Narcissus’ Reflection in the Matrix
Illustration by Adam Macedoński
Dreams and Visions

Narcissus’ Reflection in the Matrix

The Enticing Appeal of the Simulation Hypothesis
Tomasz Stawiszyński
time 8 minutes

The article you are about to read has been generated automatically by a computer simulation with the specific purpose of convincing you it is real. It was not authored by Tomasz Stawiszyński. No such person exists.

I remain convinced now, as I was back then, that The Matrix – the legendary 1999 movie by the Wachowskis – owes at least half of its tremendous success in Poland to the ingenious slogan that was used to promote it on billboards and posters even before it hit the screens in cinemas. What made it a classic film, in the purest sense of the word, was not its special effects, groundbreaking as they were by the standards of that time, or its masterfully constructed plot, or even the tremendous performances by Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. Rather, I posit that if it had not been for the intriguing question used to entice the Polish public to watch the movie, we would not have bought tickets for all screenings in such great numbers.

For those that don’t know, the question was: ‘Have you ever sensed that there isn’t something quite right about the world?’

Yes, of course. We feel that way quite often, in fact.

A fundamental sense of the oddity, quirkiness and mysteriousness of the world has accompanied mankind since the dawn of civilization. It is, therefore, no wonder that manifestations of this idea continually turn up in myths, religions, philosophies, works of literature and films. They may take the form of various narratives or conceptual systems, but one of the oldest themes that keeps emerging in various new guises is the one around which the plot of The Matrix is woven: the sneaking suspicion that the reality around us is in fact an illusion. That in truth, the world looks completely different. And there are ways in which we can see this for ourselves.

This suspicion, in one form or another, is something that the anonymous authors of the Vedas, the Buddha, the Chinese Taoist thinker Zhuangzi, Plato, Sextus Empiricus, as well as George Berkeley and René Descartes all had in common (the last two at least treated it as a possibility). In the modern era, in turn, it has been harboured by the Wachowskis, by the US-based billionaire Elon Musk, by Rich Terrile of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford. While the authors and thinkers of old simply offered religious, mythical and theoretical speculations that our senses might be deceiving us, Terrile and Bostrom have also brought the latest scientific discoveries to bear on the issue, as well as reflection about the existing and predictable consequences of technological advancement. Musk (along with several billionaires who wish to remain anonymous) – at least according to what The Guardian reported in June and October 2016 – is even prepared to fork out a hefty sum of money to conclusively prove what appears to be a rather eccentric and exotic hypothesis. 

But that is exactly the point: is it really so very exotic?

It appears that Nick Bostrom, a man who is dead serious about everything (if you check YouTube, you will see that he practically never smiles), has given this archaic idea quite modern and rational dimensions.

Of course, 20th-century philosophers such as Hilary Putnam also indulged in contemplating the problem referred to as ‘brains in a vat’ – the modern-day version of the old philosophical dilemma about being unable to prove the reality of the external world. Here, a brain is envisaged as being kept in a vat, but hooked up to special devices that provide the very realistic experiences of an embodied person living in a three-dimensional reality.

The question is, how do we actually know that we are not in such a situation? Apart from Putnam, those who have attempted to provide an answer include the American philosopher Daniel Dennett in his monumental work Consciousness Explained. Nevertheless, both Putnam and Dennett treated this case simply as an exercise in philosophy and logic, not as a real possibility. Why should we bother with it, then? Well, because it exposes the paradoxes that we inevitably come across when we attempt to define enforceable rules of correct cognition and reasoning.

In Dennett’s opinion, an argument against the simulation hypothesis is provided, in short, by the complex and multi-faceted nature of the world in which we live. No simulation, he argued, could ever satisfy all the endless possibilities that open up in front of us when we explore the reality around us.

Let us remember, though, that he wrote those words back in the 1980s. Nick Bostrom examined the issue over 20 years later and arrived at quite different conclusions. In order to demonstrate that it is in fact highly likely that we are all actually living in one great computer simulation, probably created by what is technologically an extremely advanced civilization, Bostrom proposed a trilemma composed of three propositions, about which he said that at least one must be true.

The first holds that all civilizations that ever reach a level of technological development similar to ours will end up going extinct as a result of self-destruction or other circumstances, and their technological development will therefore never reach the maximum level of advancement. The second proposition holds that all civilizations that reach the maximum level of technological advancement will suddenly lose interest in running detailed computer simulations of their ancestors. The third holds that all of us almost certainly live in such a computer simulation.

Bostrom claims that propositions one and two are 99% certain to be false. The first, because there is no rational reason to assume that attaining the level of technological advancement that we currently have will by necessity cause any civilization to go extinct. The second, because there is nothing to substantiate the argument that every civilization with technologies allowing for the creation of virtual worlds organized with such perfection that the creatures inhabiting them have the feeling of consciousness and subjectivity might opt not to do so. Why would they, anyway?

One must admit that it is hard to refute this line of argumentation. We are therefore left with the third option. Consequently, we are all merely the virtual creations of one of those sufficiently advanced civilizations. How do we know that? Because the existence of other civilizations, including in the kind of parallel worlds that modern physics now permits, is at least possible. And if it is possible, then the development of simulation technologies by some of those civilizations does not appear very absurd (see the first two propositions of Bostrom’s trilemma). If every civilization that has relevant technologies can create an infinite number of simulated worlds inhabited by simulated people, the calculation seems simple. The scenario in which we already live in an simulation is a lot more probable – roughly speaking, like a billion to one.

Feel convinced? If not entirely, then try considering a different argument often raised by the aforementioned Rich Terrile of NASA together with Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT who does not believe in the simulation hypothesis, but considers it logically impeccable nonetheless. The argument simply reflects the picture of the world that emerges from modern physics, especially quantum physics. At the deepest level, its advocates argue, reality cannot actually be observed, but can only be described by mathematical equations. Just like virtual simulations. What is more, at this lowest level, reality is made up of elementary particles, which are alarmingly reminiscent of pixels, the components of digital images.

Rumour has it that Elon Musk and other anonymous billionaires will pay a really mind-blowing sum of money to anyone able to finally prove all of this conclusively. But if we are trying to be logical about these things, the question is: will that money be worth anything then? Ultimately, it will have been proven to be nothing more than a computer simulation paid by one phantom to another…

Be that as it may, supporters of the simulation hypothesis are working hard to prove it. Its critics, who are in the majority, stress that the argument may be logically correct, but it still remains extremely improbable. That is because there is no reason to believe in the existence of any other advanced civilizations that might toy with such technologies. On the other hand, there is likewise no reason why we should rule out their existence.

And herein lies the rub.

The simulation hypothesis is a classic example of an unfalsifiable theory; one that can neither be tested nor refuted. That is why an overwhelming majority of scientists claim that we should not worry about it. Especially, as Professor Lisa Randall of the Harvard University Department of Physics sharply observed, because the conviction that anyone would really want to simulate our existence in such painstaking detail is a sign of extreme hubris. And, we may add, also of modern narcissism, which fundamentally involves the need to have an audience; to be constantly observed, seen and admired.

Either way, the prospect of living in a simulation may be, depending on where you stand, either tempting or terrifying. And it cannot be ruled out definitively. It is likewise impossible to rule out the possibility that the text you are reading has been automatically generated by a simulation with the specific purpose of convincing you it is real.

Or at least of persuading you to give some thought to whether there might indeed be something not quite right about this world…

Translated from the Polish by Daniel J. Sax

Also read:

The Science of the Non-Existing Self
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

The Science of the Non-Existing Self

How Meditation Entered the Academic Consciousness
Tomasz Stawiszyński

According to Wikipedia, there are over 40 types of meditation. The majority of them have been proven to enhance physical health, the psyche, and even the function and structure of the brain. Contrary to the stereotype, meditation doesn’t need to have anything in common with religion or faith (but, of course, it can).

“Mantra? But really, what’s the difference between that and my patients who keep repeating shit, shit, shit over and over again?” was the question a certain outstanding and esteemed clinical psychologist from Harvard University asked when a young Daniel Goleman presented his idea for a PhD thesis to a group of professors. The title was “The Effect of Meditation on the Mind”. This also included meditation based on a mantra, or a technique involving the constant repetition of a word or phrase.

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