Schrödinger’s Elon Musk

Are we living in a simulation? In various interviews, Elon Musk has famously stated that there is a one-in-a-billion chance that we are not living in a simulation. Turning that around, he is saying that we are almost certainly living in a made up universe. A hyper-realistic fantasy. He cites, among other things, the rapid increases in video game development, to show that given enough time, it should be possible to create a perfect simulation. And, if such a perfect simulation has been created, then it must be created time and time again.

Some people make light of this argument, and suggest that the idea that we are living in a simulation is, to put it kindly, ridiculous. After all the world, with its highs and lows, fits and foibles, successes and failures, would seem to imply that the game designers of our universe have thrown in an awful lot of mundane and ridiculous things to challenge the hapless members of this simulation. Who would do something like this. Besides, the world certainly feels real.

Is Elon Musk right? Is he wrong? That all depends on how you define right and wrong in this case. If you think about it for a moment, Elon Musk is wrong only in that he thinks our chances of not living in a simulation are one-in-a-billion. He’s both right and wrong. The fact is that we are all living in a simulation. There is absolutely zero chance that we are not.

Let me explain.

Every single one of us is an intelligence, however you wish to define intelligence, trapped inside that human brain of ours. From inside the confines of this flesh box, we do not see or experience the world as it really is, but as how we interpret it. The version of red or yellow that I see is not necessarily the version of red or yellow that you see. The angle from which I view the objects around me can never be the angle from which you view things around me. If I take a photograph, you aren’t seeing the object, but a version of the object that it is possible for me to share with you. No matter how we do this, I will always experience the world from my perspective and no one else’s.

Take someone who is colorblind. I am not colorblind, and so I see the full spectrum of colors that the world has to offer. Someone with color blindness will never get to observe the diverse and rich shades of blue and green that I experience. That said, I am also color blind. I know I said that I wasn’t. However, I mean that I am not color blind in the way we typically think of color blindness. There are animals on this planet capable of seeing into the infrared, or into the ultraviolet, both places where I can not go without the help of some technological mediation or support. Sure, with the right goggles, I can see things no other animal can see, but I’m not really seeing it. It’s just another simulation.

You may argue that I am splitting hairs here. After all, Elon Musk is arguing that our entire universe is simulated. However, the universe is only what we agree it is because we observe it to be something that we, as a group, have chosen to agree on, based on a shared set of descriptions. The observing serpent winds up eating its own tail. In the end, what we have done is agreed on a set of observations that may only have a one-in-a-billion chance of being wrong, but that is still open to the possibility of error.

The tree that falls in the forest without anyone to see it still falls. It still makes a sound and it still disturbs whatever other life is nearby. On some level, it impacts the rest of the universe. Just as algorithms have a defined set of properties, so it goes with the universe. When something happens, it sets off another chain of events and another. That doesn’t make it any more or less real because any observer will, by definition, be interpreting the event.

Simulating it. I’m sorry, but there’s no getting around it.

So what of the universe external to ourselves?

If you accept that we are all participants in our own simulations, then how we define reality becomes one of the greatest challenges of understanding what it means to be human in the first place.

Or alive.

Or real.

Am I wrong? Feel free to comment. In particular, feel free to share your personal interpretation of the facts as you experience them.

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