Note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of PitchBook or the editorial staff.
Elon Musk declared last week that he believes we almost certainly live in a computer-generated simulation, a video game. Yes, the guy who helped start PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla also thinks there’s “a one in billions chance” we live in “base reality.” Just what is base reality? It’s what the rest of us call reality. And it is a metaphor like anything used to represent something else. Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.
For Musk, reality is almost certainly a simulation run by 1) an advanced “posthuman” civilization or 2) an advanced alien civilization. Either way, as he contemplates the development of computing power from Atari’s Pong to sensory-rich virtual reality environments, he begs a question asked a little over a decade ago by the philosopher Nick Bostrom: What are the odds we don’t live in a computer simulation? Again, it’s just “one in billions” for Musk. For Bostrom, one of the following must be true—personally, I’m pulling for the second possibility—as glossed by Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill:
Virtually all civilizations at our pace of development will go extinct before they reach the technological capability of creating ultra-realistic video games.
Civilizations with such technological capabilities are uninterested in running such computer simulations.
We are almost certainly characters living in a computer simulation.
“My view is that we don’t have strong enough evidence to rule out any of these three possibilities,” Bostrom told Goldhill shortly after Musk made his remarks at this year’s Code Conference. But that’s a problem for Musk. And it’s not just a problem philosophically. There’s something more important at stake here.
Defeasibility is a cornerstone of commonsense ideas about what is true or false—annoying, I know. It’s fine for Bostrom to engage in speculation guided by logic without recourse to a reality, base or otherwise, in which the truth of an assertion can be tested. He’s a philosopher with the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. Musk builds cars and rockets, ostensibly, for profit. Like Musk, I cannot see there being a problem in Bostrom’s logic. There could be 10,000 angels dancing on the head of a pin, or none, or both in the absence of some way to refute one assertion or another.
But I also think Musk’s remarks point to a broader cultural phenomenon ushered in by the prevalence of consumer electronics in general and advanced gaming in particular. Computing has grown at a pretty astonishing pace not only in terms of power and sophistication, but also in terms of reach into day-to-day life during the last 50 years. As computing has grown in strength, it has also expanded in scope, making more people familiar, even comfortable, with computing and gaming as metaphors for what other things really are. Reality is a sophisticated video game. The mind is a computer.
Base reality is another such metaphor. And we all recognize that metaphors inform our individual worldview, even as we collectively use many of the same metaphors to explain and organize different phenomena. Reality is really the cumulative result of the Big Bang, say, or a divine creator, or sophisticated gamers. So, the thing Musk indulges in here is proselytizing and, given the venue, preaching to the choir, since it basically doesn’t matter if he is right or not in the absence of any mechanism for proving the logic of Bostrom’s argument wrong.
But why bother thinking about this stuff anyway?
It’s not just not sexy, as Musk points out. Sure, there’s the novelty of exploring a hip new explanation of everything. But novelty doesn’t explain Musk’s sustained curiosity, a curiosity he shares with others, in this idea. It’s the possibility of being right, not just that the logic behind the idea is foolproof.
The point, even for Musk, is to have a mechanism for defeasibility. Indeed, we get the products of technological advance that he and others have put out there through a system of invention and innovation that ensures there’s a mechanism—a test, an experiment—for defeating the assertion that X solution will work to create Y product for Z purpose. But technological advance also increases access to those products that help us to understand our experiences and desires in terms of technological metaphors.
We’re all early adopters of metaphor, a technology that helps us think about the nature of reality analogically. Metaphors use the similarities between different things to explain experiences and structure desires, experiences that the technologies which facilitate or mediate them also encourage us to desire. To have that experience, to satisfy that desire, we must buy. Lest this seem like so much chatter about whether Schrödinger’s poor cat is alive or dead, it’s important to remember that metaphors shape reality before we open the box, that we all live with countless ways of thinking about this really being that.
Musk is comfortable with there not needing to be a precise practical consideration of timeframe here, that it could take 10 years or 10,000 before technology achieves a level of sophistication sufficient to simulating base reality. But the way technology works in the marketplace right now means that that reality was always already here.