Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Sims and Evidence

Computer Simulation Games and Scientific Evidence

In this post, I shall carry on my discussion of the nature of miracles and the demand for scientific evidence, using as a model the computer game The Sims.

In order to do science we have to make observations in order to gather evidence, formulate theories based on the observations we have made, and then make predictions from those theories.  We postulate experiments that will confirm the correctness of our theories if the outcome is in line with our prediction, or will falsify the theory if the outcome differs from the prediction.

That's what science is.  Anything that doesn't follow this pattern (evidence, prediction, validation or falsification), but allows literally anything to be explained away isn't scientific.  An example is given in an A-level Psychology textbook about philosopher Karl Popper's criticism of Freudian psychoanalysis as being unscientific:

Science is supposed to deal in observable evidence, but psychoanalysis
deals in metaphysical (non-observable) concepts like Ego and Id which
cannot be shown to exist.

According to the philosopher Karl
Popper (1934), a theory is only scientific if it makes predictions or
hypotheses which can be tested by observation or experiment, and which
can be disproved if incorrect.  Popper believed that psychoanalysis
does not present clear hypotheses for testing, but, because its theory
is so complex, it can always come up with an answer for everything. 
For example, psychoanalysis may predict that children who experience
harsh potty training will grow up to be anally retentive.  But if they
don't, that is not taken as evidence that the prediction is wrong, it
is explained away as due to reaction formation.  For Popper, this is

"Psychology in Focus"  Ed. Mike Harlambos and David Rice. 

By the same token "Intelligent Design" isn't scientific.  Invoking an intelligent designer to explain what we have not yet explained by science is likewise an answer for everything.  Similarly, invoking a miracle to explain some bizarre observation isn't science.

But the question I want to pose to the reader is this:  is scientific observation the only way of knowing things?  If you happen to espouse a purely science-based materialist world-view, then your answer will be "Yes", and any form of miracle is ruled out a priori.

So let's consider a slightly different version of the disappearing door scenario I considered in an earlier post about the Sims computer game.  As I'm writing this, The Sims 3 is just about to come out.  However, I doubt that Artificial Intelligence will have yet advanced far enough for the characters to have reasoned intelligent conversations (in current versions of the game, the characters babble to each other in "Simlish" - an invented language that sounds plausibly like real conversation, but carries no meaning).  However, perhaps in The Sims 10, such conversations will be possible between the characters.  

[Aside:  there is much heated debate within the Artificial Intelligence community as to whether it is possible for a computer program to experience the phenomenon of consciousness.  Adherents to the "Strong AI" postulate such as Douglas Hofstadter, or Ray Kurzweil believe this will be true; whereas mathematical physicist Roger Penrose believes it will take more than a mere algorithm to achieve consciousness.  He believes that there is some unexamined area of physics beyond what is computable that will account for it].

So in this imagined future Sims program, I shall assume that if not consciousness, then at least reasoned abstract discussion can take place between characters.  Once again, the Game Player has the ability to freeze the simulation, and alter the surroundings of a character in the simulation in a discontinuous way.  

So one of the characters goes into a room that has only one door through which to exit, and the Player freezes the simulation and deletes the door, restarting it again.  The character is trapped, and has witnessed a manifestly supernatural event - a door in the wall instantaneously disappearing.  It doesn't fit in with any of his observations of the natural world.  As time wears on, the character becomes "hungry", and when this happens a thought bubble appears on the screen above the character's head saying "food".  

At this point the Game Player feels sorry for the character, and again freezes the simulation and puts a plateful of food in the room, leaving the character still trapped.

  [ Current versions of the game don't allow this; one could put a fridge in the room, but not a plate of food - in this imagined later version, this is not a restriction]

So the character eats the food and has their hunger satisfied.  Then the Game Player freezes the simulation once again and removes the empty plate.  This happens again and again - every time the character experiences hunger, a plate is "miraculously" supplied, mysteriously disappearing again when the character has eaten the food.  Eventually the Game Player decides to free the character from the trap, by reinserting the door in the room.

No other character in the simulation has witnessed the goings on in this house.  The character then visits a different house in the neighbourhood and explains what has happened to another Sim character, who happens to be a scientific materialist and atheist. ( The Sims 2 allows one to "design" a character with the trait "freethinker" - rather ironic that the Player designs an atheist!)  The conversation between the Prisoner P and the freethinker F might go like this.

P: There's definitely some external power out there that is looking after me.
F: Oh, really, how come?
P: Well the strangest thing happened.  I went into the smallest room in the house a couple of days ago, and the door disappeared before my very eyes!  I was trapped.
F: Pull the other one!
P: No, it really happened.  I was terrified and I thought I was going to die of starvation.  Then every time I felt hungry, a plate of food mysteriously appeared in the room.  I ate as much as I needed, and then it would vanish until the next time I felt hungry.  After a while I got to realise that Something was out there - and when I asked for food I got it.  In the end I thought - "I wish I could get out of here", and the door reappeared!
F: Now, you know science says such things can't happen.  Doors disappearing and reappearing, plates of food appearing at your command.  That only happens in fairy tales!
P: No, you don't get it; suppose there is a Higher Power out there that chooses to reveal Himself to us by this way.
F:  OK so make it happen now; make a plate of food appear in front of my eyes.  Then I'll believe you.
(Long pause while P concentrates and nothing happens).

F: Sorry, I can't accept what you're saying until you provide me with hard verifiable evidence.  You're deluded; go and see a shrink.  I expect you dreamed it?

P: Dreamed?  What's that?
F: It's a feature that is due to be released in The Sims 11.
P: What on earth are you talking about?
F: Err... I don't know ...  the words just came out of my mouth.  You're nuts.  You must be driving me nuts.  I'm off to bed.

(Game Player rolls on the floor with evil laughter)

In the above, there are actually three levels of reality interacting.  There is the bottom level "Sims universe", which of course has no concept of what "The Sims" or "The Sims 11" is, since that is the name given to it in the next level of reality, where the mischievous and omnipotent Game Player exists.  Then or course there is my level of reality, where I wrote the story where the character from level 2 put incomprehensible level 2 concepts into the mouth of a disbelieving level 1 character.

I suggest that none of these "inter-level" interactions, or interventions, are subject to scientific analysis in the level being effected.  Scientific study involves the collection of evidence that is repeatable in a laboratory.

But as the illustration shows, interventions from a different "controlling" level aren't repeatable - they don't necessarily conform to a pattern; but equally it shows that scientific experimentation isn't necessarily the only way of gaining knowledge.

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