The video has received over 277,000 views since uploaded on September 6.
It wasn’t the first time Musk has made this claim. In this video he says there’s only a one in “billions” chance we’re in “base reality.” Here‘s another video of him saying it. He is in good company – astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has made the same claim.
How did Musk come to this conclusion? He doesn’t give any explanation of his own in these videos. Rather, he and deGrasse Tyson seem (The New Yorker) to be relying on a famous argument from the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who in 2003 published a paper in The Philosophical Quarterly called, “Are you living in a computer simulation?” (Read it here)
Bostrom argued there are three possibilities:
(1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero
(2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero
(3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
Bostrom concludes that because we do not know which of these is true, we ought to treat them as equally likely and only under the last possibility are we almost certainly in a simulation.
“In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).”
By “credence,” philosophers simply mean “strength of belief.” Bostrom also enumerates some assumptions he relies on, such as the assumption that consciousness can be implemented on non-biological systems (i.e., computer chips) for his argument.
Here’s Bostrom giving a brief overview of the argument.
Under Bostrom’s simulation argument, there is a “sensible” possibility of roughly one-third (relying on some assumptions about the nature of consciousness) that we are living in a simulation. That’s probably much higher than many people would be comfortable believing but it’s far from certainty. In other interviews, Bostrom has said that he thinks it is less than a third.
Musk likely ignored the first two possibilities in order to make his conclusion that we are in a simulation.