A few days ago, Mr. Elon Musk shared the idea that we are all uploads in a virtual world. It’s not a new concept, of course. From the movie “Matrix” (1999) the idea has become part of a common understanding in the sci-fi panorama. The existence of a simulated reality, or a simulated existence, has been postulated by philosophers (i.e. Nick Bostrom) or futurists (e.g. Hans Moravec).
Musk is something different. His name is associated with bright ideas and successful business (Tesla electric cars, SpaceX program), he’s one of a kind – a modern version of Thomas Edison. In a world heavily influenced by the media, his statements are something to be considered.
The whole concept of a super simulation system is quite interesting, but the realization of such system is something far beyond our current level of technology. Following this consideration, there has to be a different origin of this simulation. Aliens? A far more advanced group of humans? God-like machines? All the hypothesis are open and every answer could be nothing more than a speculation since our collective position in such a simulation will prevent us to physically demonstrate the existence of this system.
The simulation scenario itself is the latest manifestation of the ”brain-in-a-vat” concept, theorized in the ‘80s by Hilary Putman. The difference is in the scale, but the basic elements were all there. At the same time, the simulation is also an allegory for the use of semiotics in the modern era. When it’s not possible to understand what’s real and what’s not, reality became a concept that could be manipulated.
In his statement, Elon Musk did not provide us the basis of his hypothesis, so it’s impossible to state the reasons why he told us about it. For what we know this simulation is nothing but a modern myth, maybe a projection of all the fears that are in existence about technology. It could be our version of Frankenstein (dubbed as “modern Prometheus” by its creator, Mary Shelley), a tale for the years of industrial automation and omnipresent devices. Frankenstein was about the artificial creation of life and the fear of the unknown territories, the simulation is about the loss of control of our lives and the fear of a world that become too complicated for us.
The basic argument against the existence of a simulation system is not focused on technology but on the moral basis. Why all the pain, the wars, the injustice anywhere? Of course, there’s no real answer for such a question, I like to quote a character from the Matrix franchise, The Architect:
The first Matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect, it was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being. Thus, I redesigned it based on your history to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature.
The contrast between the hi-tech entrepreneur and the believer in a modern myth shows the human side of Elon Musk. Maybe this is the reason why such a statement has been generally accepted and widely diffused, a sign of eccentricity in a genius. On the other side, it could be nothing more than an elaborate prank. A social experiment from a man who knows better than any other how it’s easy to manipulate the social media.