Dreams of a Designed Universe

A few days ago we read this at PhysOrg: Do we live in a computer simulation? Researchers say idea can be tested. It says, with our bold font:

A decade ago, a British philosopher put forth the notion that the universe we live in might in fact be a computer simulation run by our descendants. While that seems far-fetched, perhaps even incomprehensible, a team of physicists at the University of Washington has come up with a potential test to see if the idea holds water.

The concept that current humanity could possibly be living in a computer simulation comes from a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford.


He also held that “the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

That seems rather speculative. However, then they discuss the work of Martin Savage:

[Savage, a UW physics professor, said] there are signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.

This is not only a bit off topic for us, but we're not sure we can follow Savage's paper. Here it is if you're interested: Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation. We did briefly speculate about the difference — if any — between “living” in a universe created in some kid’s computer and one that’s created by some kind of deity. Then, because we’re not very good at theology, we shrugged the whole thing off.

However, there’s been a new development. The topic has come to the attention of the Discoveroids. It’s discussed in a new post by David Klinghoffer. He and the Discoveroids are described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page. Klinghoffer’s post is An Acceptable “Intelligent Design”. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us and David’s links omitted:

University of Washington physicists have set out a path to scientifically testing whether the universe is intelligently designed. They’re getting lots of interested, sympathetic attention, in the media and academia, for the plan. They say if the test were to come up positive, it might explain a lot that otherwise, in a more conventional naturalistic framework, seems inexplicable about reality.

Klinghoffer should be delighted, but as we’ll soon see, his reaction isn’t what we expected. Let’s read on:

Scientists can say all these things and get away with it — so long as their own notion of ID holds out the possibility that the world around us is nothing more than an elaborate computer simulation. Sounds like the premise of a creepy science-fiction movie. The designers, in this scheme, would be our distant descendants living in a society far more advanced in its technology than our own.

Klinghoffer doesn’t like the idea. But why not? Evidence of a designed universe is the sort of thing that ought to thrill the Discoveroids — especially since they don’t have any such evidence. He continues:

An intelligently designed universe — what else would you call a computer simulation — is scientifically testable, you say? We’ll keep that in mind.

Yeah, David. Keep that in mind while your blog claims that your “scientists” are churning out research to support your “theory” of intelligent design. Here’s more:

But wait, you have to understand that ID is plausible and testable only where it excludes a designer that overlaps with any theistic conception. The simulators are just humans, albeit possessing a level of technical sophistication greatly exceeding ours.

How disappointing that would be. The designer wouldn’t be supernatural. Then Klinghoffer quotes Discoveroid John West who wrote about Nick Bostrom — the originator of the simulated universe idea. West describes Bostrom as “a leading figure in the spooky Transhumanist movement”:

[West says:] According to Bostrom, the aggressive pursuit of biotechnology is a radical reaction against current convention, “an alternative to customary injunctions against playing God, messing with nature, tampering with our human essence, or displaying punishable hubris.”

Oh, how secular! That’s everything the Discoveroids are fighting against. Nevertheless, if the proposed research shows that the universe is designed, shouldn’t they be happy? Klinghoffer says:

So here you get a general sense of the moral, intellectual and spiritual orientation of a version of “intelligent design” that could meet with contemporary academic acceptance.

We’re confused. Our original reaction to the Bostrom idea and the Savage paper was that the concept was pretty much indistinguishable from a universe created by a deity. But Klinghoffer thinks otherwise and we’re still looking for the reason. He provides it, or he attempts to provide it, in his final paragraph:

It has to begin with premises that exclude theism. There would be no limits placed on the wildness of it speculations, even as theorists and the media assure us it is entirely “plausible.” It would share affinities with a scary sci-fi version of eugenics that dispensed with traditional moral sensitivities. In short, it would be a bit of a nightmare.

Klinghoffer is furious that real scientists are trying to test the idea that this might be an intelligently designed universe. That’s because if their idea works out, the “designer” will turn out to be our descendants, and not Yahweh. That conclusion outrages the Discoveroids, because (despite their nonsense claims to the contrary) they don’t want a rational, scientifically understandable designer at all — they prefer the supernatural.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Dreams of a Designed Universe

  1. The idea seems like one of those late night dorm room philosophies after copious amounts of adult malt beverages.

    However, what distinguishes it from the Discoveroid’s mock science is that it is appears to be testable. At least the author suggests a possible means of testing it. If it passes the test, it might be worth pursuing further, if it fails, it will be tossed aside. Someone opposed to the idea could conduct the test, as long as they had the expertise.

    Intelligent Design Creationism, on the other hand, is in principle untestable – no test can invalidate an idea that is based on miracles, or the actions of a supernatural entity. In fact, the Discoveroids do not propose any test that could invalidate their theory, and they most certainly would not accept such a test if proposed by others.

  2. Ed observes, “Intelligent Design Creationism… is in principle untestable – no test can invalidate an idea that is based on miracles, or the actions of a supernatural entity. In fact, the Discoveroids do not propose any test that could invalidate their theory, and they most certainly would not accept such a test if proposed by others.”

    Exactly right. The fact that it is untestable is precisely why it cannot be considered as science, and as such, the word “theory” in the paragraph above should be in quotation marks.

    On another note, I’m surprised there has been no mention of The Matrix series of movies in this whole discussion of our universe being nothing more than a computer simulation.

  3. Gabriel Hanna

    Well, the Discoveroids would say that a proposed test for a designed universe demonstrates that design IS testable even though the Discoveroids didn’t come up with it.

    But the reason that they can come up with a test is because they are working from hypothesized limitations of the designers. Here’s an example:

    “the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.”

    I’ve done molecular simulations. When you want to simulate a substance, like a gallon of water, in terms of its molecules, you can’t just plug in the number of molecules and go. Because you are talking about something like 10^23 molecules, there’s no computer in the forseeable future which could run a simulation of that size. Similarly the people who simulate the evolution of the universe can’t simulate at the level of stars, because there are too many stars, let alone hydrogen atoms.

    What you do, for a gallon of water, is you simulate a hundred or so atoms, and then you treat them as being part of an infinite lattice. This is very easy to put into even a small computer. Computers get bigger all the time, but even a thousand times bigger doesn’t help against numbers like 10^23.

    Intelligent designers wishing to simulate a universe might have really awesomely powerful computers, but they too will have some kind of finite simulation size. This test for design assumes that some abilities, intentions, and limitations of the designers can be guessed at an extrapolated from there.

    The Discoveroids refuse to specify limitations, intentions, or abilities in advance, but argue post hoc from what they see. It is not that design is not testable–Discoveroids argue that archaelogists do so all the time, and are right to say so. But those are designs from humans, whose intentions, abilities, and limitations are thoroughly understood.

    Klinghoffer’s argument here is no different from “archaelogists test for design all the time”. In this case he may not be aware that it is the same argument.

  4. “Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being.”

    Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165.
    quoted in
    Discovery Institute Truth Sheet #09-05

  5. If I had designed a simulation of reality, I would have put in code to fiddle the results of the tests of anyone trying to determine if the Universe were a simulation. On the other hand, if the simulation were run by the N-times-great descendents of Microsoft, I’d say, “Go for it!”