“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)
Does our conscious experience provide reliable information about the world around us? Can we know anything for certain? Can we know anything at all? These are epistemological questions, questions regarding the scope and validity of human knowledge. Epistemology is a confounding branch of philosophy; in order to establish the reliability of our sensory experience, for example, philosophers must be scrupulous to avoid embracing circular reasoning and tautology. How does one prove that our senses are reliable without appealing to information provided by our senses? It is tempting to simply abandon this line of inquiry, dismissing it under the rubric of “things which we just know.” However, epistemological questions such as the reliability of our sensory experience are fundamental to every form of intellectual mentation. A scientist uses his or her conscious experience to gather information about the external world, and it is from this data that we come to understand the universe. Without a proper logical grounding for this data-gathering mechanism, might all our supposed knowledge be illusory? This notion is an odd one to consider; while we might be able to comprehend its possibility, it is difficult to process emotionally. Many of us find it simply impossible to fully absorb the idea that mundane facts like “I am sitting here in Tallahassee, reading an article on epistemology” could in fact be delusions.
The Matrix, a popular film released in 1999, explores this idea in detail. The main character, Neo, discovers that the world in which he resides is actually an elaborate simulation—an immersive digital façade—manufactured by a malevolent cyber-intelligence which farms the bioelectricity of people to fuel a campaign of domination in the “real” world. In an iconic scene, he is visited by Morpheus, an insurgent denizen of the real world, and given the choice to either wake up the next morning in ignorant bliss of his predicament, or to join Morpheus in the prime reality. Needless to say, Neo accepts the more entertaining option, and he is suddenly and disturbingly wrenched from the simulation; his pallid “real” body emerges from a pod of pink fluid resembling an amniotic sac where black tubes innervate his body at various points, evidently for the purpose of siphoning away his body’s energy.
Although the premise of the film may seem incredible, it represents a sophisticated epistemological conundrum. From René Descartes’s “Evil Demon” in his Meditations on First Philosophy published in 1641 to Hilary Putnam’s more contemporary “Brain in a Vat” argument, philosophers have grappled with the validity of our conscious experience. Consider the following. Our sensory experience is ultimately the product of information processing at the level of the brain. When we detect a stimulus—visual, tactile, or otherwise—that stimulus is transduced into an electrical signal which is received by the relevant areas of the brain before it emerges into consciousness. Therefore, strictly speaking, we don’t actually “sense” our surroundings; we perceive electrical signals that we trust represent reality as it really is. However, it is perfectly conceivable that, with a sufficiently advanced understanding of the brain along with the requisite technology, we could stimulate the brain in such a way that it would receive the same kind of electrical input that a real experience could provide. In other words, a simulated trip to the park would be perceived by the brain in exactly the same way as a real trip to the park. This no doubt would have to be an ambitious feat of technology and science, and it is one which computer scientists and neuroscientists are far from achieving. However, to demonstrate the possibility that we are living in a simulated reality, one need only grant the possibility that a more advanced civilization somewhere else in the universe could potentially have such a technology, or that in the future, we will achieve such technology ourselves. If the latter possibility is valid, we could be simulations of the past, located on the hard drives of future generations.
The possibility that we are simulated conscious entities has obvious implications for epistemology. Suddenly, seemingly banal facts about the external world become shrouded in doubt. Is the sky blue? In our world it is, but how do we know that this is a universal, objective truth? The possibilities are endless—we might exist in a simulation where the rules of logic are inverted. Perhaps in the real world, two statements that contradict each other must be true. Or, even more baffling an idea, perhaps we exist in a simulation run by Mormons who imputed the truth of their faith into the program.
Of course, the inability to falsify a claim does not make it true. Additionally, though it may indeed be impossible to prove that we are not mere simulations on the hard drives of a more advanced civilization, we can question the relevance that such a scenario poses to us. Although the statement “the sky is blue” may not be a valid claim in an objective sense, in the personal sense—the sense which is operative in our conscious experience—it is as real and unquestionable a fact as ever. It is also interesting to realize—if we figured out that we were indeed the product of a simulation—that even our simulators could not be sure whether or not they were in a similar predicament. It would be as if I set up a Sims game in which I had my simulated characters, in turn, create their own virtual characters. Thinking in such a way leads to an infinite regress of uncertainty, where it is impossible to know, even with the discovery of say, two or three layers of simulated madness, whether or not we truly know anything. But we can appeal to Occam’s Razor, and ask ourselves which is the simplest explanation that can account for our place in the universe. Do we exist within the universe as its observers? Or do we exist within a universe that is a derivative of another, as simulated conscious entities? To be clear, we cannot be sure of either option, but one is clearly more parsimonious.