Welcome To Oz: Living In The Matrix

In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz we discover at the end that the events of the story are a dream from which Dorothy eventually wakes (this is different from the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum upon which the film was based.) We can empathise with Dorothy – when we look back on our dreams in the minutes after waking we are often amused at how ridiculous they are in retrospect but during the dream it all seemed perfectly logical.

Philosophers and Writers have long speculated about this inability to tell the difference between dreams and “reality”.

In the 4th Century BC, Zhuangzhi said:

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)

Zhuangzi could not know whether he really was Zhuangzi and not a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangz.

Descartes expanded on this with cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – explaining that all any of us can know is that we exist; nothing more. And the Brain in a Vat thought experiment considers the impossibility of knowing whether we are experiencing the Real World or some artificially induced view of the world.

In H.P Lovecraft’s short story, Polaris, the subject of the story awakes from a dream of guarding a city on a far off planet, only to realise with horror that it is this apparent reality which is the dream, he has fallen asleep at his post and the city’s enemies will now pass undetected.

And so on.

But recently another idea has begun to penetrate the public consciousness. The idea that we do not dwell in a physical universe but are, in fact, simulated beings in a highly-sophisticated virtual reality environment. We have already become used to this idea through the mediums of film, such as The Matrix series, or in novels and short stories by writers such as Greg Egan, a Computer Programmer turned Science Fiction Writer whose stories are centered around human-like consciousnesses inhabiting virtual worlds, or people whose brains have been replaced by sophisticated Quantum computers known as Qusps. But what many people don’t realise is that this idea is being seriously explored by modern philosophers, perhaps the most recent and best known of whom is Nick Bostrom, whose Simulation Argument rests on three propositions one of which, Bostrom argues, must be true:

“… at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

Most people who come across this argument dismiss it, believing the notion that we are living in a simulation is nonsense: “Of course it’s not a simulation. I can look around me, see the world, touch it, smell, taste, feel it. It seems pretty real to me.” But how can we be so sure? Our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – are as far as we know all relayed to us. We do not experience anything directly; the information from our senses is first filtered and interpreted by the brain. Those sensations could just as easily by artificially induced; like the Brain in the Vat, we have no way of knowing whether our experience is real or fed to us by sophisticated Virtual Reality software.

Consciousness: We find it hard to believe that a computer could be conscious. But why? Personally, I find it just as plausible that a lump of meat can be conscious – an opinion shared by the machines in Terry Besson’s short story They’re Made Out Of Meat. And many theorists and futurists point to the year 2045 as the most likely point when machine intelligence – that is, simulated intelligence – will finally equal and then begin to surpass our own.

We make a distinction between our normal conscious state and the unconscious state when we are asleep. But nobody can agree what consciousness is; neither Philosophers, Psychologists, Neuroscientists or anyone else. Some even suggest that consciousness doesn’t actually exist, and that what we experience as consciousness is an illusion.

Free Will: In a strictly rule-based simulation such as might be implemented on a computer, there would be no such thing as free will. Since everything comes from software operating according to predefined rules, then it follows that everything that happens will be predetermined (although it might not be knowable in advance). So since we have free will, we can’t be a simulation, right? Wrong. Time and time again, experiments to determine the extent of our free will have come to the same conclusion: we don’t have it. In his classic experiment, Benjamin Livet found that the decision to perform an action actually trailed behind the neurological impulses required to perform the action. In other words, his subjects decided to do something only after they had done it. Of course, there might be something wrong with the experimental setup, or the experimenters might have made some errors, but similar experiments have been performed many times and all with the same result.

I’d argue that we can’t know for sure that we are not part of a computer simulation. This does beg the question, though: how could we tell if we were? Some ideas.

Software bugs: What if we could find a fault in the software? In modern programming terms, perhaps we could discover a state which will put part of the program into an infinite loop, or cause a variable to overflow. Of course, we don’t know what this would look like until we try it, but perhaps we could keep an eye out for anything “out of the ordinary” which might be an indication that here is an area worthy of further exploration.

Easter Eggs: Computer programmers are notorious for adding what are known as “Easter Eggs” into software. In-jokes, extra (but usually non-useful) functions, handy tricks and so on. What if the programmers who created our simulated world added some easter eggs to our simulation?

There might be some clues already lurking, as you might expect, in the realm of the very small; I hardly dare say the phrase, but here goes – Quantum Physics:

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that we can’t know with any accuracy both the position and the momentum of a particle. Observation of one of these prevents any observation of the other. This strange phenomenon might be as a result of the programmers attempting to limit the amount of computer processing power required, similar to the way in which computer games only render information which is deemed necessary at a particular time. 3D games, for example, only calculate for display those parts of the virtual world the player can see.

The double-slit experiment has as it’s explanation a single, indivisible particle – a photon – being in two places at the same time. Unless the particle is “virtual” then it is hard to see how this is possible; and if the particles are virtual, doesn’t it follow that everything else that is made from those particles is also virtual? Aside: this odd result might just be the evidence of a software bug mentioned earlier.

In A Brief History Of Time and elsewhere, Stephen Hawking explains that there is nothing in the Laws of Physics which would prevent the universe working equally well if time ran in either direction. This rather odd-seeming result might suggest an entirely deterministic universe.


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