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June 13, 2016



Musk's flight of fancy is ludicrous and embarrassing for a number of reasons. The specific "matrix" version of Gnosticism has been considered and dismissed by computer scientists and neuroscientists alike as being mathematically impossible -- any dream world would have to built bottom-up, which is to say using the brain's own capacity for self-delusion, and not by using finite computing resources to try to simulate a world of sensation by processing the inputs and outputs of a mind/brain. But even worse is the fact that he evokes "second life", a brand name that is synonymous with overheated, implausible futurist wanking and has become a punch line. Was he not around in 2006 when Second Life was going to take over the world? Or was he still in short pants and not aware of how badly futurists of that bygone age embarrassed themselves? Perhaps he owns shares in the company and is trying to fuel a "VR play" to give Second Life a, well, second life as a viable commercial enterprise. I want to believe that, because he seems to know how to make money and I would respect him for cynical money-grubbing more than I would for earnest stupidity.


Disappointing post, which reveals a lack of engagement with the argument it purports to explode.

You seem to believe that the Bostrom Simulation Argument (BSA for short) runs something like this: our simulated reality is the random, accidental emergence of consciousness from computers created by an alien species. You argue that this betrays some sort of arrogance or presumption, i.e. that proponents of the BSA assume that a) intelligent non-human species exist, and that b) they are technological, tool-using thing-making creatures like ourselves.

Points a) and b) would both make the BSA vulnerable to criticism, if the BSA relied on either of them. Alas, it does not.

In the BSA, we know for certain that the simulators are technology users like ourselves, because in the BSA the simulators ARE human beings (or whatever post-human creatures we evolve/engineer ourselves into) living the far distant future -- or what would be the far distant future if our reality were "base" reality. In the BSA, our reality is a simulation of their past, which the simulators created because they were interested in learning more about their own development as technological, tool-using, thing-making creatures.

The actual BSA, as I understand it, runs like this: first, let's assume that far future humans will attempt to create artificial minds (which we must, if future humans are anything like the current variety), and will eventually succeed -- maybe not today, maybe not in a thousand years, but eventually. If, as you say, you're willing to grant for argument's sake the "biological brain is like a computer" hypothesis, you should be able to accept this "future humans create digital brains" scenario also.

Next, let's assume that the computing power available to future humans will continue to increase to the point where a seamless digital facsimile of reality (not a one-to-one copy) can be created. There's no reason why, given sufficient resources, this wouldn't be possible -- Bostrom imagines devoting the energy of an entire star exclusively to running such a facsimile, and the artificial minds linked up to it. (One might argue that would be a poor use of such resources, but that's a separate issue.)

If we assume those two points -- a far future of artificial minds and for-all-practical-purposes infinite computing resources -- and also assume the persistence of human curiosity into this far future, we should assume that at some point some group of human (or post-human) researchers will attempt to create a gigantic ancestor simulator to "re-run" in virtual reality the entirety of their (our) history.

The next step in the BSA, which is a logical leap I'm not sure I understand or accept, is that if we grant that all of the above *could* happen, then we must accept that it most likely *already* has happened, and that our reality is a result of this occurrence. In his original paper (available online at http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html ) Bostrom attempts to prove this point with some impressive-looking equations, whose merits I'm not competent to judge. I was hoping that Professor Smith, a trained and accredited philosopher, might be able to shed some light on the merits or demerits of this portion of the BSA, but my naive hopes were dashed.

Anyway. You can accept the BSA or not (I'm not sure that I do), but if you're going to reject it, reject the real thing, and not a straw-based simulation of it.

Jan Sand

Aside from what computers might become it is worthwhile to consider what brains seem to be. Any nervous system is developed to encounter the forces of the universe and deal with those that either threaten or enhance a living organism to sustain itself and reproduce. Any particular organism, as the article notes, must respond only to a small number of the total matrix of forces present in any particular environment. Fish in water, birds in air, organisms deep within the crust of the planet each must ascertain pertinent forces and react to them to be successful. The human nervous system processes various sensory inputs and notes or disregards sensory inputs as they relate to organism success. The universe, as we know it, therefore, is an internal artificial construct of only those sensory inputs that relate directly to our existence. Scientific instrumentation extends this to a small degree but it is most likely that what we might term external reality differs hugely from the artificial internally manufactured "reality" we assume is the existing universe. Since humans are reasonably closely constructed out of our similar genetics our personal realities are similar enough to permit the illusion we all live in the same "universe" but there are personal differences and the difference between humans and other species must be rather huge. In other words, our consciousness already operates in a simulated reality since we do not hear, smell, touch, see etc. with our primary senses, we do these things with what the brain configures into an artificial simulation of an extremely limited version of whatever might be going on in an extremely limited sector of the universe.


Your argument about evolution is not exactly correct. Evolution takes time and therefore simple organisms arise first upon which adaptations are made. You could not have had humans without first having sponges and so on.


Through eternity, we both will and will not come back.

Elon Musk fancies himself a machine, not accountable to those scheduled to die while protecting Musk's sorry ass.

Musk will continue on this path as long as we permit him the deduction.


I have a problem with almost every paragraph you've written here.
"The particular form the..."
You would be stupid to consider the brain 'like a computer' or you would be precisely correct to consider the brain 'like' a computer depending on what you mean by 'like'.
"wouldn't it I mean..."
It would be a coincidence if that's what anyone was claiming. Reality =/= consciousness. Nor is anyone equating current technology to the technology required to test the hypothesis that the brain acts (precisely) like a computer. Also why are you talking about Pong?
"If you are like Musk..."
Consciousness has been shown to be an emergent property of evolution at least some of the time, it's us.
Video game design uses a more powerful system of progression than evolution, namely intelligent design, comparing the two is pointless. Don't talk about Ms. Pac Man, a 35 year old toy, when you could talk about bleeding edge brain simulation science. Even the bleeding edge stuff is not the technology anyone is talking about with regards to the potential for accurate brain simulation.
A brain does not have to be a computer for you to simulate a brain with a computer.
"But let's suppose... "
Given enough time something similar to use will happen again, and if we simulate in our current instance, we'll simulate there too. That's not even required for the argument, so kind of a moot point.
"The presumption of the high probability..."
We are/will-be,-given-enough-time capable of beating any animal on this planet at any survival challenge. How do we do that? Tools, in their many forms. How does your eel, intelligent but without tools, propose it will get off it's planet before it falls into it's star? When both our species face that challenge, we will be able to add another thing to the list of species we're better than. Tools are how we transfer intelligence back into the physical world to solve survival challenges. But are they required? I suppose not, given enough time a species will evolve that's capable of surviving any conditions in the universe without the need of tools, but intelligent design moves faster than evolution so we'll get there first, given average starting conditions. So using tools we're better than a hypothetical invincible species, sounds like evolution should progress towards tool using intelligence if it's going to be efficient. When logic matches 100% of the (admittedly limited) data we have so far it seems like a decent hypothesis. Evolution -> Intelligence -> Tools. It also seems to me that one of the most useful and elegant tools is one that helps you make tools better, sounds like a computer to me.
"There are two instances..."
I've thrown my reasoning in that the first error you mention is not really an error, or at least it's possible that it's not. The second one however, that other species will develop things that look like ours is (as you point out) ridiculous, it's also not required at all for the argument in question. Strawmanning again.

RA Landbeck

About all Mr. Muck reminds us is that we all share a considerable portion of perfect ignorance when it comes to understanding ultimate reality. And all speculation on the subject, coming from Mr. Musk or otherwise is no closer to demonstrating any credible evidence to support such ideas then religion is to proving the existence of God. Most likely, everyone is well off the mark! All is chasing after wind. http://www.energon.org.uk


We always use the metaphors of technology to assist us in understanding the self and the universe. John Daugman goes over the history of this in a classic paper: "Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory". http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/users/jgd1000/metaphors.pdf

But perhaps the dismissal of this kind of metaphor goes to far? Language can be thought of as a social technology. If it is absurd for technology to 'just happen' to mirror the ultimate nature of reality, doesn't this also apply to any attempt to characterize the universe? After all, these attempts all deploy the latest concepts, which, like technology, are a product of their era.

We may be on better footing if we attack the concept of 'probable', because there is a great deal of woolly-mindedness lurking under the surface here. Most people have no idea what the probability of a unique event really means. The reference class problem gets to the heart of this confusion:

Paul Hughes

What, specifically, has Musk invented? He's an entrepreneur, not an inventor.


J.E.H. Smith: "Some of us can remember talking about it before either of these men forced it into the zeitgeist."

Do you remember when G.H.W. Bush, instead of investigating Saddam Hussein's charges that Kuwait was slant-drilling Iraq's oil, went in and laid plans to kill the complainant?

Scott Teresi

Justin E. H. Smith is missing two very crucial points, from my understanding. Pollio mentions one, that the simulation might be run by *us*, in the distant future.

To take this further, if we can run one simulation someday, we would likely run many even further in the future, and eventually millions/billions/etc. over our entire future timeline, for reasons of research or sport or less.

With countless simulations having come into existence (eventually, just from our own race of humans), the probability that you and I would be living in the actual real non-simulated universe becomes vanishingly small.

That's how you get to the certainty levels that Musk's version of the Bostrom Simulation Argument asserts.

That said, I hope and dare to believe that Musk is wrong. Given that our light cone in the universe is finite, there also must be a finite limit to our future computational abilities. I'm hoping the universe can't hold accurate enough copies of parts of itself working within itself!

I would be interested to hear how Professor Smith might respond.


As others point out, Musk’s ideas here are ludicrous. Not that the argument per se is uninteresting—most of us first encounter it when we read Descartes—but philosophers’ ingrained habit of jumping from the hypothesis that something could theoretically exist to the conclusion that might or does exist is as usual overindulged here. Yes, I could be dreaming or in the clutches of an evil demon, I could be a brain in a vat or the product of a computer simulation or living in the Matrix. I could, but there is no reason to believe I am. This ground has been covered adequately for a long time.

I think professor Smith is right-minded but could state his argument more simply: toss out the math—the numbers are unknowable, so their product is meaningless—and time travel—sigh—and you have little more than a technology evangelist doing what technology evangelists do—trying to convince the world that technology is at the root of everything. Smile, wave Occam's Razor about, and move along.

I realize that minds more capacious than mine have used mathematics to support one side or the other of the argument surrounding life on other planets (e.g., re: the Fermi paradox, Drake equation, etc.), but I cannot escape the implications of this: the number of planets in the universe is huge and ever-growing, and by consensus the probability of life on other planets (and of this life evolving, developing technology, etc.) is assumed to be small but non-zero—but the scale of these two numbers is unknowable, and therefore their product is unknowable, and completely unknowable. We cannot conclude that life outside Earth must exist simply because the number of possible locations for it to develop is so large if we do not know how small the probability of life developing actually is, and we do not in fact know this. Small, yes, but if the small probability is smaller than the large number of planets is large (and given the size of the universe and the complexity of life, this is as probable as not), then the result is that the probability of life on other planets remains very small, not likely or inevitable, as those on the other side of the argument tend to conclude.

And time travel: please. As an armchair philosopher, I am a sucker for empirical evidence, so like Hawking (whom I find convincing), I will believe there are visitors from the future when someone starts picking lottery numbers correctly on consecutive days. Fair to say we should all be extremely skeptical of any argument anywhere that counts the possibility of time travel among its premises.

So: claims connected to global skepticism, as Musk’s are, have always felt cheap and easy to me—easy to make, impossible to refute convincingly without plunging into the impenetrable depths of analytic philosophy, but ultimately unconvincing.

Scott Teresi


There need not be any life on other planets. And if I or someone suggested time travel is involved, that was mistaken! Time travel is likely an impossibility.

My interpretation of what Musk says is, given that computational power can grow indefinitely, and humans will be around for the required millennia to harness this power, then humans will likely create high quality simulations of reality. If you carry this further, there will likely be many millions or billions of simulations that existed at all different points in the future.

If there is only one reality, but billions of simulations of that reality, what is the probability that we would inhabit the actual reality, vs. one of those simulations? (In the latter case, if we are in a simulation, then it is *already* many millennia in the future, yet we have no knowledge of this because we're experiencing a simulation of 2016 for some reason).

According to Musk's premise, the chance of us being in the actual reality is vanishingly small, compared to the number of simulations that will exist (or have existed)!

I'd guess that any one of Musk's assumptions can be taken apart...


Mike Koonce

Even if we are living in a simulation, it's not provable, just like string theory, which puts it into the realm of metaphysics. It's not science. So let us
move ahead with real science and leave off with the mental masturbation.


to be fair, musk was asked about his thought. he didn't bring it up. but I'd certainly find it very coincidental to be a consciousness-based character in a 'game' that must've been written by and for evolutionary scientists. perhaps its more likely we're digital organisms in an computerized evolutionary model than a game(and perhaps this is besides the point).



The problem I continue to have with the line of argument advocated by Musk is that technology essentially plays the role once played by God in metaphysical explorations: “If God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived” leads to an interesting argument, for example, only if God actually exists and is in fact great, assumptions to which few contemporary philosophers would accede. We know that computing technology exists, but we have no reason to assume it will evolve to a point where it might be capable of manifesting these God-like powers of world-creation or modelling human consciousness.

Musk essentially begs the question in the extreme, which is my point: to assume so much—that computing technology will become so incredibly advanced, that it will be harnessed in aid of building an infinite number of simulations, that we are sentient beings in one of these simulations—is to assume too much. Sure, we could be beings living in a simulation, but the fact that a technology evangelist says so makes it no more likely to be true than an infinite number of other extremely unlikely scenarios. We could each be a brain in a vat, in the grips of an evil demon, etc., but we are probably not. Countless undergraduate philosophy students have bristled at the lack of certitude in this sort of answer (“yes, good point, I see...but probably not”), but it’s the best anyone can do when trying to refute outlandish metaphysical claims. No one can prove Musk wrong, and he could certainly be correct, but the odds strike me as trivial.



Haha, did you really just write an article who is taking about simulation theory and wether they have the authority to comment on it, peppered with a dash of philosophical logic. Without actually bringing any new perspective to the table. That was 5 min of my life I'm never getting back! :/

Lars Fimmerstad

Elon Musk and Bostrom et al. have seemingly hit on the same idea as the 18th British philosopher and bishop Berkeley who claimed that there was no physcal reality, it was all in the mind. But to get there our minds were fed with what we might call a simulation by God, the alien super intelligence. This idea was refuted by the argument valid also today: if the simulation in every detail is identical to what generally by us simpeltons is regarded as the physical reality, why bother, let us just call it Reality and go on manipulating and exploring it. If our senses are fed by an omniscient God or the modern version alien super game develloper, so what? It does not change a jota to our existence or the ways of the universe.


Of course we are. A double reverse disguised simulator, but still..

Ibod Catooga

Wanking on a p[oopypants

Ha ha ha

He he he

Pooping on a wankupants


A bump to the now-lagging discussion here: the New York Times ran a piece today ("Yes, There Have Been Aliens") in which the author discusses Drake's equation, suggesting the probability that extraterrestrial civilizations exist, or once existed, is high. Adam Frank claims that "they almost certainly existed at some point in cosmic history," to which I say, hogwash.

He argues that "You might assume [the probability of intelligent life on another planet] is low, and thus the chances remain small that another technological civilization arose. But what our calculation revealed is that even if this probability is assumed to be extremely low, the odds that we are not the first technological civilization are actually high. Specifically, unless the probability for evolving a civilization on a habitable-zone planet is less than one in 10 billion trillion, then we are not the first."

I ask, extremely low relative to what? Frank insinuates ("even if...") that odds longer than one in 10 billion trillion are long indeed, but when considering the chance of life, consciousness, etc. evolving from nothing in a closed organic system, how does he know that these putatively long odds are not instead a gross overestimation? The true odds, which I admit are unknowable, could be something akin to one in (one followed by trillions of zeros). We just don't know, and can never know, as the system is too complex.

And because we can never know (emphasis here: can never know) these odds, Drake's equation--which, in layman's terms, argues nothing more or less than because the universe is so large, there has to be life somewhere, right?--remains of very little use, and certainly of no actual mathematical use, despite its pedigree.


Robert M

Base-World theory is the new geocentric World view.

There's no need to assume that intelligent life and toolmaking is prevalent, it's enough to assume that it can exist (easy as we do exist) and that the same forces that brought us to light can be at play elsewhere in our Universe (or higher or lower levels of simulation).

It is not preposterous to think that in the future we'll be able to create simulations with artificial minds (or a multitude of simulations, some of which give rise to consciousness) if we consider how distant it must have been in the 18th century to think that World champions of chess and go may be beaten by machines, and that images and spoken words may be recognized with some level of accuracy.

Given the possibility of such simulations, and - despite your gills analogy - the fact that evolution, after all, led to more and more sophistication of the mind, what's preposterous is to assume that we have some special place in the (meta)universe, that we happen to be the first level of the simulation stack, and though we can foreseeably create artificial minds over a planetary blip of time, we ourselves are somehow special.

Assuming that we are Stack Level 0 is the new Geocentric world view and people will wake up to this possibility as soon as AI is getting good enough to create consciousness. So a belief in the materialistic explanation of the consciousness (i.e. it's probably a function of the brain, synapses, molecules, neurotransmitters and probably a lot of things we don't know yet but probably discoverable by us or a more intelligent species) then needs to beget a belief that we might well not be Stack Level 0, in fact it's the usual kind of human hubris to assume, let alone doggedly commit to it.


this is brain-dead, all of it, I mean the comments as well. How many resources are patently WASTED flippity-flapping about non-existent bullshit instead of being put toward solving *REAL* and *SOLVABLE* problems. So stupid how much money is thrown at eggheads talking themselves and others into circles about exactly NOTHING. Unbelievable

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