matrixios - The Thought Experiments of Virtual Reality

The Thought Experiments of Virtual Reality

The Matrix is iconic for introducing ideas of philosophical skepticism to a broad audience. By philosophical skepticism, we refer to philosophical views that question the possibility of knowledge. The question that Matrix poses can be framed as follows: “Can we know that we are not, in fact, in a simulation?”

The Matrix is iconic for introducing ideas of philosophical skepticism to a broad audience. By philosophical skepticism, we refer to philosophical views that question the possibility of knowledge. The question that Matrix poses can be framed as follows: “Can we know that we are not, in fact, in a simulation?” Or as Morpheus asks: “What is Real? How do you define ‘Real?’”

Since the first Matrix movie hit the theatres in 1999, such questions have gained increased relevance. Not necessarily because the idea was a new one — as we’ll get into — but because Immersive VR technology has become commercially available. We now know more than ever — many of us experientially — about the power of computing technologies to ‘fool’ our senses. You may have seen videos of people running into physical walls to escape from virtual monsters, or trying to lean themselves on a virtual table. Or you may have done so yourself!

Now, of course, we know cognitively through reasoning and remembrance that the monsters and tables are here only virtual. Besides, they surely don’t look or feel as real as whatever it is that we call reality. But with these experiences at hand, we can also imagine the terrifying potential of this technology as it advances in the future.

Reasons we might create The Matrix

There are several thought-provoking scenarios we can imagine with future technologically advanced simulations. Let us say, dystopically, Cyberpunk-style, that in the future the only way you could give your child a happy life was to offer them a virtual one from the get-go. We can then imagine people born into virtual reality, where hiding the true state of affairs is seen as desirable. Perhaps we live in a world where it is only the elite which can afford a good life in non-simulated reality. Or, let us say, utopically, that humanity as a whole supersedes mortality, with the result that we have entirely new existential base from which to make decisions. Here, there are strong parallels to the cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East. If our existential ‘given of existence’ is an eternal omnipotence, where quite simply nothing can really go wrong, then what we might desire most of all is an adventure; a surprise.

So you decide to buy a ticket to the newest IMAX experience, that entirely wipes your godly self from memory, and lets you live the life of your ancestors. And so here you are: so deep into illusion and forgetfulness that you believe you are a mortal human being reading about simulations online. You even regard this as one of the most far-out ideas that you can conceive!

By imagining the future potential of VR technologies, the question of whether we are already living in a simulation becomes more actual than ever.

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Look, it’s The Matrix

The Simulation Hypothesis

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper called “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?” The paper discusses the possibility, or likelihood, of our living in a simulation. Here, Bostrom argues that there are three potential scenarios relevant for the question of whether we are living in a computer simulation. Bostrom argues that at least one of them has to be true:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage where we can run simulations;
  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.

Here, Bostrom argues that if humans develop the possibility of running perfect simulations and actually want to do so (thus, if the first two possibilities are not true), then we are almost certainly already living in a simulation. How can this be?

Bostrom’s logic can be likened to the idea of time travel. If time travel is invented in the future, then we might be visited by time travelers now, and time travel would thus also exist now. Somewhat similarly, if ultimate VR is possible and desirable, then our own world will most likely be just one amongst myriads created by technologically advanced species. Only one world is the biological, physical, original one; but there will be an unfathomable number of simulations created by advanced species. The likelihood that we should be in the original one is very small, Bostrom argues. At that point we are no longer a species with a definite future and a definite past in one universe: we must instead consider ourselves as an ever-duplicating species in a myriad of possible simulated worlds.

Who Are We?

Now, while we may not be able to know whether the world around is a simulation or not, there are more to these questions than mere speculation. Thought experiments involving VR technologies can also act as a catalyst for thought about who we are. Let us take a pre-Matrix philosophical example. In 1973, Robert Nozick introduced the thought experiment of an ‘Experience Machine’ — a machine capable of providing any experience one could ever want, but which also makes you forget that there is a real world. The question Nozick asks is this: If you had this machine that could provide you with any experience (including pleasure for the rest of your life); would you use it? Would you plug in and forget real life?

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In the Matrix, this thought experiment is symbolised by Neo’s choice between a red and a blue pill.

Nozick’s intention with the thought experiment was to query whether humans valued reality or authenticity as something intrinsically good apart from any considerations of pleasure. Is authenticity a good in itself? If we felt so strongly, we would choose not to plug in to the Experience Machine in order merely to simulate the stimuli of goodness. Therefore someone saying ‘Nay’ to the choice of plugging into the machine would, according to Nozick, prove that human nature cannot be reduced to mere hedonism, the philosophical standpoint that gaining pleasure and avoiding suffering is the only intrinsic good.

Some objections may be raised though. Perhaps there are other things that make us want to stay in the real world, apart from our valuing authenticity? It may be that the reason we would prefer to avoid plugging in to the Machine is because this world, or this way of being, is the only one known to us. A way of getting around this is to flip the question Matrix wise: If you were told that your life up until now has been an illusion in a machine, would you then like to wake up?

The question becomes a lot harder.

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