Physicists take on the real-world Matrix
A group of academics say they want to investigate whether the world is an advanced computer simulation. Was science fiction giving us clues to cutting edge physics all along?
The dystopia of The Matrix is the stuff of modern nightmares. In the cult movie, a small group discover that ‘reality’ is actually an advanced simulation. Horrified that everything they know is an illusion, they rebel against the machine rulers of their artificial world.
Science fiction? Not necessarily. A team of physicists at Washington University think The Matrix is not so ridiculous after all – and now believe they can actually test if we are living in a computer program.
Today, supercomputers are already creating basic simulations: models the size of a nucleus, based on physical laws and a four dimensional grid known as the ‘lattice’. In the future these might expand to the size of cells, organisms, or even galaxies.
By studying these simple models scientists hope to identify traits common to all simulations – and to look for these signatures in our own world. In the movie, the false nature of The Matrix is revealed to hero Keanu Reeves by ‘glitches’ like déjà vu. Today, the unusual behaviour of high-energy cosmic rays could be a clue that we are living in a ‘lattice’ simulation.
The idea is inspired by Nick Bostrum: an Oxford philosopher who who has argued that reality could be a simulacrum built by ‘posthumans’. His case rests on three scenarios, one of which, he says, must be true.
First, it is possible that most civilisations are destroyed – perhaps by their own technology – before they create simulations. If that is the case, the forecast for our own society does not look good.
Alternatively, advanced beings may be uninterested in building other universes. There are many reasons why that might be. But some think it seems unlikely.
If those premises are false? Simulated worlds will, at some point, be created. And if a society can design such a world, Bostrum argues, it is unlikely to make just one: for each ‘posthuman’ civilisation, there could be thousands of created worlds.
The conclusion? Considering all the worlds that will ever be created, there is a much higher probability of living in a simulation than an original. When it comes down to maths, it seems likely that we may live in a version of The Matrix after all.
Escape the matrix
Some people find the idea that we live in a simulacrum deeply unnerving. All values, decisions and morals, they say, are based on the idea that things are real. If consciousness is nothing more than computer code, why would anything matter?
But others aren’t so sure. We base values, decisions and morals, they say, on our experience of the world: meaningful relationships, adventures, reading and thinking. Would those experiences be any less rich if they were simulated? Whether we live in a computer program, or on a rock spinning through space, our perception of the world is all we have.
- Do you think the idea that we live in a simulated universe is plausible?
- How might the possibility that we live in a simulated universe change your approach to life?
- The philosophical concepts behind the simulated universe theory can be difficult to understand. Make a poster that explains the idea in a straightforward way, using pictures and words.
- Write a short story about a group of people who discover they are living in a computer simulation.
Some People Say...
“A wise man, recognising that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.’ Buddha”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This is rubbish!
- Admittedly, it’s an idea that sits on the radical side of philosophy and science. Bostrum himself does not actually think we live in a simulacrum: he just says it is a possibility.
- So why bother?
- It’s an interesting thought experiment. And the questions it raises extend to other philosophical issues, too.
- Like what?
- The question of how far we can trust our perceptions can be applied, for example, to the problem of free will. Although it appears that we are responsible for our actions, scientists have discovered that unconscious brain chemistry plays a major role. Does that mean we cannot be responsible for our choices? Or is it enough that we think we are deciding?
- A dystopia is a fictional society that is unpleasant or frightening in some way. It is the opposite of a utopia, a perfect society. Often, dystopias take elements of the world and subvert or exaggerate them, to comment on social or cultural issues. Famous depictions of dystopias in fiction can be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 .
- Physicists at Washington University
- Silas Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage are experts on lattice field theories and simulation ideas.
- High energy cosmic rays
- These are not actually rays, but high energy particles that are found in the outer reaches of the solar system. The physicists behind the hypothesis believe that in a simulated universe these cosmic rays would travel diagonally, and interact in unpredictable ways, at the edge of the ‘lattice’.
- Four-dimensional grid
- Modern supercomputers use an advanced calculation technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics, which divides space-time into a four dimensional grid. This allows scientists to examine what is called a ‘strong force’, one of four fundamental forces in nature, and which binds subatomic particles together.