Thursday, 4 June 2009

Simulation games, miracles, and why Dawkins is wrong

I recently listened to a debate between the foremost "New atheist" spokesman Richard Dawkins, and Oxford Mathematics professor John Lennox, who is an evangelical Christian. Dawkins led off in his typical manner, attempting at the outset to ridicule Lennox for believing in miracles. Doubtless this will give Dawkins acolytes much to cheer about; though it is difficult to see how it is constructive dialog offered by a human being interested in rational discussion.

He started by saying that he was accustomed to debating with "sophisticated theologians", (presumably ones who don't believe in miracles) but in Lennox, he had found a scientist who believed that Jesus turned water into wine. He outlined what this entailed - that somehow Jesus had interacted with the water molecules and added proteins, carbohydrates, tannin and alcohol to it. This, and other beliefs (such as walking on water, dying for our sins etc), he stated were "profoundly unscientific".

Actually I agree. Of course turning water into wine doesn't come under the realm of science. That's why it's called a miracle. If your world-view is the same as that of Dawkins, that the material universe, which can be studied through scientific method, is all there is, then of course you are going to reject the water-into-wine account. In his book "The God Delusion" he insists that the existence or non-existence of God is a question whose answer can be determined scientifically. He then presents a plausible (under those assumptions) argument for the almost-certain non-existence of God, which he calls "The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit". This is a reference to a quotation by astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who reportedly said: "(the) probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747".

Dawkins points out that we are extremely complex organisms, and our existence would therefore seem to be extremely improbable. However, if one invokes a Designer to explain our existence, then, according to Dawkins, the Designer must necessarily be far more complex than we are, and hence even more difficult to explain; the Designer's existence would seem to be far more improbable than our own.

Here is where we differ. I would agree with the above argument if the Designer (aka God) is made of the same stuff as we are. It's an excellent argument against some of the Intelligent Design community who claim to detect "design" but allow that the Designer could be, for example, a sufficiently advanced alien intelligence from somewhere else in the material universe. That is because the alien intelligence would be made of the same stuff as us - atoms and molecules, held together by forces mediated by the exchange of photons; they would have to be much smarter and hence more complex than us, and hence their existence is even more improbable than our own. Note that even this doesn't prove we aren't designed by aliens. All it shows is that this explanation is one that replaces something that is difficult to explain (our existence) with something that is even more difficult to explain: the existence of aliens who are more complex than we are.

But what if the Designer/Creator - call it what you will - is not of the same "stuff" - not part of the Universe in which we live? What would the relationship be then, and is Dawkins's argument still valid? I think not. I'll illustrate this by considering a computer simulation game.

The Sims is one of the most popular computer games ever. My two children were addicted to it for a while. The game simulates a community of virtual human beings ("Sims") who live in houses, eat food, interact with each other, get jobs, have children, get born, die and so forth. The "universe" they live in has similar physical properties to our own. For example objects are solid and can be picked up but not walked through. Chip pans catch fire if left unattended on the stove. The game has some spectacular fire graphics, and leaves behind impressively disgusting simulated charred messes after the fire has been put out. If the subjects don't eat food, they die of starvation. If the subjects don't go to the bathroom often enough, they wet themselves (why oh why did they have to put this tacky feature in?)

However, they are not made of the same "stuff" as us. Although their universe appears constructed of solid objects - they are simply projected images on a computer screen. Each "sim" is not a human being with DNA, cells, organs etc, but a changing packet of information stored on a silicon chip, whose changes are not governed by the laws of physics, but by the execution of a computer program, and the switching on or off of hundreds of millions of transistors (a Pentium D has 230 million of them) literally billions of times a second.

The dissimilarity between the two universes (our universe, and the simulated Sims universe) becomes even more apparent with the ability one has to save a game on the computer. At this point, the entire game state is saved as information to the hard disk. The memory storage locations that were the matrix in which the characters existed are then used for something else, such as browsing the web. The program can be exited and restarted at any time. A restart of a game after 24 hours does not result in 24 hours elapsed time for the characters in the simulation; they carry on from exactly the time index in their world as when it was saved. The characters do not "notice" that 24 hours has in reality elapsed, because our reality isn't their reality.

Even more fascinating is the propensity for "miracles" to occur through the intervention of the human player (who is unknown to the simulated characters). I found my daughter and a friend exploiting this in a fiendish way one day. They decided to have an evil character who wanted to build a cemetery, and needed a supply of corpses to bury. It's not easy for a Sim to kill another Sim; however it is easy enough to influence the game so a Sim dies quickly, by using the "design" feature. With this feature, one can freeze the simulation at the current time index, and change the environment. This is usually done in order to build a house for Sim characters to live in, or to buy furniture for the house and arrange it.

The killing of a Sim is easily achieved by using this feature. You build a house in which there is one room with three walls with no window and one with a door. You wait for the victim to go into this room, and then you freeze the simulation, enter the design mode, and simply delete the door, leaving the victim trapped in a room with no exit. You then restart the simulation (from the same time index as where you left off), and wait for the character to die of starvation. It's expedient at this point to put the simulation on "fast forward" so you don't have to wait too long. According to Wikipedia, a similar method of killing a Sim is by getting them into a swimming pool and then deleting the steps - so that they drown when they get tired, as apparently the Sims lack the ability to climb out of a pool without the aid of steps.

Now consider what this looks like from the point of view of a character in the game. It clearly looks like a miracle; a supernatural event. At one instant there is a door and at the next it has instantaneously vanished (there being no memory of the timeless moment in the Sims universe when the player went into design mode).

Such an event would be beyond scientific method to explain. A scientist in the Sims universe could make observations of the properties that universe (solidity of objects - not being able to walk through walls, the physics of motion etc). But something like the sudden disappearance of a door would be beyond scientific explanation. It could never be predicted when such an event would happen; the door-disappearance could not be reproduced in a laboratory because it doesn't happen as a result of the laws of the Sim universe. It is a result of the capricious whim of the game player, who is not a part of the simulation, but the controller of it.

It is not difficult to imagine a mechanism for miraculous healings in the Sims universe, and furthermore, it doesn't require the player to be a skilled surgeon! Suppose the game had the ability for the virtual people to get cancer. Even given that the "Design mode" of the game didn't allow you to delete the cancer cells in the virtual person, you could still find a way. All you'd have to do would be to save the game to hard disk, then figure out the format of the information in the files, get to the bit that defined the cancer condition, and edit it out, outside of the game. Maybe it would take you a long time to discover how to do this - you'd have to get technical details from the programmers of the game, or get a friendly computer nerd to figure out the file format for you. Suppose it took you a year, and perhaps several program crashes where you corrupted the file (and kept a backup!) But eventually you'd get there, restart the simulation from where you stopped it, and from the point of view of the character, their cancer would have disappeared instantaneously, and it would be beyond the ability of the science of the Sims universe to explain.

So the moral of the story is: science can only explain the reality of the universe we live in - it can say nothing about higher realities that might exist. I'm not suggesting that our universe is a simulation on "God's Big Computer" (though this idea has been suggested: see A computer scientist's view of Life the Universe and Everything where top AI scientist Juergen Schmidhuber proposes just such a scenario).

However, the Sims and the intervention of external forces from a different reality serves as a counter example that, I believe, completely floors Dawkins's famous argument for why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist. All Dawkins has shown is that God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist In Our Reality. The non-existence of other realities is an unprovable assumption that reflects Dawkins's world-view.

Geek warning: the next paragraph is quite technical and can be skipped if desired. I'm a computer scientist and couldn't resist the attempt to expound Schmidhuber's remarkable paper a little.

Furthermore, Schmidhuber's paper also completely demolishes Dawkins's assertion that the Designer/Creator must necessarily be more complex than we are. All Schmidhuber's "God" (which has been dubbed "The Great Programmer") requires is quite a simple, but vast, computer that runs, in parallel, simulations of all possible universes of the same complexity as ours. For those who don't want to read the paper in the link I gave, here's roughly how it works. To simulate a universe requires a computer program of a certain length. The program for "The Sims" fits easily onto the hard drive of a computer. And the computer itself is certainly a lot smaller than the universe we live in. Now imagine a computer that simulates our universe. This Great Computer itself is vastly bigger than our universe, but is itself small in its own Mega Universe. The program that simulates our universe fits onto the memory storage of the Great Computer easily. It has a finite length. Schmidhuber argues that the program to simulate our universe is actually relatively short compared to other universes, because our universe obeys regular laws. A chaotic universe with no easy laws to obey would require a much longer program. Now a program which is limited in size is just like a number with a colossal number of digits, and each digit is an instruction in the program. So it is possible to imagine all possible programs up to that size - just a simple exercise in counting. Now suppose this Great Computer runs in parallel, ALL these programs, just as your computer runs several programs at once (like web-browsing at the same time as playing music). Now most of these programs will probably crash immediately, but some will simulate universes, and one of those will be our universe, from the Big Bang onwards. Now, the intelligence needed to set up such a set of computer programs is very little - it's as simple as counting (though counting up to a huge number, to be sure!!) Hence, argues, Schmidhuber, the "Great Programmer" does not have to be complex or intelligent - he just has to have an enormous computer, and immense amounts of time to run all the programs. The things that go on inside His Computer are more complex than He is. This is in direct contradiction to Dawkins's assertion that the Designer (or Creator) must be more complex than us. One might object that as the Great Programmer's Computer is so busy running the myriads of other programs as long as the one that simulates our universe, that it would be very slow. But it does not matter - even if one time instant of "our" universe is executed once every trillion years in the Programmer's universe, because the perception of time in our universe is that it is uninterrupted, just as when you freeze a computer simulation in The Sims for a long time and then restart it.

End of Geek-friendly section.

It is interesting to speculate what might happen in future computer games like the Sims. The Sims currently has quite a bit of Artificial Intelligence built into it, but the level of cognitive ability of the characters is pretty limited (they have basic emotions, personality traits etc, but they don't have the ability to conduct reasoned discussions with each other). I wonder if in the future AI will have advanced far enough for reasoned discussions to take place, and if so, whether the characters in the game will get into a debate as to whether there is an external intelligence to their world that is intervening in it?


Chris Brew said...

If you haven't already, I recommend reading Stanislaw Lem's "Non Serviam", from "A Perfect Vacuum", which is mainly a collection of reviews of imaginary books.

"Non serviam", which is named after a phrase attributed to Lucifer, is on theme's similar to your
section on the Sims.

Alan Patterson said...

Of course anything is possible. That's why the Flying Spaghetti monster exists right?

Just which one to believe in right ...

Iain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Iain said...


The whole Flying Spaghetti monster thing is a bit of a category error. Everyone knows the FSM doesn't exist, and was just an invention of human beings to illustrate the supposed absurdity of believing in God.

I think what you'd like me to believe is that the God of the bible is similarly an invention of human beings. Well, of course you could be right, but the difference, if so, is that the humans who "invented" God believed in him (maybe were deluded to do so), whereas the humans who invented the FSM did NOT believe in him/her/it/whatever.

Acutally ... _I_ believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster ... if the many worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is true, there is a universe out there where the FSM really does exist.

However, I suspect I'm in a minority of one in this belief of mine ;-)

Iain said...

It may have been noticed that I deleted the comment by Stephen Carr, and my response to it.

This is because, after due consideration, and after reading the irrelevant link that Stephen posted, I have come to the conclusion that he is not at all interested in engaging in the material in the post, but is more concerned with pushing his own agenda.

I have observed this behaviour from him in many other places. In fact he seems to spend a significant proportion of his time heckling Christians of whatever persuasion.

Steven, if you want to promote your own views, do it on your own blog, not on mine.

I dislike pushy evangelists for Christianity intensely, and the same applies to pushy evangelists for atheism. Neither is prepared to listen to the other point of view.