[dropcap custom_class=”normal”]Always controversial, Elon Musk argued at the Recode conference that we’re all very likely just characters in a simulation run by a very advanced species. Are we? More importantly, does it matter?[/dropcap]
Musk’s argument is paraphrased from philosopher Nick Bostrom, who argues that our existence is, probabilistically speaking, more likely to be the result of a simulation than of “base” reality, or the unsimulated. The argument goes like this: Computer technology in our own world has advanced at an incredible speed. Even if it slows down tremendously, it will be possible to run incredibly realistic simulations on billions of possible devices within 10,000 years. Since these computers are very powerful, each one will be capable of running billions of calculations.
The exponential growth of possible simulations puts the total number of “realities” well past the point of trillions or quadrillions. Since the “true” reality- the one that isn’t a simulation- is only one of those, the odds that we are in that one would be one in some impossibly large number. Those odds would make our existence being the one with ultimate reality improbable to the point of impossibility.
Before looking at the implications, it’s worth noting that this idea is not without its critics. Most obviously, it assumes that entities within simulations have consciousness. This assumption is far from a certainty, given that one person can’t know with certainty that another person in the same reality has consciousness. The argument relies on the fallacy of the absence of negative proof. Just because it can’t be proven that consciousness can’t be simulated doesn’t mean that it can.
Even if Musk is right, what does that change about the lives of the humans who occupy this particular simulation? There’s an old anecdote in philosophy about an old woman arguing with a philosopher about the nature of ultimate reality. The old woman asserts that we’re living on a flat disk on the back of a giant turtle. The philosopher asks what that turtle is standing on. The old woman replies that it’s another turtle. The philosopher asks what that turtle is standing on, and the old woman insists it’s turtles all the way down.
That’s much like this particular metaphysical argument. There’s no way to prove or disprove it, and there’s no way its truth would influence the lives of people. Elon Musk is a talented man, but a metaphysician he is not.