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25 November 2016

Is it a matrix?

Mainstreaming of some of the crazy ideas about our universe and nature of reality is beginning to upend basic understanding of our existence

Nov 26, 2016- In April, earlier this year, a group of heavyweights in the field of physics and philosophy met at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, to debate a controversial notion that is increasingly being accepted—that we live in simulated world; a computer simulated world. Yes, you read that right!

As the Scientific American reported, moderator of the debate, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, saw the possibility of us living a virtual existence at 50 percent. 

In June, billionaire Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, surprised everyone by responding to a question about simulated reality during a technology conference in California. The rate at which video games are evolving, the possibility of them becoming indistinguishable from reality would be inevitable, he said. He went further to conclude that the possibility of us living in a “base reality” is just “one in billions.” 

For avid fans of science fictions and those who see fiction as an extension of yet undiscovered reality, the start of HBO’s Westworld series—which revolves around artificial beings in a futuristic theme park—did much to stir the imagination. Given that the whole narrative in the series is filled with mysteries, fans have speculated several conspiracy theories. One such theory suggests that the Westworld is, in fact, a documentary sent by those who escaped from the simulations to warn us about our matrix-like reality! 

Philosopher Nick Bostrom first put the idea that we could be living in computer-simulated world back in 2003. In his paper published in the Philosophical Quarterly, he argues that since post-human civilisation will have enormous computing power, even if they use a small fraction of that computing power to run ancestor-simulations, it may uncannily resemble reality. While Bostrom does not directly argue that we do live in a computer-simulated world, his theory has generated much interest in last several years as computing power has rapidly increased—raising the prospect of an almost life-like simulated virtual reality. 

This theory takes a special turn in light of both our hopes and fear of robots evolving into sentient beings and our rapidly increasing understanding, or lack thereof, about the nature of our universe. 

Some scientists find it odd that they discover mathematical rules at every turn as they go about exploring the universe. They suspect that only a computer-generated universe could have such rigid mathematical laws reflecting the programming code of the simulation. 

But this simulations argument is nothing new. It is merely recasting of the old doubts into a new modern frame of reference. Scientists, philosophers and religious leaders have long wondered if our whole existence is an illusion. The only difference now is that even serious scientists are claiming that they see patterns of simulated reality in our existence. 

Then there is the issue of how physicists are constantly shifting the goal post on the origin of our universe. Big Bang, once thought to be the beginning point of the universe, may just be another red herring, they say. Now they are wondering if the universe has a beginning at all. 

Some on the fringe even argue that the universe itself has consciousness and that it may not be inanimate as once thought.The unwavering faith in science that it would unravel all the mysteries and answer all our questions, including our purpose, is rapidly evaporating. 

The questions then remain: Would it really make a difference even if some super intelligence were to offer us an uncut revelation about some of our existential questions? Would we want to know everything? Would we not question the reality of the existence of that super intelligent being itself? Maybe the true nature of reality is not as exciting and mysterious as we imagine it to be. Maybe learning everything about our existence would condemn us to a life of eternal boredom. Maybe we already have answers to these mysteries and that we have created this elaborate maze of possibilities to keep ourselves entertained. And, maybe, as Einstein suggested, there is no such thing as reality and that we create our own reality based on our experience. 

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” he said.