he moved to New York to join the faculty at Columbia University where he now leads the Cool Worlds Lab. His research spans exoplanets to interstellar propulsion, astrostatistics to astroengineering, and he recently authored a paper challenging the simulation argument.

Show Notes

Richard Terrile is the Director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can watch this video to learn more about his argument that the universe is a simulation.
 
David Kipping is an associate professor of Astronomy at Columbia University. His research focuses on extrasolar planets, the search of life in the universe, and astrostatistics. David recently published a research paper in Universe (a “peer-reviewed open access journal focused on principles and new discoveries in the universe”) that disproves the simulation argument using statistical methods based on Bayes’ theorem.
 
During the debate both Rich and David refer to Nick Bostrom, the Swedish philosopher who is the diretor of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. In 2003 he wrote an influential paper called “Are we living in a computer simulation?” which proposes a “trilemma” in which one of three propositions is true. Bostrom argues the third proposition - that we are living in a simulation - is the most likely to be the case. You can watch Bostrom explain his trilemma here.
 
During the debate, David Kipping argues that according to Moore’s Law, technological evolution will soon plateau, which means we will never reach the stage of being able to create simulated worlds. You can learn more about Moore’s Law in this video. This MIT Technology Review article supports Kipping’s opinion that Moore’s Law is ending.
 
Key to Rich’s argument that we are living in a simulation is his belief that we are not far off from creating simulated consciousness. He argues that the field of evolutionary computation, which he uses in his work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is contributing enormously to our progress in developing advanced simulations. Evolutionary computing automatically creates solutions to problems using principles based on natural evolution. 
 
To support his argument that we are a long way from simulating conscious beings, David provides the example of the Allen Institute’s pioneering work simulating a mouse brain. It is the largest simulation of a brain to date, containing 230,000 artificial neurons, but this simulation would have to increase the number of artificial neurons by a factor of 400,000 to match a human brain. You can learn more about this experiment here.

Comments