We’re in the Matrix… dude.

The Matrix, one good movie disgraced by two awful sequels. It’s an interesting idea, but what does it have to do with astrobiology?

Well actually quite a bit, or a little bit, it depends on how convinced you are. It also has implications for time travel n’ stuff. And besides, how do you know you aren’t living in a virtual world right now…

Humans are enslaved and live in a virtual world that is so realistic we don’t know any different. Kind of a cool idea for a film but not very likely in reality? Maybe, its probably more likely we’d do it voluntarily, in some ways we already are living in virtual worlds.

The notion of being trapped inside an artificial reality is such a cool idea; it’s actually way older than the Matrix films. When Rene Descartes was musing on the difference between the body and the mind, he stated that he could be trapped in the laboratory of an evil daemon, who had ensnared him in a false reality which his mind perceived to be the real world, sound familiar? In Plato’s Republic he talked about a cave in which people had been imprisoned since birth, mistakenly perceiving shadows cast on the cave’s wall by objects outside as the real world. OK, it’s not quite as close as Descartes’ scenario, but it’s the same idea of being trapped in a false conception of reality. Even older traditions have explored a similar idea, Buddhists have a history of questioning the nature of reality, and one of my friends’ who is Hindu regularly claims the idea for the Matrix was stolen from the Hindu Vedas.

The idea has also cropped-up in scientific circles. I’ve already talked about the Planetarium Hypothesis as a solution to Fermi’s paradox (why we haven’t met aliens yet), in which aliens have trapped humans inside the Matrix in order to protect us or to protect other alien life from us, kind of like the film Dark City. Another Matrix scenario has also been suggested to answer the Fermi paradox, in which all civilizations reaching a certain level of technology create their own virtual worlds to retreat into. We don’t see evidence of these advanced civilizations when we scan the skies as they have stopped outwards exploration to bask in the glory of their artificial lives.

How likely is this? Surely people, or aliens, would prefer to live in the real world? Sure escape into a virtual reality now and again would be fun, but not for all of our lives? Well many of us are living increasingly virtual lives today, with more and more people creating online personas and lives by joining social networks, playing games on-line and pretending to be girls on Playstation Home (see Quincying). The virtual world is becoming more and more mainstream and increasingly attractive. Just think what could be possible in the future, in a few centuries, or even decades, we could be able to create virtual worlds that are so technologically advanced and intricate they feel totally real, except you could be anyone and anything could be possible. Want to be Superman? Sure why not. Now I think I’ll be President of the World, now I’ll “go on a date” with Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston at the same time. A world with pain and boredom replaced by a constant stream of pleasure? No bills, no job, no annoying people? Tempting.

In the Fermi solution the alien civilizations have created such beautiful virtual worlds and have either cryogenically frozen their bodies or even uploaded their consciousnesses into their worlds, becoming effectively immortal and living forever in paradise. I’m still not sure if I totally buy this solution though. I love science because I love learning about the world around me, I’d love to spend time in such virtual worlds, but I wouldn’t want to stop exploring the real world. I can’t imagine alien scientists wouldn’t feel the same way, and surely at least some members of their society would continue to explore the real world. Maybe I’m being naive. Maybe they are all too busy “dating” Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, at the same time.

But one philosopher didn’t ask if we would prefer to live in an artificial reality, he asked how can we tell that we aren’t currently living in an artificial reality, and how do we know we’re one of the real people? What?!!! Well, a group of physicists were exploring whether or not time-travel would be possible, they concluded that travelling into the future was possible but not into the past (I’ll write a post about this). Instead scientists have reasoned that rather than travelling into the past, it would be much easier in the future to just create a realistic model of the past, which we could experience like a virtual reality, probably in a few decades computers would be able to do this easily, in fact it would be so easy we could make loads of them. Then a philosopher called Nick Bostrom said something like ‘oh shit, if its going to be so easy, how can we know we’re not living in a computer simulation of the past right now, and how do we know we’re not characters in this simulation? In fact its more likely that I’m a simulation rather than a real person!’ OK, that was a quote I made up, but you get the terrifying gist. You can read his awesome, but scary paper here.

You might argue that you feel real, and that you’ve been alive for years, you’ve got memories to prove it. And besides, your ankle hurts all the time, what’s the point of that if you’re not real? But that would be missing the point, maybe you’ve only existed for 3 seconds, your memories are false, and your ankle hurts because you’re a computer program who is designed to be as realistic as possible. You can’t really argue against this, as you’d have no way of knowing whether you are real or not, saying you ‘feel real intuitively’ doesn’t cut the mustard. A bit scary no? Kind of like the Blade Runner situation on steroids.

But could we test this hypothesis? We would need to look for evidence that this world isn’t real. Something like a barrier put into the computer program that stops us exploring the nature of our reality too far, something that would stop us finding the underlying ‘code’ of our world. Luckily nothing like that exists. Oh f*ck, apart from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (sometimes called quantum uncertainty). Basically, if you examine really small objects, like electrons, you hit a point at which your measurements become uncertain and the physical rules that govern the world suddenly stop, and become weird. If you want to know where a particular electron is you cannot also measure its velocity, and if you want to measure its velocity you also can’t simultaneously know accurately where it is. You might argue that this is a barrier that stops any further investigation of reality. I’m certainly no expert in quantum physics though (I’ve done a bit), and I’m sure an expert in the field would quickly demolish this argument.

Another test for this hypothesis would be to find a person who is living an impossibly perfect life. This person would likely be the only real individual in our reality and would be the sole reason why we exist, to make their world realistic. Maybe that person’s life wouldn’t be totally perfect, maybe that would give the game away, but still this person would have a life and achievements that look suspiciously undeserving. I know exactly what you’re thinking, Sarah Palin! How could someone so outwardly stupid and evil have achieved so much in life, she’ll probably end up being President in a couple of years, and she thinks people rode around on dinosaurs a few hundred years ago! There is no other explanation, she is a time-tourist from the future, and we are her artificial simulation of the past. Makes the hairs on your arms stand up doesn’t it?

Ah shit, I’ve done it again. I’ve written another massive post. I just hope someone reads it before this reality gets deleted.

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