Elon Musk, boldly going where The Protestant Work Ethic sort of went before. / Heisenberg Media
Daniel Oberhaus,  August 19, 2016

Elon Musk, Fatalist

What we talk about when we talk about living in a simulation

Elon Musk, boldly going where The Protestant Work Ethic sort of went before. / Heisenberg Media


Odds are that you’ve heard by now that SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said something Totally Trippy at Recode’s Code conference earlier this summer. According to the darling of Silicon Valley, “the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions,” meaning that we are almost certainly operating in a computer simulation created by some far-future civilization. The thinking behind Musk’s supposition goes like this: only four decades ago our video games looked like Pong, and today we are playing photorealistic games that allow millions of people to play simultaneously. Even allowing for a far slower rate of technological progress, if you extend that trajectory ten thousand years into the future it’s not hard to imagine a simulation that is completely indistinguishable from reality. In fact, if Musk is right, it’s the reality you’re experiencing right now.

Musk’s off-the-cuff reply to a Code audience member quickly received nearly universal coverage in the popular press, and in the days that followed it became the statement that launched 10,000 thinkpieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of these thinkpieces (even the few that adopted a critical posture and attempted to prove that we are not in a simulation) entirely missed the fundamental message in Musk’s statements. Undergirding Musk’s vision of a simulated reality is a profound fatalism—a handy (and dangerous) philosophical stance for someone whose job it is to sell us the future in the form of Tesla automobiles, hyperloops, and tickets to Mars. And the critics were nowhere to be found.

Reality Bites?

The computer simulation theory sounds novel, but its basic premise actually comes from a rich philosophical tradition of investigating the nature of reality. While computer simulations may seem pretty far removed from Descartes and his seventeenth-century demons, a 2003 essay by a well-regarded philosopher named Nick Bostrom places the theory in precisely that philosophical lineage. Bostrom’s “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” argues that one of the following three propositions are true:

1. humans will go extinct before they have the technical capacity to create a hyper-realistic simulation.

2. an advanced civilization with the technical capacity to create a hyper-realistic historical simulation would be uninterested in doing so.

3. we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Although Bostrom recently went on record saying that “we don’t have strong enough evidence to rule out any of these three possibilities,” Musk’s decision to place billion-to-one odds on the third proposition is revealing. Given that there is not enough evidence to say that one among the three choices advanced by Bostrom are true, this means that Musk chose the third option and was motivated by something other than empirical evidence. At the Code conference, this decision was explained by way of “look how far we’ve come since Pong” logic, which is only logical insofar as it serves from Musk’s fundamentally fatalist outlook.

Fatalism is commonly thought of as an attitude of resignation in the face of some inevitable future, but a more philosophically rigorous formulation is that fatalism is the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. Fatalism is ultimately a stance on the nature of reality because what is “real” has a truth value—it is either true or false. In this sense, the past and present are real for non-fatalists because any statement you make about them is either true or false, but the future is unrealized—it is impossible to make a true or false statement about it because it can be changed. For fatalists, on the other hand, the past, present, and future are equally real—you can make true or false statements about all of them, irrespective of whether you can actually know these statements are true or false (the difference is important). This is why the fatalist can’t do other than what they actually do—if they could, then they wouldn’t be able to make these true or false statements.

The Soul of Man Under SpaceX

Take a deep breath, because things are about to get weird.

If we adopt Musk’s assertion on faith, then we are living in a computer simulation in which the simulated present is the year 2016. In base reality, the present year is 12016—that is the year in which the computer servers powering our simulation are operating. If the computer simulation is presently being run by a society in 12016, but we are experiencing the year as 2016 in the simulation, then our simulated reality would seem to be a product of the future even though the simulation is being run in the ‘real’ present (which is 12016). So for those existing in a simulation created by a future civilization (that’s you, me, and Musk), “the future” from our frame of reference is real by virtue of the fact that the simulation exists. If the future as understood by the sims is real (meaning that true or false statements can be made about 12016), then it is incapable of being changed by the sims. Another way to put this is that if the future is real, then the sims (us) are powerless to do anything other than what they actually do.

Where does all this videogame logic leave us? If we adopt Musk’s stance, then the past, present, and future for those living in the simulation are all equally real—and that is called fatalism. The past is real by virtue of the fact that the civilization in 12016 would need real history on which to base a historical simulation. The future is real by virtue of the fact that we are living in a simulation created by an advanced future society. Our present, which is both 2016 and 12016 depending on your point of view, is also real, even in the simulated case—you can make true or false statements about our (simulated) reality.

Interestingly, embracing the idea that we are living in a simulation requires those living in the simulation to adopt a fatalistic point of view. This is what Musk alluded to at the Code conference when he said “we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds, rather than among the original biological ones.” So the question is: who does Musk’s “rational” fatalism serve?

Fortunately, this problem was already addressed a century ago by Max Weber, albeit in a slightly different context. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber examined the link between the Protestant doctrines and the rise of western industrial capitalism. In this respect, the Calvinist notion of predestination is especially interesting.

Calvinist predestination is just one brand of theological fatalism, but according to Weber it was deployed to get workers to acquiesce to a dramatically changing social reality brought about by the rise of industrial capitalism for the benefit of the Protestant elite. Today, we are once again experiencing a dramatic shift in our social reality, this time brought about by the New Space Race and the fallout from climate change. Unsurprisingly, the champion of modern fatalism is also the person who will profit most from these changes, via Tesla automobiles and SpaceX rockets. And once again, it is the workers who must reorient their realities so they are in harmony with the visions of a space-age clergy.

For the nineteenth century Protestants, this reality reorientation was sustained through the promise of eternal salvation. Today, our reality recalibration is sustained through the promise of Martian colonies—a secular salvation, but with the same remoteness of heaven. For the Protestants, their salvation was foretold in Earthly wealth, and today it is much the same: those who are saved are those who can afford an $80,000 Tesla or a $500,000 ticket to Mars.

In Musk’s vision of our simulated reality, it is possible to see the ethics of Silicon Valley and the spirit of space age capitalism.

This is why Musk’s tacit advocacy of fatalism dressed up as the logical conclusion of a Totally Trippy thought experiment is actually dangerous and should be rejected. The technology that ushered in industrial capitalism was already around for the Calvinists—their struggle was a mental one to get people to accept the massive social changes engendered by these technologies. Likewise, Musk is already launching rockets to the space station and building Tesla infrastructure, but he too must wage the mental struggle that will allow the rest of us to accept a future created in his image.

By adopting a position in which we are all powerless to do anything other than what we do, both Musk and the consumer are absolved of responsibility. Moreover, by rejecting Bostrom’s other two options, Musk is implying that the human species won’t destroy itself through its own technological advancement (we made it to 12016, after all!) and that humans 10,000 years in the future will still want essentially the same things that humans today want—namely, hyper-realistic video games. This obviates the critical impulse necessary to reign in unfettered technological development (which would be bad for a guy in the business of unfettered technological development) and to reflect on what we actually do want.

Make no mistake: The man who said “fuck Earth” knows what you want. And he has it for sale.

Daniel Overhaus is a writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Popular Mechanics, Slate, Nautilus, VICE, The Awl, Motherboard, The Outline, and elsewhere.

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