The fallacy of first impressions

February 16, 2010

On Friday, I had an on-air exchange that fascinated me. I had just replayed a portion of my interview with Dr. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University professor and well-known transhumanist, on the subject of his Simulation Argument. This is the paper that spurred a serious academic discussion in 2003 on the idea that there is a significant possibility that we are living in a computer simulation.

The idea sounds nutty. And in cases where an idea sounds nutty, the reaction of many people hearing it is to express skepticism about its validity. I imagine the idea of human beings landing on the moon would have fallen into that category before 1969. Sometimes nutty-sounding ideas are, upon consideration, worth taking seriously.

A caller I know well, after listening to a little of the interview, gave his opinion that Bostrom’s idea is “a crock”, and that Bostrom should “be ashamed” if he’s taken any grant money for his work. I knew this was only his first impression, since we didn’t delve into the argument itself too much on-air. I asked him if he had sufficiently considered the idea to dismiss it like this, and his reply astonished me: “I don’t have to consider it to know that it’s a crock.”

We spent the next half hour discussing my objection to his opining on something he hadn’t considered. But the truth is I don’t think this is very unusual. Many people have opinions about things based on first impressions. There are some things that should definitely have been taken into consideration on any assessment of the Simulation Argument.

First, there’s the credentials of the man who formalized the argument. Bostrom is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also Founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+) with around 5000 members worldwide. He’s also Co-Founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He is highly regarded by other academics for his work on existential risk and the anthropic principle. He is the recipient of the 2009 Eugene R. Gannon Award for the Continued Pursuit of Human Advancement. How can the work of the man with these credentials be so casually written off?

Then there’s the work itself. It is a small part of a huge, rich tradition of philosophy scrutinizing the nature of reality. Bostrom follows in the footsteps of great thinkers like Plato and Descartes. His paper argues with some persuasive reasoning about the very nature of reality. It has been discussed in academic circles since it was published. The columnist John Tierney says, “The math and the logic are inexorable.” The British philosopher David Pearce calls it “Perhaps the first interesting argument for the existence of a Creator in 2000 years.” But even if that last one is a stretch too far, surely the argument is worth considering?

Surely everything is worth considering?

Since the conversation on Friday, I’ve been trying to figure out why someone would take the position of refusing to consider an idea before rejecting it. And I’ve come up with a few possible answers.

First, ‘cognitive fluency’. This is a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and, according to contemporary psychologists, it affects human behavior more than anyone thought. A recent article in the Boston Globe titled “Easy = True” sums it up: “It turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.” Not only that, but people are more likely to believe something simple than something difficult. In other words, fluency affects the truth value people assign to a claim. ‘God created the world in 7 days’ is easier to understand than ‘Random mutations leading to non-random natural selection’, so it can be more readily accepted as the truth.

Second, fluency is closely linked to familiarity. The more familiar-sounding an idea is, the more ready we are to accept it (or consider it). But an idea as unfamiliar and surprising as ‘We may be part of a computer simulation’ sounds so unfamiliar that the mental work of considering it is quite taxing.

Third, limited mental resources. We can only do a certain amount of thinking in a day. We’re tired. Our brains are working at many things more important to our survival: making money, maintaining social connections, ordering to-do lists, managing stress levels, decision-making. Who has the energy or willpower to think about the nature of reality, or to try to make sense of an equation like the one pictured above (which summarizes the Simulation Argument)?

Fourth, comfort level. Ideas which challenge the nature of reality may be too far outside the comfortable operating zone of many people to be considered on any serious level. To take an idea like this seriously enough to give it proper consideration is to admit to oneself that the ideas one has already established about the nature of reality may not be sufficient. It is a Pandora’s Box many may not feel comfortable opening, lest something unsettling pop out.

Fifth, culture and tradition. A traditional way to approach matters of cosmological significance in our culture is to consult religion. Claims made by the major religions are taken particularly seriously while other less familiar answers to big questions are distrusted. To give in to seriously considering ideas like Bostrom’s, one would be reconsidering one’s religious beliefs (we all know how often that happens). What is it that makes the concepts of heaven and hell more worthy of consideration than the concept of reality being simulated by a technologically advanced society? Certainly nothing fundamental; only a predisposition toward religious ideas over more modern-sounding philosophical ones.

We do this with lots of the world, in chunks. If we’re not into sports, we write off all sports until we’ve been forced to consider one by exposure to it. Those who aren’t early adapters tend to find ways to ignore tech trends until they’re exposed to one significantly enough to trigger an evaluation of it. (Know anybody who resisted Facebook until you forced them to sign up for it and now they’re addicts?)

What is this really all about? It’s about books and covers. Everyone judges books by their covers at times. When we do, we are sometimes right about the book, and my co-worker may be right to dismiss the Simulation Argument. But, just as often, first impressions are dead wrong. When we judge without due consideration for any of the above reasons, we are usually looking for a way to simplify our lives; any extracurricular idea exacting a toll on our brainpower is unwelcome.

That’s okay. “Why do I have to consider Bostrom?” You don’t. As I remarked on-air during our conversation, it’s okay for us to ignore many of the ideas around us; there are far too many vying for our attention to give them all equal consideration. But a valid opinion is one based on consideration. The Simulation Argument may be sound or not, but unless I’ve considered it, I can’t tell. Unless I’ve considered it, then any opinion I give on it is the equivalent of talking about a book I haven’t read, or a car I haven’t seen.

I do happen to think the Simulation Argument is sound. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean I think we are living in a simulation, incidentally. The argument attempts to show that one of these three statements is true: (1) No civilization will reach a technological level capable of producing simulated realities; (2) No civilization reaching aforementioned technological status will produce a simulated reality, for any of a number of reasons; or (3) You are almost certainly in a simulation right now. It does this by extrapolating our understanding of current technology into the future and by using probability theory to offer premise (3) as a hypothesis, since ruling out (1) and (2) yields a statistically insignificant chance that we are the original, biological few rather than the simulated many.)

But whether I had considered the argument and wrote it off, or considered it and found it to be sound, the important thing is that I had considered it. And everyone who wants to offer a valid opinion rather than just first impressions should do the same.

3 Comments. Leave new

The idea that life is just a computer simulation is not an original thought. It is in fact the central theme of Douglas Adams’ novel “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” published a couple decades before 2003. Life on Earth is a computer program designed to deliver the question, to which the answer “42” defines the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Is this Bostrom making a living off of this deritive argument?

Jim, this is actually a unique proposal, which isn’t that we may be living in a simulation, but that we probably are.

I encourage you to read through his paper on it! Interesting stuff.

I enjoyed reading your dispassionate response to the caller. Also, thanks for pointing out the paper. It is impossible to read and learn about everything in our world. We do take it in chunks. Nice work!

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