“The odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions…tell me what’s wrong with that argument”
Elon Musk put this to the audience at the Code Conference this past June. No one made a counter argument (in fact, no one does when he makes the same statement and challenge here). Perhaps we all think he is a little too genius to disagree with? Well that attitude will stifle progress so let me take up the challenge.
My first refute to Musk is that he presents no argument – only a hypothesis. Minor detail aside, from what Musk has said on this topic publicly, he is basing his hypothesis solely on the world that he is currently experiencing. He is assuming that within every simulation, and in this theoretical “base reality”, a human like species exists, starts at a similar level of intelligence, and has the same trajectory of advancement. If this is the case, then theoretically, the human like species that exist across simulations will all have the potential to one day transcend consciousness (we have now come to recognize this potential in ourselves), and thus, we are likely one of these simulations.
Now, treading the line of assumption that simulated worlds roughly mirror one another, I can already poke a few holes in Musk’s theory. Fair – given current trends in technological advancements, the probability of us one day reaching the ability to transcend is high, but there is also the probability of humans going extinct before such endeavours are successful. If we do go extinct before then, the foundation of Musk’s theory is shaky, brining into question whether or not any other human like species has survived long enough to transcend. Actually, if we retain the assumption that all simulated worlds roughly mirror one another, we really have an either or scenario on our hands. With the crux of the argument coming down to a race against time, and having limited evidence to suggest which will happen first, to me it seems too early to make a firm hypothesis like Musk.
Prof. Nick Bostrom of Oxford, who pioneered the “simulation argument” in 2003, presents a stronger argument than Musk precisely because he takes into account this race against time (and a tad human nature). Given a few clearly outlined assumptions, Bostrom’s argument presents three potential realities of equal probability – (1) no human species has ever survived long enough to successfully transcend, (2) if a species has survived and transcended they are unlikely to run simulations of their evolutionary history, and (3) we are currently living in a simulated world. Bostrom notes in his work that the argument he presents does not start from a position of doubt. This is important because it means that the argument has strong internal validity, while likely having weak external validity. This brings me to my outward looking critiques of both arguments.
Firstly, I reject the assumption that all simulated worlds mirror one another. Given the diversity that exists in our experienced world, I would be inclined to assume that even if all simulated worlds had a human like species present, and started at the same level of intelligence, trajectories of advancement would be starkly different. Diversity is known to be crucial to the success of eco-systems, both across and within. I really don’t think starting from a position of making assumptions based on select experiences of our world (technological advancements), while ignoring others (diversity in eco-systems), is a valid starting point for this argument.
This brings me to a critique of traditional styles of thinking. We have been conditioned to think rationally, and both Musk and Bostrom are doing just that. One of my fav philosophers David Hume rightfully saw the biggest constraint on the search for truth to be staying true to our experiences of the world. My reaction to Musk’s hypothesis is no shit. He lives for technological advancements. For him, it really is the most logical explanation. As an academic, Bostrom recognizes that his unique expertise allowed him to make this inference in the first place. To he himself (in the context of his work and knowledge) it was a logical argument to present. So both Musk and Bostrom are not only staying true to current global experiences of technological advancement, but also quite specifically to their individual experiences. Many relevant theories and fields of studies are currently not engaged critically with this argument. So ultimately, the simulation argument is just another argument that will evolve and grow in complexity over time.
Humans logically have an obsession with rationality and causation. We want to be able to explain and understand our experiences. But the truth of the matter is that we do not live in a rational world (I would argue that we have more than enough evidence to support this claim), so perhaps we should start to accept that rational thought can only take us so far. From my perspective, our searches for truth lead us to the best answers in a any given moment, but honestly, we will never find truth. Our knowledge as a species is constantly evolving, with each finding leading us towards more unknowns. Therefore, the only position I can come to grips with in this argument, is that we can’t rule out the possibility of us being a simulation (this takes us back to the traditional “brain in a vat” paradox within philosophy). It is however, just one possibility.
The odds that we’re in a simulation is one in billions…tell me what’s wrong with that argument.
Robyn Waite (September 5, 2016)