Skip to content

The Yin And Yang Of Elon Musk

2016 June 5
by Greg Satell

At the Code Conference last week, Elon Musk had a wide ranging interview about everything from who he thinks will compete with Tesla in self-driving cars to neural laces that will augment human intelligence and his plans for space travel. But the thing that caught my eye was his assertion that we all are  might be living in a computer simulation.

It’s a fantastical idea, to be sure. So much so that it makes you wonder whether to actually take him seriously. Could it be that he actually believes that we’re nothing more than a set of bits in someone else’s computer game? If so, then can he really be trusted to run billion dollar enterprises?

By all appearances, Musk is dead serious about the possibility that we’re living in a computer simulation. And while it is, of course, an utterly impractical and illogical idea, computer technology itself was born out of an illogical idea. It is, in fact, people like Elon Musk, who are able to take a rational approach to utterly improbable ideas, that end up creating the future.

Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?

Ezra Klein at Vox wrote up a more detailed explanation of Elon Musk’s idea, but here it is in a nutshell: Look at how video games are progressing and it seems possible that sometime in the future there will be simulations so advanced that they will become indistinguishable from reality. If so, then how can we know that we’re not living in one?

Musk himself described it this way:

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

Tell me what’s wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?

It’s a fascinating thought experiment and an amazing window into how Musk’s mind works. He is simply willing to entertain ideas that few other people will. That, combined with the ability to come up with incredibly creative solutions to problems and no small amount of tenacity, explains how he has been able to build companies like Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.

Yet I think he gets a little bit over his skis at the end of his description when he asserts that the argument is flawless. It does have a flaw and it is a very basic one.

Begging The Question

The flaw in Musk’s argument is a very common informal fallacy known as begging the question, in which the conclusion is assumed within the premises. The odds that we are living in a simulation are only billions to one because Musk is assuming that there are advanced civilizations running very complex and realistic simulations.

This is similar to the “everybody knows” type of argument, such as “everybody knows that electric car companies can’t be profitable, therefore Tesla will never be profitable.” The conclusion is only true because it’s already assumed it in the premise. It’s a circular argument. The fact that I’m making it says nothing about Tesla’s ability to make money.

To be clear, I have incredible admiration for Elon Musk and all that he’s accomplished. Further, I think the thought experiment about whether we’re living in a computer simulation to be fascinating and worthwhile (you can find an extended version of it here). Still, Musk asked the question, so I am answering it.

Yet I also think that Musk’s ability to make such an argument and run billion dollar companies says a lot about him and his ability to entertain unlikely, even flawed ideas.

Science And Pseudoscience

Another problem with Musk’s computer simulation idea is that he is engaging in pseudoscience. By that I mean that he is speaking in a language that sounds a lot like science, developing a hypothesis, quantifying it and so on, but is really anything but. For something to qualify as science, it has to be falsifiable.

So, if Musk was able to propose an experiment that could prove or disprove the hypothesis that we are really living in a computer simulation, then his thinking could be called scientific. However, that’s clearly impossible. Any experiment we could devise would also be part of the simulation.

That’s why pseudoscience is a favorite ploy of conspiracy theorists and cranks. It allows them to use fancy words and expound on wild theories, but never requires them to state their hypothesis in a falsifiable way. We can’t prove that space aliens, paranormal behavior and psychic powers don’t exist, so it’s relatively easy for flim flam artists to make a case for them.

But that gets things exactly backwards. The burden of proof is always on the person who is making the proposition. Einstein, to take just one example, made a number of wild assertions, but also suggested experiments that would prove them true or false. That’s the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Yet clearly, Elon Musk is no crank.

A Rational Approach To Crazy Ideas

Yes, the computer simulation idea is a little bit strange, but in many ways, it’s no stranger than starting a space exploration company, investing in electric cars in 2004 or dreaming up a completely new mode of mass transportation. Being willing to entertain crazy ideas is one of the things that makes him such an outstanding entrepreneur.

Yet in his business life, Musk seems almost coldly rational. He doesn’t just spout off crazy ideas, he makes them work. He calculates, strategizes and plans. His businesses, in a sense, are experiments set up to falsify his own notions. That’s how he keeps himself honest. Whatever is not disproven, tends to become wildly successful.

It is that same Yin and Yang of Elon Musk that makes him so extraordinary. He is able to entertain unlikely ideas, while at the same time examining them under a rigorous analytical lens. Just because an idea is unlikely, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It just means that it is inconsistent with the facts as we know them today.

So, maybe we are, in fact, living in a computer simulation in some advanced civilization’s version of an Xbox.  In which case, we’d have to assume that whomever is playing the Elon Musk character must have found some excellent cheat codes.

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Alejandro Segura permalink
    June 5, 2016

    The Matrix?

  2. Stefan Bielski permalink
    June 5, 2016

    While he popularized it, Musk isn’t responsible for “dreaming up” the Hyperloop (except perhaps the name).

  3. June 7, 2016

    Great post Greg! 🙂
    Thank you for linking to the interview, it is fascinating to see how Elon thinks. He truly has a brain that works in a different way, it is quite fascinating. It reminded me a little bit of Sheldon. He is incredibly smart and at the same time seems to be disconnected from reality a bit.
    I agree it is fascinating he is able to entertain and logically analyze such possibilities like if we live in a computer simulation. I agree with you that there is a fallacy in the argument. From a Bayesian inference point of view I think he is focusing only on the likelihood and forgetting about the prior.
    It makes sense that the likelihood that we are in a simulation vs base reality is billions to one. However we have to then multiply by the prior probability for the assumptions, which mainly are that there is only one base reality and that there are only two types of possible universes (simulations and base reality).
    Whatever probability you give to these assumptions (e.g. 10%), will dominate what you get for the posterior.
    Thanks again for the post!

  4. June 7, 2016

    Interesting perspective. I had not thought of looking at it from a Bayesian point of view.


    – Greg

  5. June 7, 2016


  6. June 7, 2016

    Good point Stefan. I honestly had never heard that.

    – Greg

  7. Mike Breeden permalink
    June 12, 2016

    This is a great question that brings up enormous issues, moral issues, the hardest kind to understand.
    One is a huge moral issue of just creating something like this world as a simulation, because as far as we are concerned, it is creating life… our life. What is the morality of its creation and creator?
    What does this mean to the morality of those that inhabit this world or simulation?
    The real question though is why would it happen. Elon Musk says this must be a simulation, because of probability. Well, that’s enough of a cop out that a lot of people are discarding the idea for that reason. (By the way, David Brin has an alternative reasoning to this… I heckled him a bit about it and got him to agree there was no way to prove that I was not a time traveler. Very funny that.)

    OK, he doesn’t offer much except a possibility he says he thinks is likely. Ca we do better than that? What if you could answer the moral questions and the “why” that he mostly ignored? You need to if you want to make any useful sense of the issue.

    I have studied rather obsessively for over four decades to solve the problem of how humans can survive into the future. The answer lies on a number of levels. Mostly I say we need to create a new stable ecology to replace the one we left. We need to adapt to that genetically and strategically. I solved the genetic problem long ago, but that leaves the strategic problem. Those are tougher.
    Some of that strategy is going to be technical, how to provide resources such as energy and food. It keeps getting tougher… If you had all the resources needed for survival, you would start seeing the other problems that would remain. A lot of the problems can be solved using science. Some cannot, so the next stop is philosophy. Leave it at that I solved most of those problems – that’s good for a book, but still when you solve the problems that philosophy can solve, you are still left with the hardest problems like “why” and they can only be solved with morality. Recently I finally cracked that one… Admittedly I am coming from a point of view of fascination, because solving that has allowed me to understand the last and most subtle questions of human nature and survival that I have been able to recognize as being needed to describe how humans can survive long term. Really, how many people can tell you how philosophy effects survival? Sure, people that think that way also know that morality is a fantastically important subject, but ask them if they understand what morality is, let alone describe human morality. What morality is remains hugely up to debate (though not to me, it is learned survival strategies). So pardon me if I think I’ve gone somewhere new and created an understanding that allows me to recognize, understand and judge moral issues…

    Back to Mr. Musk and the three questions that need to be solved. Lets start with “why” or maybe blend it together a bit. I think that is the first place someone looking at that is going to draw a blank. Mr. Musk offers no reason, just as Mr. Kurzweil offers no reason for the creation of the singularity other that it is going to happen (another problem of mine). So is this universe someone’s video game? That sounds awfully unsatisfying and morally edgy. Would it be morally correct even for some super advanced being to casually create a world, to create life? [[It also brings up a moral issue that I would postulate that Mr. Musk was a bit irresponsible throwing that idea out, as somebody is going to go postal and claim “well it’s just a simulation, there is no moral milieu to it, so no right or wrong”. ]] The “why” then must be answered in regards to the creator and creation. I have long pondered the meaning and importance of morality. I have long known the importance of morality, even if my understanding of it was limited. I’ve always asked the question of how can you teach morality with out endangering the person’s life. The things is, that is what morality is, making life and death decisions. Well, I know we are developing a highly advanced society and that includes wealth… it’s part of what we are working for. I also know how corrupting wealth is. It already kills a lot of people and makes a lot more stupid. The more we make an advanced civilization, the more we are insulated from making life and death decisions, a skill that is critically important to moral development and survival. Also, we are really adapted to s fairly simple environment compared to even what exists today, let alone what we are developing. The learning curve is already very challenging and is going to keep getting worse. Sew… what about making a virtual reality where our children can learn basic moral skills. Heck, my nephew learned about fraud in EverQuest, but we need far more sophisticated knowledge than that and this present “world” appears quite oddly suited to that. It is a unique time of change and variation, where any choice is possible. Live off the grid or live on Wall Street, live a life of religion or a life of crime. It’s amazingly available.

    Well, that might answer the “why” and the morality of the creators of the virtual reality. Like all morality it is about survival of the individual and the group. So what about the morality of the inhabitants? That would mean that their job is to get a moral education. Wow! This suddenly, if quite reasonably (I think) sounds like the story told by religion.

    May I add, I hope to soon start writing a book that will allow a broader understanding of human morality in its many forms. I don’t think anyone has cracked that nut yet, but I think I have got it… The purpose of science is to answer questions and create understanding. I like to solve the questions that science cannot.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS