I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Do you want to know what IT is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you were unable to wake from that dream. How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? – Morpheus – The Matrix (1999)
We all remember this movie with Keanu Reeves playing the role of a cyber messianic savior named “Neo.” The movie is basically about humanity and how it is imprisoned in a virtual reality by machines. People live in the world believing it to be real when if fact their bodies are in chambers or pods. Their brains are wired into a computer system that presents to them a reality that they sense as real but is really a simulation.
All this may sound like mere science fiction that is meant to entertain; however, there seems to be some truth to this. Physicists have recently published a study indicating that the universe might be a computer program, or a simulation. This idea is not new. Philosophers for centuries have contemplated what is real. Greek Philosophers such as the Atomists believed that the universe was a machine running on mechanisms. Others believed that this mechanism was a “Logos” or a conscious order. As metaphysics developed, they came up with more ideas such as monism and dualism. Moreover, thought experiments such as the “Brain in a Vat” idea have been used to try to make sense of what is reality.
Brain in a Vat
The “Brain in a Vat” basically is the idea that we are not really bodies, but rather, brains in a vat that are connected to machines. The machine sends signals to our brains that stimulate all kinds of sensations and the illusion of “reality.” The brain perceives these sensations as reality and cannot tell the difference. It is like living in a dream and not knowing whether that dream is reality or not.
In the Matrix film, this is pretty much what is going on. The brain is connected to a simulator. “Neo” in the movie is living in a simulation set in 1999. In reality, his real body and brain that is connected to the simulator is living in 2199. “Neo” could not truly find this truth out until he is unplugged from the Matrix and slowly begins to adjust his real senses by using his real body allowing him to perceive real things for the first time.
The truth is, we can today’s technology stimulate the brain into perceiving things that are not real. Drugs do this all the time. High levels of EMF waves also cause hallucinations. Neuroscientists can easily make someone talk, think something, feel something just by stimulating the part of the brain that controls said activity. In the future, it might be possible to preserve brains and keep them working with computers, or even upload one’s existence into a hard drive. The brain in this environment will sense what it thinks is reality due to the stimulation from a computer. The brain would be deluded, but nonetheless, will perceive everything as real.
The Matrix Hypothesis
Philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Chalmers are well known for proposing the thought experiment that reality is a simulation. Chalmer writes:
“We can imagine that a matrix stimulated the entire physics of a world, keeping track of every last particle throughout space and time. An envatted being will be associated with a particular simulated body. A connection is arranged so that whenever this body receives sensory inputs inside the simulation, the envatted cognitive system will receive sensory inputs of the same sort. When the envatted cognitive system produced motor outputs, corresponding outputs will be fed to the motor organs of the simulated body.”
Basically what Chalmers is stating here is that a matrix program would dictate to our brains how to perceive reality. Every particle, every sensation is programmed to a specific degree allowing the person to experience life within this simulation even though it is merely an illusion.
“… you exist in a virtual reality simulated in a computer built by some advanced civilization. Your brain, too, is merely a part of that simulation.”
He goes on to describe the scenario of why a simulation would be needed. He hypothesizes that an advance civilization that is about to go extinct would want to preserve itself via a simulation. However, a simulation that can run a seemingly realistic world and at the same time handle the cognitive abilities of its race would need a computer capable of processing all that information.
This is indeed true. I’m sure many of you have had your computers slow down while loading a video, or doing things with graphics. This is because the processor and memory of your computer does not have the resources to work with the data quick enough. Our own brains slow down when we try to process too much as well. For example, our attenuator can only focus on one stimulus at a time. Imagine being in a room with many people talking at once. Someone approaches you and talks to you and at the same time you try to listen to everyone else. The brain cannot sort all this information out so it will “slow down” and only focus on the stimulus that is more intelligible; which would be the person who approached you and is speaking. That being said, it is logical to conclude that a computer that would generate a simulation and at the same time power our cognitive abilities would need a really powerful processor and infinite memory source. Chalmers presents some hypotheses regarding reality – whether it is a simulation or not. He presents the Creation Hypothesis first.
The Creation Hypothesis
According to Chalmers, “Physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time.” In other words, everything was made by beings that are not part of our universe. This view is pretty much adopted by many religions. Some believe many beings created the universe while others believe it was only one being. These beings are not part of the universe, but exist outside of it. Chalmers adds another twist, “Perhaps our world was created by a relatively ordinary being in the “next universe up.” Here he is suggesting that maybe an advanced being that exists in a higher universe may have created our universe using technology available in his/her/it’s realm. This idea touches on the Multiverse model which presents the idea that there are many universes. These universes are “bubbles” floating that sometimes slam into each other or unite with each other just like sometimes bubbles collide and become a bigger bubble. Some physics have suggested the “Big Splat” theory which states that our universe may have been created when two larger universes bumped each other causing the “Big Bang” at the point of collision that would create our universe. Others such as, astronomer Seth Shostak state: “it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe.”
The Computational Hypothesis
In this Hypothesis, Chalmers presents the idea that maybe the universe is run by a complex algorithmic substratum. In other words, the universe may be the product of an operating system running in the background of a computer. Everything that we perceive as reality, is nothing more than a “Sims”game on someone’s computer or just an unconscious computational structure. Chalmer writes:
“These bits are governed by a computation algorithm, which at a higher level produces the processes that we think of as fundamental particles, forces, and so on.”
This algorithm would be something similar to “Conway’s Game of Life” which is a program created by Jim Conway showing square “cells” replicating, moving, “living,” and dying on a orthogonal grid.
The Mind-Body Hypothesis
In this hypothesis, Chalmers suggests that the mind exists outside of space and time. This is touching a bit upon Descartes who believed in dualism. The mind exists outside of space and time, but the perception and stimuli it receives originate from a realm in the physical space-time. This idea would be similar to the idea of an immaterial soul that interacts with the physical realm manipulating it. The soul would be the “psyche” or mind that controls/manipulates the body and whatever it touches -both which are physical.
The idea of the soul has been under attack from some philosophers and neuroscientists who believe that it does not exist. According to them. the mind is merely a brain with synapses and nothing more. When the brain dies, the mind goes with it and does not live on in some immaterial realm.
The Combination Hypothesis and Metaphysical Hypothesis
This hypothesis is basically a combination of the aforementioned. It posits that we exist due to creators that exist outside of space and time, reality is a program, and our minds are immaterial yet manipulate the physical realm. This hypothesis brings about the “Metaphysical Hypothesis” which adds more focus on the idea that reality is merely a simulation and physicalism is merely an illusion generated by a computer program designed by a creator or creators. This is where the “Matrix Hypothesis” eventually grows from.
Solipsism has presented similar ideas for quite some time. The issue is tricky. We have two ways of looking at it. Are we merely brains in a vat and that brain exists or are we complete simulations – nothing more than codes in a program?
- Are we really real?
- Do we have bodies or are we just brains hooked up to a computer that feeds our brains a simulation which we call “reality?”
- What if every one is part of a simulation and no one is real?
- What if both our brains and bodies are a simulation?
- How can I be a simulation, or a brain in a vat?
- How can I exist and the world be just an algorithmic code running in the background?
- Who programmed us or created the program?
- Who has our brains in a vat?
Well it’s about to get a whole lot complicated now that evidence exists that we might indeed be part of a simulation. The universe as we know it may be a giant computer game running on someone’s desktop. I’m sure some of you reading this may have played the “Sims” game where one can mold characters, give or take free will and create homes for these characters. The characters can even be set up to interact with other characters in order to create relationships or animosity Moreover, there is “SimCity,” which is a game where one can create cities with people. Recently, with the advancement in internet technology and gaming, console makers such as Playstation, Nintendo and Xbox have created cyber worlds in which users can interact with each other in cyberspace as a “Mii,” or cyber projection of oneself. There is also “Grand Theft Auto,” which runs on a simulation where a main character interacts with a city environment. Other characters are often duplicated, such as the police in “Vice City” who all look the same. This is due to the lack of processing resources the Playstation has in allowing diversity of artificially intelligent distinct characters.
“Given the significant resources invested in determining the quantum
fluctuations of the fundamental fields which permeate our universe, and in calculating
nuclei from first principles, it stands to reason that future
simulation efforts will continue to extend to ever-smaller pixelations and ever-larger volumes of space-time, from the femto-scale to the atomic scale, and ultimately to macroscopic scales. If there are sufficient HPC resources available, then future scientists will likely make the effort to perform complete simulations of molecules, cells, humans and even beyond.”
Very interesting right? If we are indeed part of a computer simulation, then logic dictates that this simulation has a creator or creators as Chalmers mentions in the Creation Hypothesis. Programs cannot generate themselves. No operating system, word processing program, or video game can create or program itself. These need an intelligent person to program them and bring them into existence. This would explain the “fine tuning” we perceive as being present in the universe. Everything in our universe is set up in such as way to allow its existence and for the creation and sustenance of life. This “programming” allows for the Anthropic principle which originates from physicist and mathematician Brandon Carter. The Anthropic Principle presents the idea that the universe is structured in such a way to allow the human being and life in general to exist. All the functions and happenings of the universe are geared to creating and maintaining life. The universe does not exist merely to exist, but it seems to have a purpose.
Moreover, notice how it was physicists who created these simulated universes that the paper expounds on. These physicists are conscious intelligent human beings. They are not unconscious nor unintelligent. If our universe is a simulation, then the same parameters would follow in regards to causality as in with the creation of the simulation on a physicist’s computer. If the causation and maintenance of the simulated universes in the study were dependent on the intelligence and skills of a conscious living human physicist; and if our very own universe is a simulation, then logic dictates that our very own universe has an intelligent conscious cosmic “physicist” that created our existence and maintains it as a simulation.
I remember this idea being discussed in a philosophy course taught by Professor Massimo Pigliucci who is a well known academic, naturalist atheist and blogger on Rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com. Dr. Pigliucci is a Biologist as well as a Philosopher. He stated in the course that there is a possibility that reality is a simulation. He used the example of the nose and the finger and the “deception” involved in regards to how the brain interprets the sensations of both. When we touch our nose, we feel the nose and the nose feels the finger.
According to Pigliucci, the signal takes 200 milliseconds to reach the brain from the finger to the brain than the nose to the brain which happens instantly. In other words, the nose and finger are not feeling at the same time. The perception of the nose by the finger should take longer than the nose’s perception of the finger due to the distance it would take the signal to reach the brain. Furthermore, Pigliucci stated, “The simulator would be God who would make rules and can shut it (program/simulation) down, or change rules (miracles).”
The idea that the universe is a simulation was one of the factors that led me to leave atheism. The more we learn about how this universe works and use computers to create universes that act exactly as ours, the more we will start to realize that this universe does have a creator. If the universe is a program or a simulation, then there is no way that this program could have come about from an unconscious agent. To date, organisms with consciousness have been the only ones capable of intelligent thought, creativity and the ability to manipulate matter, energy and even go against it per se. There is no evidence that the universe is a product of an unconscious unintelligent agent. The claims of atheism are extremely weak in regards to the ultimate causality of the universe.
The study of the universe as a simulation is interesting indeed, as well as the thought experiments of Chalmers and Bostrom. They attempt to add to the ideas religions have always posited since man first learned to rationalize. Simulations cannot create themselves. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that if this universe is indeed a simulation, then it has a simulator who programmed it with specific parameters allowing for the sustenance of life and maintenance of the cosmos.