Elon is in the news right now because he’s trying to buy Twitter, specifically in order to free it of overarching censorship. I was doing a little research on him and I encountered his postulations of why there is only a one in a billion chance we aren’t living in a computer simulated universe. I last engaged these ideas in 2016, when I wrote a couple blog posts to refute both Musk and philosopher, Nick Bostrom. Bolstrom is generally credited with being the originator of the theory.
The argument goes as follows. We have seen an incredible evolution of video games, from Pong just decades ago (absolutely rudimentary digital ping-pong] to complex and immersive navigable environments in which multiple players can interact simultaneously. At this rate of progress, whether it is in a decade or 10,000 years, we will eventually be able to produce absolutely convincing artificial digital realities. When that inevitably occurs there would also be as many realities running as there are super advanced personal computers, which would be in the billions. If in the year 3,000, for example, there are several billion computers running absolutely convincing historical simulations, then “base reality” is only one option to reside in out of billions. In that case, there is only one in a billion chance that we are in actual physical reality, as opposed to being one of numberless artificial civilizations within as many artificial simulations.
Bolstrom and Musk left something absolutely essential completely out of their suppositions. Who or what is experiencing the simulation? There need to be non-physical, living, conscious, artificial beings populating the alternate, digitally simulated realities. We have not been able to create artificial consciousness at all, even in a warehouse of super computers. Consciousness has only been found to exist in living, biological, physical beings with nervous systems and large brains. In order for us to be living in a purely mathematical and electronic reality, we ourselves need to be mathematical and electronic entities only. Since we haven’t achieved artificial consciousness at all, if we are to proceed at the same trajectory as we have in the time computer games have evolved so spectacularly, we are still at zero.
The real challenge isn’t creating simulated reality, but creating conscious, intelligent, thinking, simulated individuals to experience it. To do that is to be God, because we would have quite literally created a new form of life out of nothing, and in our own image. This is probably impossible. While we can create characters who act in video games, they are not self-aware, just as the chess computer Deep Blue, who beat chess master Garry Kasparov, did not know that it was playing chess, or even that it was plugged in. We can make artificial intelligence with massive computational power, but we cannot make artificial consciousness (which is, again, to make life itself].
Elon’s idea that there is only one in a billion chances that we live in the original physical reality and timeline takes for granted that in the future there will be a billion computers which each house tens of billions of intelligent, conscious, human beings within them. Characters in computer games today are no more conscious than the original digital ping-pong paddles in Pong.
For our reality to be an artificial simulation would require something more like the layout of the movie, The Matrix. We’d have to be in possession of our physical bodies and brains, but be plugged into an alternate existence while simultaneously unaware of our true physical circumstances. In such a case, there would only be one alternate reality, and we’d have to compare the likelihood of that to the one we assume that we live in. Such a scenario is the inverse of the philosophical principal of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is the most likely correct. The idea that we are in an alternate, simulated reality answers zero questions and raises teaming, enormous and extraneous questions as to why this or that should be happening. Now we have to ask why and how such a simulation is taking place, when there is no evidence of anything that requires a simulated reality as an explanation for it to exist.
There is also the profound issue of time. You can’t just say that we have implanted memories that explain why this simulation has also been running for at least our lifetimes, and possibly billions of years. Our memories are not just recollected events, because integral to each event is all the prior events we have experienced. We don’t only think we’ve been alive for however many decades because we have old memories we can call up, but because we have experienced them sequentially in an uninterrupted voyage through time. For the simulated realities to be persuasive as we experience reality now, they would not only have to include conscious life conjured out of thin air, but also condense time itself so that hundreds of years could be experienced in minutes or less. You would have had to be in the simulated reality since birth because you have a lifetime of lived, unfolding experience.
The chances that we live in a simulated universe are less than one in a trillion because we have no way of creating artificial living consciousnesses [especially ones without physical substance]; no way to condense lived experience in time; and the simulated reality explanation of our existence not only gives no answers to why things are the way they are, but opens the door to myriad outstanding new questions.
For example. If I am living in “base reality” than no reason is needed to explain why this particular simulation is taking place, who is running it, why, and who the hell is observing it. But if I am in a simulated reality, all those questions are tacked on to any other philosophical questions one might have about the nature of existence. Let’s explore just one of those goofy questions. If even one continuous sequence of, say, twelve uninterrupted hours is the duration of the simulation I am currently in, how is my inner experience observable by any outside entity (presumably a future human), and why are they not bored silly watching it? Why such a mundane simulation, that includes someone glued to my unfolding reality as I type these words? Who would even give a crap to watch it? Are people imagining that there’s a room full of viewers enthralled at their every action? And If my existence is unobserved, what is the point of creating it artificially in its entirety? Further, if my life is being monitored at all, that must mean that billions of other lives are simultaneously being observed? How many lives in some other base reality does it take to observe the billions of lives in this supposedly simulated one? Alternatively, if nobody is watching, what’s the point of the simulation?
And of course, just to drift ever further from tangible reality, we could be in a simulation within a simulation within a simulation…
Elon stated that he would prefer to believe that we really do live in a simulated universe, because if we do not, that is a sure indication that we will never reach the point where we are capable of creating fully realistic simulated environments. That is not, however, accurate. It proves, if anything, that we will never be able to create fully conscious, living, intelligent humans out of thin air, like God, except that even if there were a God, “he” created us through billions of years of physical, evolving biology. We’d be out-Godding God by making people out of code. And those people would themselves also be immortal, because not made of flesh and bone. That’s not just science, those are two miracles that religious people don’t even attribute to God.
And maybe it’s OK if we are not greater than even a biblical God, and never will be. The Roman Emperor, and noted Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, didn’t have a smart phone, or a laptop, or a phone, or a typewriter, or a light bulb, or a flushing toilet. We degrade our ancestors, and life itself, when we tell ourselves life is a failure if we don’t go on to achieve technological feats that were only remotely imaginable in the last century. It must be that something else makes life worthwhile, and even gives it its greatest meaning. And that something may have everything to do with our mortality, vulnerability, and our physical, organic nature which is bound in time.
In short, there’s no need to create a fake reality in order to appreciate reality, especially if in that reality we don’t even physically exist.
On the bright side, for Elon, my arguments do not counter the notion that we will create fully immersive, and convincing simulated realities. We will just never ourselves be reducible to simulated beings who inhabit such digital realities.
Addendum. After talking about this with my wife, I can see where I might want to elaborate on a couple points. Elon’s argument is not that space aliens created the simulation we supposedly inhabit, or some other super-consciousness, but explicitly that we humans created it in the future. More importantly, the reason this is not only possible, but inevitable, and from a strictly scientific perspective, is that it is based on the scientific advancements we’ve already achieved, and in a very short period of time.
And that brings us to the problem I outline, which is that we have not achieved anything at all in the realm of creating artificial life. We can make a robot that can do back-flips, and we have created artificial intelligence that can talk to us, but we have not created artificial life at all.
If it were the case that scientists had proven that Siri, for example, possessed some hint of rudimentary consciousness, then would could place that breakthrough on a projected timeline of development. But nobody is saying that. In fact, science is saying the opposite. The most powerful artificial intelligences, such as the super-computers that beat the world’s greatest chess and recently go champions do not even know that they are playing the games, what a game is, or that they themselves exist.
You can’t build on nothing, and Musk’s inevitable eventuality requires we not only create life, but largely immaterial life, which is also fully conscious and potentially immortal. The journey of a thousand miles may begin with one step, but we have not even taken that first step in that direction. Scientists can’t even find consciousness, let alone create it. That’s where we are.
My arguments from 2016 were very similar:
Do we live in a simulated universe? Yes, but not one created by aliens.
Do we live in a simulated universe, Part 2: Rejoinder to Nick Bostrom.
8 replies on “Refuting Elon Musk’s Argument that We Live in a Simulated Universe”
I have no answers, but your arguments make sense. Will follow with interest.
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Loved this. My favourite part was :
“We degrade our ancestors, and life itself, when we tell ourselves life is a failure if we don’t go on to achieve technological feats that were only remotely imaginable in the last century. It must be that something else makes life worthwhile, and even gives it its greatest meaning. And that something may have everything to do with our mortality, vulnerability, and our physical, organic nature which is bound in time.”
I’m so very sick to death of our progress as a species being measured by technological advances alone. It’s pathetic and depressing. If we started measuring our progress in purely humanitarian terms we probably wouldn’t be feeling quite so cocky. Some people need to get out of their basements, put down their damn devices and go for a walk in a forest or sit in a park. I know I sound like a crotchety old grandma, ( I’m not…yet) but ffs.
And yeah, I’m yet to be convinced that computers/ machines will ever be conscious in the way we are. Any resemblance to actual human consciousness will always just be a simulation. Imbuing something with actual consciousness sounds more like a job for a spiritual guru than a scientist or techie.
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Spielberg did a movie called Ready Player One, which I saw on tv recently, I kept thinking of that while reading, its about a future world where everyone lives in a rubbish tip, and spend their time in a fantasy world of video games – we’re probably heading that way! Elon Musk sounds like a bit of an idiot from what I hear.
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Thanks for commenting. I don’t think Elon’s an idiot at all in the conventional sense of the word, as in “stupid”. But in this particular line of inquiry he’s guilty of bad philosophy.
Mistaking the menu for the meal is a pervasive and basic philosophical error. People focus on certain factors and tend to view reality through those factors, then take the step that reality IS that. Tech heads spend their lives in a VR and computer generated headspace. It’s much the same with those who argue reality is made of language and numbers. We understand reality through language and numbers, doesn’t mean that’s what it is.
Consciousness remains rather beautifully ineffable and I really wish people would stop dismissing or diminishing it with these sorts of philosophies, though I suspect they do because it’s incredibly difficult and intimidating just to try to tackle it on its own terms rather than as an “epiphenomenon” or computer generated or some such glib get out. It’s okay that we don’t know and may never.
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Agreed. An understanding and appreciation of consciousness is key. Consciousness is very difficult to understand, because it is to us something like what water is to fish: we take it for granted to the degree it’s almost impossible for us to see it. Some scientists have even taken the logical argument that since there is no scientific evidence that consciousness exists – it cannot be seen, located, or weighed – it is merely an illusion. An illusion that can only take place in consciousness, that is. The one thing that is subjectively undeniable – Descarte’s “I think therefore I am” – is dismissed because there isn’t objective proof that it physically exists.
I only came to understand consciousness after making a concerted effort to do so. To do so requires a sort of perceptual somersault. It can’t be understood only through means of the intellect and using linguistics, because it is itself a perceptual phenomenon. Meditators are more likely to get it via eschewing the rational mind, because they are endeavoring to observe consciousness directly. It’s just a bit like the concept of death. We can make a very accurate argument of what it is physically, in our childhood, but to really appreciate it requires a reciprocal appreciation of existence, and can take a lifetime to really appreciate.
I find very often that a lack of understanding of what consciousness is undermines all sorts of theories and beliefs. For example, if one understands the nature of consciousness and the mind, than to judge someone by their outward biology rather than their mind, thoughts, and actions is utterly insipid. Nevertheless, we are fixated as a culture on judging books by their covers, or going further and saying that we decide what those covers are, and then judge them by that.
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I tend to believe that the simulated reality idea would only work as a sort of virtual reality in which the base reality lifeforms are actually participants in the simulation. This scenario would likely be playing out in a distant future solely as an experiment to see how things could have progressed differently in the development of a species under different circumstance and stimuli. The participants in the experiment would need to have their memories of the base reality wiped prior to entering the simulated environment to preserve the integrity of the experiment.
Kinda funny how a wiped memory would give you that nagging question of why am I here and what is my purpose?
As in any simulation, the speed of the simulation can be increased as needed. Oddly similar to how as you get older in our reality, it seems like time moves more quickly (strange, isn’t it?).
There would likely be a finite number of participants (maybe 7-8 Billion), so as they die in the simulation, they would likely be reintroduced back into the simulation as a baby (similar to being reincarnated) to live out yet another lifetime in the simulation (we should not assume that our current life span is the same as the base reality participants life span). I’m sure there would be instances on occasion when some memories from the previous life would still be stored in a buffer and the reintroduced participant would possibly remember details from their previous life, but around the age of 5-6 those memories would likely be overwritten by new memories
(Kinda similar to stories I’ve heard of young children remembering parts of their past life in our current reality).
The reason for such an experiment could be as simple as entertainment for a species at the end of time that has already experienced everything else the universe has to offer, or it could be a last-ditch effort to save their race from any number of tragic endings.
I try not to discount any ideas for why or how we exist as they all hold equal weight for me simply because there currently is no way to tell which idea is correct.
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Interesting notions, Bill. Your scenario is less logically implausible than Elon’s, because yours involves physical people with physical brains. I could make an interesting sci-fi series. We’d need to know why the hey people would volunteer to have their memories wiped. Maybe only prisoners would do it as a way of getting out of sitting in a jail sell in quotidian reality. But then, we’d get into sticky questions of nature-verses-nurture when it came to how a populace behaved in a simulation, if all our subjects were prisoners. It could be an option for terminally ill who would not feel pain in the simulation, or have mobility issues. So, I’m going with, there could be a lot of cases where one would rather live in the simulated universe than this one, perhaps if they had some guarantees about who they would be.
When it comes to the nature of reality, I just try to add whatever new understanding to my cumulative knowledge and experience, and not let one new story or bit of information blot out everything else. That might make me a less than ideal subject for the simulation. Though I do wonder sometimes how the world can be so ridiculous – so cruel and stupid — that it’s not a prank performed on us just to test our credulity.