### URLs du Jour

2020-10-05

Well, I have eaten lutefisk. Once, about sixty years ago, at Grandma's house. Does that count?

• I couldn't help but notice two Slashdot stories close to each other. First: Could Our Entire Reality Be Part of a Simulation Created by Some Other Beings?.

Let's assume these extraterrestrial beings have a computer on which our universe is being "simulated". Simulated worlds are pretend worlds — a bit like the worlds on Minecraft or Fortnite, which are both simulations created by us. If we think about it like this, it also helps to suppose these "beings" are similar to us. They'd have to at least understand us to be able to simulate us. By narrowing the question down, we're now asking: is it possible we're living in a computer simulation run by beings like us? University of Oxford professor Nick Bostrom has thought a lot about this exact question. And he argues the answer is "yes". Not only does Bostrom think it's possible, he thinks there's a decent probability it's true...

According to Bostrom, if these simulated people (who are so much like us) don't realise they're in a simulation, then it's possible you and I are too. Suppose I guess we're not in a simulation and you guess we are. Who guessed best? Let's say there is just one "real" past. But these futuristic beings are also running many simulations of the past — different versions they made up. They could be running any number of simulations (it doesn't change the point Bostrom is trying to make) — but let's go with 200,000. Our guessing-game then is a bit like rolling a die with 200,000 sides. When I guess we are not simulated, I'm betting the die will be a specific number (let's make it 2), because there can only be one possible reality in which we're not simulated.

This means in every other scenario we are simulated, which is what you guessed. That's like betting the die will roll anything other than 2. So your bet is a far better one.

But skip down a couple entries, and the headline reads: Microsoft Office 365 Experienced Two Major Outages Within 3 Days.

… and it seems to me those other beings could at least do a better job of keeping Office 365 up and running. This weighs against Bostrom's bet.

• Robert D. King, writing at Quillette, muses on Weaponizing Words: Language and Oppression. It starts as a rather ordinary essay on woke demands to adjust our usage to conform. But further down:

The deeper issue, however, is whether language can be used to impose changes in perception and behavior. Does forcing inorganic language change really produce a better world, a world of gentleness and right-thinking? Do plumbers feel oppressed when we call them “plumbers”? I doubt many do, even female plumbers. What, if anything, does language have to do with our view of people and the world? Which brings us to what linguists call the “Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis” or the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.”

The idea that language is a prism through which we see and interpret the world is an old one. Greek and Indian philosophers struggled with it. The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Most linguists today do not believe the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis is true in any significant or useful sense. They may believe, as I do, that language conditions our behavior in certain ways, but this is trifling alongside the view that the world we see or experience “out there” differs in different languages—or the view that saying “every American should do his or her duty” will produce a more level playing-field or less patronizing of women by men.

King goes on to note that there's not much evidence for strong versions of the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis.

I (however) have tossed a couple related notions in my head for a while now:

1. It seems likely that people are too easily self-seduced by slogans that hide objectionable positions back in some dark closet of the brain. E. g.: "Black Lives Matter" or "Make America Great Again". Sometimes language stops thought.

2. Language is a wonderful tool, and we must use it to describe the world. No choice. But what are its limits, if any? Are there aspects of reality outside its ken? How would we know?

(I think this is another version of this argument: I don't expect my very smart dog to learn calculus. It's not only that he won'tunderstand it; he doesn't even understand that there's something there to understand. Is there any reason to think that human beings are not in the same situation?)

But King doesn't go there, which is fine. Oddly enough, I noticed another example of the sort of thing he was discussing…

• A local institution of higher ed (fortunately not the University Near Here) has made the Daily Signal: Alums, Donors Should Hit Catholic College's Woke Theology in Wallet.

A student at Saint Anselm College—a Catholic college in Manchester, New Hampshire—received a failing grade on an assignment about the biblical account of Creation because he repeated the Book of Genesis’ “gendered language.”

Professor Gilberto Ruiz, who teaches theology at the Benedictine college, gave the student a zero on the assignment because the student used the words “man” and “mankind” instead of “humankind” or “humanity” when describing the story recounted in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.

Professor Gilberto Ruiz is apparently a strong believer in Whorf-Sapir.

• I'm a fan of Steven Pinker and the Cato Institute, so the combination is irresistable. Pinker has penned a brief article for Cato's quarterly letter: Progress vs. Utopia. First three, no, wait, four paragraphs:

I don’t think of the case that I have made in my books as optimism so much as “factfulness,” to use the pleasant term introduced by Hans Rosling. Namely, that there are just many facts about changes in the human condition over history that most people are unaware of.

Most people have no idea that extreme poverty has declined from 90 percent to 9 percent. They have no idea that there’s been a reduction in the number of wars and deaths in wars. They don’t know that the majority of people are literate, when that wasn’t the case until fairly recently. I don’t consider it optimistic to point this out. I just consider people’s worldview to be incomplete if they don’t know these things—and many people don’t.

But awareness of these facts doesn’t mean that bad things can never happen. Quite the contrary. An appreciation of progress comes from understanding our default condition, which is poor and ignorant and vulnerable to forces of nature. That’s the reality of the universe. What progress consists of is using the special tools that evolved in our species—intelligence and sociality—to try to solve these problems. Once in a while, we do figure out how to solve them. When we’re smart, we remember the solutions and we discard the failures.

We make progress a bit at a time by fighting against forces of nature that are always arrayed against us. The key is our ability to defeat our natural enemies by the application of reason.

A lot of concentrated wisdom in Pinker's essay.