A couple of people have written to me asking me to say something about Elon Musk’s simulation argument.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a verbatim quote from Musk about his argument, and I’ve seen a couple of slightly different arguments presented as being what Musk said. So I’m not really going to focus so much on Musk, but instead, just going to try to take the basic simulation argument, and talk about what’s wrong with it from a mathematical perspective.
The argument isn’t really all that new. I’ve found a couple of sources that attribute it to a paper published in 2003. That 2003 paper may have been the first academic publication, and it might have been the first to present the argument in formal terms, but I definitely remember discussing this in one of my philophy classes in college in the late 1980s.
Here’s the argument:
- Any advanced technological civilization is going to develop massive computational capabilities.
- With immense computational capabilities, they’ll run very detailed simulations of their own ancestors in order to understand where they came from.
- Once it is possible to run simulations, they will run many of them to explore how different parameters will affect the simulated universe.
- That means that advanced technological civilization will run many simulations of universes where their ancestors evolved.
- Therefore the number of simulated universes with intelligent life will be dramatically larger than the number of original non-simulated civilizations.
If you follow that reasoning, then the odds are, for any given form of intelligent life, it’s more likely that they are living in a simulation than in an actual non-simulated universe.
As an argument, it’s pretty much the kind of crap you’d expect from a bunch of half drunk college kids in a middle-of-the-night bullshit session.
Let’s look at a couple of simple problems with it.
The biggest one is a question of size and storage. The heart of this argument is the assumption that for an advanced civilization, nearly infinite computational capability will effectively become free. If you actually try to look at that assumption in detail, it’s not reasonable.
The problem is, we live in a quantum universe. That is, we live in a universe made up of discrete entities. You can take an object, and cut it in half only a finite number of times, before you get to something that can’t be cut into smaller parts. It doesn’t matter how advanced your technology gets; it’s got to be made of the basic particles – and that means that there’s a limit to how small it can get.
Again, it doesn’t matter how advanced your computers get; it’s going to take more than one particle in the real universe to simulate the behavior of a particle. To simulate a universe, you’d need a computer bigger than the universe you want to simulate. There’s really no way around that: you need to maintain state information about every particle in the universe. You need to store information about everything in the universe, and you need to also have some amount of hardware to actually do the simulation with the state information. So even with the most advanced technology that you can possible imagine, you can’t possible to better than one particle in the real universe containing all of the state information about a particle in the simulated universe. If you did, then you’d be guaranteeing that your simulated universe wasn’t realistic, because its particles would have less state than particles in the real universe.
This means that to simulate something in full detail, you effectively need something bigger than the thing you’re simulating.
That might sound silly: we do lots of things with tiny computers. I’ve got an iPad in my computer bag with a couple of hundred books on it: it’s much smaller than the books it simulates, right?
The “in full detail” is the catch. When my iPad simulates a book, it’s not capturing all the detail. It doesn’t simulate the individual pages, much less the individual molecules that make up those pages, the individual atoms that make up those molecules, etc.
But when you’re talking about perfectly simulating a system well enough to make it possible for an intelligent being to be self-aware, you need that kind of detail. We know, from our own observations of ourselves, that the way our cells operates is dependent on incredibly fine-grained sub-molecular interactions. To make our bodies work correctly, you need to simulate things on that level.
You can’t simulate the full detail of a universe bigger that the computer that simulates it. Because the computer is made of the same things as the universe that it’s simulating.
There’s a lot of handwaving you can do about what things you can omit from your model. But at the end of the day, you’re looking at an incredibly massive problem, and you’re stuck with the simple fact that you’re talking, at least, about building a computer that can simulate an entire planet and its environs. And you’re trying to do it in a universe just like the one you’re simulating.
But OK, we don’t actually need to simulate the whole universe, right? I mean, you’re really interested in developing a single species like yourself, so you only care about one planet.
But to make that planet behave absolutely correctly, you need to be able to correctly simulate everything observable from that planet. Its solar system, you need to simulate pretty precisely. The galaxy around it needs less precision, but it still needs a lot of work. Even getting very far away, you’ve got an awful lot of stuff to simulate, because your simulated intelligences, from their little planet, are going to be able to observe an awful lot.
To simulate a planet and its environment with enough precision to get life and intelligence and civilization, and to do it at a reasonable speed, you pretty much need to have a computer bigger than the planet. You can cheat a little bit, and maybe abstract parts of the planet; but you’ve got to do pretty good simulations of lots of stuff outside the planet.
It’s possible, but it’s not particularly useful. Because you need to run that simulation. And since it’s made up of the same particles as the things it’s simulating, it can’t move faster than the universe it simulates. To get useful results, you’d need to build it to be massively parallel. And that means that your computer needs to be even larger – something like a million times bigger.
If technology were to get good enough, you could, in theory, do that. But it’s not going to be something you do a lot of: no matter how advanced technology gets, building a computer that can simulate an entire planet and its people in full detail is going to be a truly massive undertaking. You’re not going to run large numbers of simulations.
You can certainly wave you hands and say that the “real” people live in a universe without the kind of quantum limit that we live with. But if you do, you’re throwing other assumptions out the window. You’re not talking about ancestor simulation any more. And you’re pretending that you can make predictions based on our technology about the technology of people living in a universe with dramatically different properties.
This just doesn’t make any sense. It’s really just techno-religion. It’s based on the belief that technology is going to continue to develop computational capability without limit. That the fundamental structure of the universe won’t limit technology and computation. Essentially, it’s saying that technology is omnipotent. Technology is God, and just as in any other religion, it’s adherents believe that you can’t place any limits on it.