Watch Thag simulate the world

Fri 07 Sep 2007 09:25 AM

Scholars typically explain the demise of the Neanderthals by claiming that they were better suited for colder climates and so died out when the Ice Age ended. They had bigger brains than Homo sapiens, however, and so they probably could have still out-thought us. Their cleverness suggests other possibilities.

Cristyn is working on a sound installation inspired by the study of Neanderthals, and a couple of days ago we had a conversation that involved posing this scenario:

Imagine Homo sapiens had died out, and the Neanderthals had lived on to develop an advanced technological civilization. They would be curious as to what the world would have been like had they died out. So a sufficiently advanced Neanderthal civilization would run simulations in which we modern humans developed and lived our lives.

The lack of a satisfactory explanation for why Neanderthals died out is just what we would expect if our world were such a simulation. The Neanderthal high programmer would simply write in the removal of their Neanderthal forebears. Deus ex machina.

To jump to a conclusion: We have no direct way of knowing if our world is a simulation or not. As such, we have good reason to believe that either (a) we are living in a Neanderthal's simulation of a world, or (b) there is a complete naturalistic explanation of why Neanderthal's died out. The radical contingency of natural selection means that we would never have decisive reason to believe the latter rather than the former.

Of course, this is a variation of the Simulation Argument. However, it ups the stakes a bit: The simulation argument admits that our modern human civilization developed, but asks if we are in it or in a simulation of it. The new argument leaves us with the possibility that there never was really a civilization like ours. Perhaps Napolean, the Sears tower, the TV show Star Trek, and the moon landing were never anything more than an idle-time process on a powerful computer run by a caffeine-addled trans-neanderthal IT guy.

If we take this scenario seriously, there might be ethical consequences. For example, we might wish humans to exist in the physical world and not just in so many simulations. The trans-neanderthal programmer probably have the technology to embody humans, based on the simulations of what we would be like. They will only do so if we seem like the sort of creature actually worth harvesting, rather than a curiosity only worth simulating. Unfortunately, it is unclear what they might want us to do. Perhaps we should perfect our skills at making espresso, so that they might embody us to work in their coffee shops.

I for one welcome our slope-browed overlords.