It doesn’t matter…

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

In an odd recent video, Dilbert creator Scott Adams argued that evolution had probably been debunked because, according to some serious and credible people, the odds are astronomically in favor of us and our reality being a simulation. And if we’re in a simulation evolution isn’t true, according to him. As per this logic, a lot of science, not just the theory of evolution, would have been equally debunked.

Whatever the merits of the simulation argument, I don’t see why it would necessarily follow from it that evolution isn’t real. After all, evolution, exactly as we know it, could be part of the simulation. Granted, such a simulation would have to have been running for at least as long as life has existed on Earth, but perhaps our perception of time differs from that of our creators, for whom everything in our simulation may be happening in a matter of minutes.

If Scott Adams thinks that evolution has been debunked, would he, for example, dismiss his doctor’s advice to take all of his antibiotics even if he feels OK after only a day or two, because now he doesn’t believe that the bacteria in his body can evolve to become antibiotic-resistant if he doesn’t take the whole prescription as directed? Maybe he would follow his doctor’s advice after all, which would indicate that he believes that evolution does work in the simulation; it’s just that the simulation could have started only an hour ago, with all the pieces in place to make it look like everything has been running for billions of years. If so, evolution would have been only partially debunked, as it does operate as expected from the moment the simulation started.

We could be, for all we know, Boltzmann brains — more bizarre and far more disturbing than our being a simulation, and even more likely, statistically speaking. As explained in this NewScientist article:

If you have literally forever to wait, you’ll get essentially every single possible thing fluctuating into existence,” says Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. That includes Boltzmann brains.

The idea is that given infinite time, more brains will fluctuate into existence than evolve, so most conscious observers would be the result of fluctuations. In such an old universe, then, the odds are that we are such brains, too.¹

Like a simulation that just started, your brain, or mine, could have just fluctuated into existence, with all its knowledge and memories already there.

At any rate, I don’t find the simulation hypothesis particularly interesting. Apart from it being unfalsifiable and hard to confirm empirically, it doesn’t really explain anything. It doesn’t advance our understanding of the world in any practical way. From this perspective, it isn’t any more useful than creationism, intelligent design or deism, for example.

Also, what, if anything, would change for us if we were indeed in a simulation? If our universe would be exactly as it is in a simulation, what difference does it make? Perhaps there are sobering theological implications, though. We may have to accommodate the possibility of a less exalted God. In the words of philosopher David Chalmers:

We in this universe can create simulated worlds and there’s nothing remotely spooky about that. Our creator isn’t especially spooky, it’s just some teenage hacker in the next universe up.

[1] Sean Carroll doesn’t actually accept the possibility that we may be Boltzmann brains, even if the current leading cosmological model predicts them. He considers the randomly-fluctuating universe scenario cognitively unstable: “If you reason yourself into believing that you live in such a universe, you have to conclude that you have no justification for accepting your own reasoning. You cannot simultaneously conclude that you live in a randomly-fluctuating universe and believe that you have good reason for concluding that.” From his technical paper “Why Boltzmann Brains Are Bad”, where he explains his reasoning in full detail.

Interested in natural selection, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, science in general, human nature, consciousness, philosophy and ethics.

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