Materialism, Machines and The Matrix (Part One)

Life inside a simulation

Recently, Elon Musk discussed the idea that we're living inside a computer simulation. As much as I generally dislike the trivialising effect that generally follows the unearthing of "serious" philosophical topics and their exposure to a mass audience, I can't help but feel grateful for the renewed interest in the subject. My personal petty prejudices aside, Musk certainly has a way of capturing imaginations. One can almost anticipate Musk someday echoing the words of Oscar Levant by saying that “there's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Elon Musk really is a real-life Tony Stark.

Yet, for all of Elon Musk's novel ideas and mad tinkering, there's definitely nothing new about the theory that our perceivable world is a computer simulation. The metaphor dates back to (anyone who has read any of my previous articles probably knows where this is going) ancient Greece. There's a lot of insight to be gained from the toga-toting thinkers - Plato arguably being the most seminal. In fact, Plato was so important to the development of Western thought that Alfred North Whitehead (a mentor of logician Bertrand Russel) once famously wrote:

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

Plato was concerned with a number of topics: politics, literature, epistemology, love and friendship - to name a few. To illustrate and support his arguments, he frequently made use of allegories, the most famous one being the allegory of the cave. This is the one that your buddy told you about after he did his first month of first-year philosophy at university. Instead of going into details about the allegory here, have a look at this brilliant animation:

The allegory of the cave is an interesting metaphor, but it underlines two very fundamental philosophical concepts in Plato's thinking, namely, his epistemology and his ontology.

Knowledge - two perspectives

So what are these two big words? Let's start with the first one. Ontology is the study of the nature of reality - questions like "what is everything around us made of?" and "are only the things I can experience with my sense organs real, or is there something more?" are both excellent ontological questions. Epistemology, on the other hand, is the study of how we acquire knowledge. In that sense, the second ontological question above is really also an epistemological one. Is all knowledge gained via sensory input, or are there other modes of acquiring knowledge that don't rely on our sense organs?

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought, and two diametrically opposed answers, to this question - rationalism and empiricism. It's usually at this point where most philosophers will really start to 'lay it on thick'. For the sake of this article, I'll oversimplify a little. Essentially, empiricists (with eminent advocates like David Hume, John Locke etc) believe that the foundation of all knowledge is based in sensory experience about the world around us. Rationalists (with poster boys like Descartes, Leibniz and even Noam Chomsky) believe that the foundations of knowledge are innate - essentially, there are certain aspects of knowledge that are already in place even before we engage with the world around us. Two great examples of this are mathematics and logic. Mathematics and logic are considered as 'pure' and eternal, since they are in no way affected by the contingencies of every day life. Wind, sun and rain have no outcome on a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Human beliefs, expectations and emotions also play no role in the validity of rational truths. As Neil deGrasse Tyson recently put it:

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”

Figures like Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky believe that the same principle applies to language rules and our social position in the world. We seem to be born with an innate sense of our self and others, as well as predisposition to engage with one another using language (see The Language Instinct).

Shaky foundations

So, how have we acquired these magical epistemological tools? Is there something spooky going on? Do our mortal minds posses some ethereal substance that allow us access to these innate, eternal forms of knowledge. Not really, no. In fact, invoking metaphysics to explain apparent gaps in our understanding (see the God of the Gaps) has hitherto widely been regarded as a sort of intellectual cop out. In fact, philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, takes it one step further in his publication "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding":

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Nevertheless, the history of metaphysics is a perpetually interesting one. Let's go back to Ancient Greece for a second. For Plato, the allegory of the cave is an inviting metaphor that coaxes our thoughts around the foundations of knowledge away from the temporal, transitory and ever-changing world around us towards something more eternal. Essentially, Plato (and famously, René Descartes) argues that our knowledge of this world is shaky, precisely because our observable reality is shaky. If you ever feel that you're grasp on how something seemingly simple like identity (what makes something what is is) works, just consider Plutarch's Ship of Theseus. The question we're asked to consider is roughly the following: if I were to disassemble a wooden ship, plank-by-plank, nail-by-nail and reassemble it in a different location - would it still be the same ship? What if I incrementally discarded certain materials and replaced it with materials from another ship? At what point would it stop being the same ship?

If the perceivable universe, and our knowledge of it, is always imperfect, then to what do we ascribe the successes of modern science? Surely there should be some unchanging, non-contingent foundation 'behind' these ephemeral phenomena we see around us that we can use as nice patch of solid dirt to firmly plant our epistemological flag? Well, here's where The Matrix comes in.

The ghost in the machine

In the popular film, The Matrix, computer programmer Thomas "Neo" Anderson meets a mysterious man called Morpheus, who, through a sequence of events, shows Neo that the world he's known his whole life is a vicarious, simulated - and ultimately, false - reality. Essentially, Neo has been living in a dream his whole life and the revelation of the 'real' world is not the nicest experience one could hope for: a desolate, dystopian future filled with evil robots. The deux ex machina (pun intended) is that Morpheus, Neo and the other saviours of humanity are fortunately able to patch into this simulation by using the analog of ethernet cables plugged into their spinal columns, allowing them access to the mainframe's computer simulation. Also, given that they've seen the world for what it truly is, they are able to bend the rules of the system to their advantage and perform superhero-level exploits.

So, why do I mention The Matrix? And why the pun about the Deus ex Machina? Well, The Matrix is essentially a giant homage to Plato's cave allegory. According to Plato, there exists a world beyond our world that contains the 'true' forms of everything we can perceive. Here's a literal example: Plato would say that even though dogs vary in all possible shapes, sizes and colours - we're still able to accurately perceive them as dogs. Even the ugliest, most non-dog-looking ones. How is that possible? Well, Plato would argue, they all resemble the perfect 'form' of doghood as it is contained in the World of Forms - an eternal, unchanging realm that contains all the perfect versions of things we encounter in varied forms on Earth.

Returning to the question asked at the end of the last section: how are our mortal, biological minds then allowed access to this eternal realm? At what point do the corporeal and the non-corporeal meet? Here's where things get interesting - and convoluted. For Plato, our being is comprised of two parts - soul and matter. The soul, simply put, is 'trapped' inside our corporeal body: quite literally a ghost in the machine - a deus in machina, if you will. According to Plato, before we are manifested into our corporeal body, our souls reside in the World of Forms. In that way, our souls are well acquainted with the true forms of the 'shadows against the wall' we see during life.

Obviously this still doesn't quite satisfy as an answer. It's still unclear how these two substances (soul and non-soul) interact with one another. Descartes, a thinker we've made reference to quite a few times in this article, has an answer and it's a biological one. We'll get into that, as well as drill deeper into computer metaphors, simulation theory and cognitive perspectives in part two of Materialism, Machines and The Matrix.