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: