Dear Elon Musk: Nick Bostram Is Messing With You

Posted on 2016 June 5


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If realistic simulations of the universe are possible, then there would very quickly be far more simulations of reality than actual reality. Without any reason to assume we’re in reality rather than a simulation, the chances of us randomly happening to be in the one option among billions that isn’t fake is billions to one. — Alex Hern

If you’re not inside … you’re outside. —

[An open letter to Elon Musk]

Dear Mr. Musk:

Thank you for all your contributions to humankind — among them Paypal, the Tesla electric car, Powerwall batteries for homes, the Hyperloop, reusable rockets, and your planned voyage to Mars. These accomplishments are astounding and marvelous. I salute you.

I wanted to discuss a problem in cosmology, one that — according to news sources — has been troubling you. It has bothered me, too.

Back in the day, theologians would construct elaborate arguments for the existence of God. The God who rules the Universe. The God who created us. The God who must exist because of this, that, or the other reason.

The problem with these theories was that they were untestable. How can you get outside the Universe to find out if you’re right and God is really there? All these arguments suffer from what Karl Popper called the flaw of being “unfalsifiable”: you can’t run a scientific test to find out if they’re right or wrong. Thus, they’re moot.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Well, first, ya gotta find those tiny angels. Good luck with that.

Lately there’s a new theory that “proves” we’re all probably inside a computer. As you know, this Simulation hypothesis was developed by philosopher Nick Bostrom. As I understand it, the theory goes roughly like this:

We’re in a universe that may contain flawless computer simulations of conscious beings who live their lives unaware they’re inside those simulations. Our universe would likely evolve to the point where there are vastly more beings inside simulations than outside them. Therefore the odds are overwhelming that we also are inside one of those simulations.

Cool idea. Even you, Mr. Musk, take this notion seriously enough that you have had “so many simulation discussions it’s crazy.

Not to throw water on all the fun, but Bostrom’s notion suffers from two serious flaws: (1) it’s unfalsifiable, and (2) it’s illogical on its face.

Let’s walk through it. If we’re in a universe that contains computerized simulations of people going about their business, and we count up the number of such possible simulations, and we determine that most conscious beings must be inside such simulations, the only thing we’ve demonstrated … (are you there yet? You’re extremely smart and can probably see this coming) … is that we’re outside any such simulation! Why? Because we started with the assumption that we’re outside them in order to count them!

Let’s put it another way:

Assume “A”, that we’re outside the simulations, adding them up. We then discover “B”, that most conscious beings must be inside simulations; therefore, we conclude “not A” — that we’re probably not outside the simulations.

But if we assume “A” and get “not A”, our chain of reasoning contains a flaw. And the flaw is this: we can’t be outside the simulations counting them and at the same time be inside one of them!

Bostrom’s logic is like saying, “Nearly all humans on Earth have much less money than I do. I’m a human. Therefore, the odds are overwhelming that I, myself have less money than I do.”

It gets worse. If you were inside a simulation, you’d start out by believing it was “the universe”. Later you decide your “universe” contains so many zillions of beings inside simulations that the odds were overwhelming that you, too, must be inside one of them. In effect, you’d be arguing that your simulation contains simulations, and you’re inside one of the contained ones, which in turn must contain its own simulations, and so on, in an infinite regress of simulations inside simulations inside simulations. You’d be trapped in an Alice-in-Wonderland nightmare.


(In a way, this puzzle is as tough to think about as the Monty Hall Problem. Remember, from the TV game show “Let’s Make a Deal”? It’s a doozy of a brainteaser that has publicly flummoxed even the pros.)

What Bostrom has managed to point out is that it’s possible we’re inside a simulation. Beyond that, he’s basically trying to construct a “Proof of God.” And, as we’ve seen, there’s no way to test such an idea. (That is, of course, unless Bostrom can find signs that our digital overlords have left a coding error for us to find, like the cat in the film The Matrix that walked past a door twice from the same direction.)

… I’ve got an alternate theory. When you “assume ‘A’ and get ‘not A’”, you’re doing a first-year logic problem. As a philosopher with a PhD, Nick Bostrom must know his argument has fatal flaws. Therefore he must be messing with us. And you, Mr. Musk, should call him on it. Tell him, “Ha-ha, Nick, you’ve pulled a fast one on us! I get the joke! Funny.”

Is my theory about Dr. Bostrom correct? Well … at least it’s falsifiable.


Jim Hull

(PS: If you really want to go down the Rabbit Hole, consider the possibility that your entire life is a dream.)