In last week’s piece of this column, “Is Free Will An Illusion?”, I have posed the question that if indeed free will is an illusion as advanced by proponents of determinism, are we perhaps – akin to the 1999 blockbuster movie, “The Matrix” – living in a simulated universe?
The Matrix depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality, the Matrix, which intelligent machines have created to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source. Computer programmer Thomas Anderson (played by actor Keanu Reeves), under hacker alias “Neo”, uncovers the truth and he is drawn into a rebellion against the machines.
Imagine if, casting aside what we know about life and the universe, this is more than just a movie depiction but a real-life truth? What if everything around us in this life were an elaborate illusion? What if our universe were simply a hyper-realistic simulation, with all of us merely characters in some kind of a virtual reality game?
Minding it or not, there are takers – philosophers and scientists alike – to this belief.
Nick Bostrom, Swedish-born philosopher at the University of Oxford, in a 2003 paper that kicked off the discussion on the simulation hypothesis, exclaimed: “While the world we see is in some sense real, it is not located at the fundamental level of reality.”
Rizwan Virk, founder of MIT’s PlayLabs program and author of “The Simulation Hypothesis”, also takes the simulation hypothesis seriously. He recalls playing a virtual reality game so realistic that he forgot that he was in an empty room with a headset on, which led him to wonder: “Are we sure we aren’t embedded within a world created by beings more technologically savvy than ourselves?”
Rich Terrile, a computer scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California thinks that the ability to model sentient being could soon be within our grasp: “We are within a generation of being those gods who create those universes.”
In his book “The Divine Matrix”, Gregg Braden, American scientist and New York Times’ best-selling author, puts forth the existence of a “Divine Matrix – the container that holds the universe, the bridge between all things, and the mirror that shows us what we have created.”
Granting indeed that what these theorists on simulated universe are saying are correct, what stakes or repercussions do we face? Are we just ready discovering the truth that our world and thoughts and emotions are nothing more than a programmer’s zeroes and ones?
For one, I could readily surmise that it would radically undermine our sense of purpose and personal initiative. Abraham Loeb, Israeli-American theoretical physicist and Harvard astronomer, says that knowledge about our being in a simulation could even trigger social unrest.
“Knowing that our own thoughts and deeds aren’t our own could relieve us from being accountable for our actions. There is nothing more than damaging to our social order than this notion,” Loeb says.
But, on reckoning, the idea of a simulated life and universe has its underpinnings already in some ancient beliefs, philosophies, and even from prominent scientists, thinkers, and poets.
Maya, which in Sanskrit means “illusion”, is a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy, denoting the magical power with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion. Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, posited that we’re but living in an unreal world, a cave, a virtual reality – and the real reality lies outside the cave. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that “all that we see or have seen is but a dream”. Albert Einsten once said that reality is merely an illusion. Stephen Hawking talked about illusion in his final theory on the holographic universe.
Verily, however, for me – echoing a fundamental theme from theology – the simulation theory can very well substantiate the truth that God, the divine simulator or creator, exists. This was resonated by Gregg Braden when he averred that
“if we’re in a simulation, then there must be a simulator; so it’s comforting to know that in our simulation exercise in this life, there’s somebody, a base pilot, guiding us in our journey”.
Yes, God, while from creation has designed or programmed us for this life, has likewise granted us a reasonable or sufficient degree of initiative or freedom (not absolute, because “man’s freedom is not independent of God’s freedom, and God’s freedom is not dependent of man’s freedom”) – and, as master simulator or programmer, God is continually guiding us every step towards a higher dimension of life, a life eternal.