College paper on Elon Musk's Theory of Simulation
EssayChat / Dec 26, 2018
In 2017, the entrepreneur and Silicon Valley giant, Elon Musk, made minor headlines when he announced his views concerning what he believed to be the nature of reality. Musk announced, in the midst of a tech industry interview, that he believed that we are not living in base reality but instead a computer simulation that has been developed by a civilization far more advanced than our own. As Musk described this concept: "The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably being in a simulation, is the following: 40 years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot...That is what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality" (Gohd n.a). To be clear, the notion that we might be living within a computer simulation did not originate with Musk, nor is it a terribly novel idea. In 2003, the British philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper claiming that a statistical analysis he performed "proved" that we are actually living in a simulation game that was developed, and is currently being run by our descendants several thousands of years from now in an effort to provide educational material about human evolution and history.
In many regards, both Musk and Bostrom are putting a new spin on Descartes' ideas from the eighteenth century. Descartes also argued that there are multiple levels of reality, and that the only way that we can truly be certain that we are living in base reality is that we are capable of cognition, and we can also perceive of the notion of a "God" (58). This paper will interrogate Musk's theory of simulation in light of these Cartesian concepts.
ii. CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF CONCEPT
At the center of Musk's argument for simulation is the exponential manner in which technology advances. As Musk argues, just 40 years ago, the most advanced technological game we had at our disposal was Pong; in 2018, we are having ethical debates about the possibility of providing everyone with a universal basic income since Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) will probably soon be able to do the majority of current human jobs. Thus, from the exponential standpoint, it is entirely conceivable that we (or our A.I. counterparts) could use technology to create completely alternate realities within a century or so. Also, the notion that our descendants would create such a virtual reality game for children also makes a great deal of sense, since virtual reality is often used for educational and instructional purposes today.
However, there are numerous problems with Musk's theory, the main one being that he seems to presume that our descendants thousands of years from now will be alive, will think just like us, and will be intensely interested in the minute details of our lives in 2018. At this juncture in our history, it is also entirely conceivable that the human species could be driven to extinction due to climate change and gross overpopulation, or that civilization will either collapse or be forced to transform itself dramatically in order to accommodate new environmental and biological realities. Moreover, Musk's theory of simulation does not account for the existence of independent cognition and a sense of individual self among members of our species; Bostrom confronted this issue by claiming that the futuristic software developers simply programmed thoughts, feelings, and dreams into our virtual selves (248). However, it simply does not make sense that a software developer would find it necessary to do this, and thus Cartesian notions of existence still ring much truer than does that of Elon Musk.
iii. PRODUCTIVE READING OF THIS CONCEPT
While Musk's theory of simulation is problematic in many regards, it does offer some philosophical and pragmatic value. For instance, one of the greater philosophical dilemmas of our current age is that we, as a species, have developed enough scientific knowledge to be aware of the damage that many industrial activities are doing to our environment, and are even cognizant of the fact that it may culminate in the extinction of our species, yet no one seems to be willing to undertake any drastic action to change these activities. Moreover, we have sufficient historical awareness to understand that engaging in war often results in little else but the production of more war and violence, yet we continue to wage warfare on one another. In many ways, it often seems that the human species has a collective death wish.
However, if we are to take the possibility that we are actually living in a computer simulation seriously, these illogical behaviors of humanity then begin to make more sense. It may well be the case that a handful of human beings have been "programmed" with the knowledge that wars and environmental destruction only produce long-term suffering and destruction, and that this gradual realization is part of the "game." Further, if the software developers who created our current reality are simply trying to create an educational historical game for children, then it would follow that they would have to adhere to the narrative provided to them in their own history books. Thus, the theory of simulation provides a plausible explanation for the seemingly illogical and inexplicable behaviors of much of humanity in 2018.
iv. APPLICATION TO OTHER CONCEPTS
When applying Elon Musk's Theory of Simulation to Descartes' ideas about the nature of reality, the former of these two philosophies simply comes up short. Neither Musk nor his predecessor Bostrom provided a satisfying explanation for the existence of individual consciousness within this framework, and when one applies current notions of God (or divine consciousness) to this notion, the logical conclusion is nothing short of disturbing: what many current human beings conceive of as "God" may actually be a computer programmer living 5,000 years in the future (or, alternately, some isolated adolescent playing computer simulation games in his or her bedroom). When comparing these two philosophies, Descartes' conception of reality and the nature of existence still reigns supreme, and the fact that Musk stated these ideas during a tech conference interview lends credence to current rumors that he may be suffering from psychiatric issues.
However, the idea that we are living in a computer simulation also bears similarity to the ancient Hindu/Buddhist concept of maya, or "illusion." Musk's ideas, drawn from a paper published by Bostrom in 2003, echo a larger concept that multiple philosophers and theologians have expressed through the centuries: material existence is a brief, temporary segment of existence that constitutes only a tiny "blip" of the larger cosmic order. In many regards, conceiving of life in this manner can lead one to psychological freedom: no one individual, event, place, or even civilization matters greatly in the larger order, nor is it the end goal of all existence. If only everyone were to apply this principle to their daily existence, it could result in a much saner world for all. Indeed, perhaps Musk's notion is the seed concept that future software developers programmed into the present time so that we can begin to save ourselves.
Bostrom, Nick. "Are we living in a computer simulation?." The Philosophical Quarterly 53.211 (2003): 243-255.
Descartes, René. Meditations on first philosophy: With selections from the objections and replies. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Gohd, Chelsea. Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Elon Musk Thinks So. Futurism.