Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?

Elon Musk thinks we’re effectively in The Matrix – so what’s the flaw in his argument?

The cultural impact of 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix is extraordinary. Not only did it give us such indelible terms as “there is no spoon”, “the red pill” and “whoa”, it made us consider the question of whether reality itself was merely a simulation.

Since then, many technologists and philosophers have concluded that, well, yes, we very much could be living in a simulation.

Elon Musk, he of Tesla, Space X, and being a general tech wunderkid, even went so far as to say in 2016 that,

“The odds that we’re in base reality, is one in billions.”

Makes you wonder why Elon’s working so hard, really. Also why the simulators decided that they should plant such an obvious clue as to get the Wachowskis to make The Matrix.

Though the simulated reality question didn’t begin with Elon or The Matrix. In fact it goes back at least as far as 17th Century philosopher René Descartes.

Descartes wondered if “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.”

It’s a tricky proposition. In fact, it’s impossible to disprove. Descartes decided the only thing that he could not have doubt about was his own existence, as he was the one asking these questions. Hence his most famous quotation: “cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”.

This was subsequently retooled as the “brain in a vat” argument, a definite precursor of the icky pods of The Matrix world.

Musk’s argument is that given the huge leap over less than 50 years between the crude Pong-style games of the 70s and the photo-realistic multi-player games of today, that it was inevitable that civilisation would create a simulated reality that was indistinguishable from reality. And if that was the case, it’s almost certain that that has already happened.

It’s closely related to the proposition put forward by Oxford professor Nick Bostrom in 2003. His argument suggested that there were logically three possibilities: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

But NYU’s Professor of Philosophy David Chalmers says there’s a key flaw in that argument: it assumes that we can simulate human consciousness.

“Take an average camera. It’s processing inputs, it’s producing images, but normally we wouldn't think that’s actually having any subjective experience.

“When we do it as humans, yeah sure when a bunch of complicated processes in the brain, but the most important thing is that its experienced - it feels like something from the inside.

“If it turns out that consciousness cannot be simulated then you could build all the simulations you like, but… it's just going to be some kind of zombie simulation.”
This simulation seems believable enough.
This simulation seems believable enough.

Professor Chalmers adds that we’ll never get solid proof that we’re not in a simulation – but that we could get proof if we ARE.

“Just say the simulators decide to turn the Sydney Harbour Bridge upside-down, with a giant message saying, ‘You are in a simulation, and here’s proof’, and they show you the source code, then we might have very strong evidence that we ARE in a simulation. Either that or we’re on some really good… some good drugs.”