Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why we don't live in a simulated universe

There's an oft-repeated theory that our universe is a simulation -- a computer program (or equivalent) created by some higher form of intelligence. The modern popular form of this claim is generally attributed to philosopher Nick Bostrom, although the basic idea goes back much further.

And the only problem with this idea is that it is completely wrong.

The basic "simulation argument" goes like this: imagine that an intelligent race becomes intelligent enough and powerful enough that they could simulate a universe in a computer. (We already do this ourselves, in a very crude sense, when we create computer models to simulate weather or traffic or any other aspect of the real world.) Our hypothetical aliens are able to build such rich simulations, they actually contain simulated intelligent beings of their own -- and those simulated beings would (somehow) perceive themselves to be conscious.

And here's the clever twist: according to the argument, those simulated beings could become intelligent enough to build their own simulated universes, with simulated intelligent beings of their own, who in turn... Eventually, there would be an enormously large pyramid of simulations-within-simulations. And from a simple probabilistic perspective, it's enormously unlikely that we happen to be in the topmost and only real universe (and sometime in the future will ourselves start simulating universes) rather than one of the vast number of simulations.

And this is completely mistaken.

The problem with the argument is that the universe we find ourselves in is enormously complicated from the point of view of having intelligent beings in it. For a start, you could discard the other one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe and it wouldn't make any difference to us. So it's enormously more likely that the simulated universe we are in would be much simpler than this one. (How much more likely? Borrowing an argument from Roger Penrose, possibly something of the order of 10 to the power [10 to the power 100] -- a 1 with [10 to the power 100] zeroes after it -- more likely.)

So the simulation argument turns on itself: the exact same argument that leads to the conclusion that we live in a simulation, i.e. that there are many more simulations than real universes, also inevitably leads to the conclusion that this universe isn't simulated, because there would be hugely many more simpler simulations we would be more likely to find ourselves in.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Just a Minute...

The internet at large has already covered a lot of what's wrong with BvS, so rather than repeat what's already been said, I'm going to restrict myself to a couple of major things not much touched upon, specifically: the Act 3 climax is a huge mis-fire; and the post-climax codicil makes no sense whatsoever.

First, the climactic battle with Doomsday. The problem here is: who really cares? Comparisons to The Avengers are inevitable, and in that movie we've had all kinds of foreshadowing and build-up: the Avengers must stop Loki from using the Cube and opening the portal, failing every step along the way, until the emotional climax of Stark laying down his life... In BvS by contrast we get a rock-monster with arbitrary powers and an equally arbitrary weakness, that appears deus ex machina with no motivation nor character of any kind, and that is not set up in any emotionally meaningful way by preceding events or threats. And even ignoring the disconnect from the foregoing story, there's neither a logical reason that the Kryptonian spaceship even has the ability to create a Doomsday nor a narrative reason that Lex chooses to do so (compare Avengers, where opening a portal is Loki's motivation from the very beginning). 

Consequently, here there's no sense whatsoever that we're building towards this apocalyptic battle -- a problem highlighted by the fact that Wonder Woman decides to get involved in the fight for no adequately explored reason. (More generally, Wonder Woman is woefully underdeveloped -- and not in an intriguing, "show me more backstory!" kind of way, but in a frustrating "what does she want? why is she doing that?" way.) In fact, given that Luthor's main plot is all about manipulating Superman and Batman over many months into fighting each other, the whole Doomsday plot line feels like it was left over from an entirely different draft of the script. Having made the Batman v Superman conflict the core of their movie, the writers apparently had no idea what to give them to do once they had resolved that conflict.

Second, the post-battle State funeral. Why? In the Death of Superman comic book source material, this makes perfect sense. In the comics arc, Superman is a long-established hero, known and trusted, even loved; and the world watches as he fights Doomsday all the way across the country for days on end, other heroes falling by the wayside, until finally, battered into exhaustion in full view of friends and news cameras, he sacrifices his life to save the world. Of course the world mourns. But in BvS, (i) Superman is mysterious, distrusted, and even disliked; (ii) Doomsday appears out of nowhere and spends around twenty minutes in Metropolis, hardly enough time for everybody to decide that we've tried everything and the world is going to end unless Superman can stop it (frankly, anybody that was there for Zod is probably thinking "meh, I've seen worse"); and (iii) nobody witnesses Superman's self-sacrifice and death except Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lois Lane... but their word is good enough for the US government to throw a funeral fit for a president.

On reflection, the two best sequences in Dawn of Justice are (i) Batman rescuing Martha Kent, and (ii) Wonder Woman fighting Doomsday. The former is the one fight scene that is most true to the Batman character (I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn it was done entirely by the Second Unit); and the latter the only part of the movie where anybody seems to be having fun. Like Doomsday,Wonder Woman seems to have wandered in from the theater next door where she had been starring in a movie that was a lot more fun than the one I was sitting through.

And so it struck me: DC could in fact have made a far more interesting movie if Superman never appeared at all. Sure, he's out there in the world somewhere, motivating Lex and the others to their actions, but never actually seen. Edit out every scene with Kent or Superman (except maybe Bruce's nightmare sequences), give Wonder Woman some proper background and motivation, and you've probably got a pretty decent movie about how the rest of the world feels about Superman, and how it copes when he doesn't come flying to the rescue.