During a recent conference, Elon Musk was asked by Joshua Topolsky whether he thinks we might be living in a simulation, to which he answered that the chances we are not living in a simulation is one in billions. The argument for the famous Simulation Hypothesis being true is that since we are now creating more virtual (computer simulated) worlds that are increasingly realistic and will eventually be indistinguishable from reality, those simulated worlds will outnumber real worlds (and we know of only one) by the billions. And so the chances we are living in a virtual world made by an advanced civilization is infinitely greater than the chance we are living in the real world.
Nick Bostrom Sidenote
That intelligent civilizations such as ourselves don’t destroy themselves somewhere around our level of technological advancement. That said intelligent civilizations won’t lose interest in creating simulations
But assuming those two are true, and I see little reason to think they aren’t, he proposes that the simulation theory is most likely correct. Back to Musk…
Musk then asked:
“Is there a flaw in that argument?”
I think there is, and it is one that is either neglected to be mentioned or simply glossed over in discussions about the simulation hypothesis, but it is one that the whole concept hinges on.
That is: What about consciousness?
The big hidden assumption in this theory is that we will either create conscious machines or that all of us, whatever we are fundamentally, exist in some form one reality up from this one where this world is being simulated. We could be humans in pods like in The Matrix, or brains in a vat or some form of conscious beings plugged into the simulation data feed.
We are experiencing this reality, be it a “real” one or one simulated by an advanced civilization with near infinite computing power. Everything we know about how we perceive boils down to the brain, and yet we still don’t know how consciousness fundamentally emerges. Is it just a matter of sufficient complexity in an information processing network? Is it a primary feature of the universe, like gravity? We still don’t know. But what is undeniable is that we are conscious. If we postulate that our current experience is based on the conscious perception of experience feed from a simulation we have to account for how we are perceiving that feed.
One option is that consciousness is somehow part of the simulation, that this advanced civilization can basically create conscious machines. This is Bostrom’s assumption, and he doesn’t seem to dwell much on it. But consider that the whole concept of living in a simulation is based on what we already know about our world and that we wonder if we might be living in a simulation only because we can create realistic simulations ourselves. We have no idea if we could one day create conscious machines and although there is nothing we know about physics or biology that make think we couldn’t one day do so, we have no clue if and how that could come about. If the simulation hypothesis rests on this idea, it is resting on a big assumption with little information to support it.
The other option is sticking more closely to the setup that makes us wonder about whether we live in a simulation or not. That is the simulated worlds that we already create. In their most basic forms, we are overlaying sensory input externally through VR goggles, headphones, and one day, body suites etc’. The other end of the spectrum is a Matrix-like direct input to the brain. Either way, we are still assuming a brain perceiving external input at the bottom of it. Because as far as we know, consciousness emerges/facilitated/mediated/resides in the brain. Get rid of the brain, and you get rid of consciousness, that which is perceiving this simulation.
As soon as you have to accommodate consciousness, statistics becomes the least of your problems.
If you believe that we are most likely living in a simulation you either believe we are conscious machines, a thing we do not know is possible, or you imagine billions of conscious creatures plugged into a supercomputer one reality up. If it’s the former, you are basing it on a large assumption. If it is the latter, then assuming billions of plugged in creatures reduces the likelihood based on the statistical calculation, as it doesn’t matter that simulated worlds will outnumber real ones, the vast majority of them won’t have conscious beings plugged into them.