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Are We Living in the Matrix?

March 21, 2017


On Monday, the New Yorker suggested that “the bizarre finale to Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony brought to mind the theory—far from a joke—that humanity is living in a computer simulation gone haywire.” Lest you think that such a self-evidently absurd theory is a mere cry for attention from a dying publication, the idea that we’re all in the Matrix was actually seriously debated at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The list of those partial to this theory include some of the most prominent scientific voices in our culture, and the debate was moderated by one of the most famous:

Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said.

So how do people this smart end up advocating a theory this absurd? Simply put, because they’re atheistic materialists smart enough to see the implications of their own religious and philosophical views. Three errors in particular are at the root of this: 

Mistake #1: Reducing the Mind to a Computer

If you’re a materialist – that is, if you think that matter is all that there is – then two conclusions follow: (a) the “mind” is really nothing more than the brain; and (b) the brain is really nothing more than a highly-advanced computer. You can’t be a materialist and still believe in things like a soul or an immaterial mind. And so, you’re left with arguments like this one, from Oxford’s Nick Bolstrom:

One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.

In other words, if there’s no principled distinction between us and computers, then there’s no reason to think that we’re not computers. In fact, there would be good reason to believe that we are. Technology is rapidly advancing, and there are predictions that computational speeds for personal ($1000) devices will surpass the human brain by about 2025 or so:

Continuing that trend into the future, the argument goes, it won’t be long before we will be able to create “Sims” that have the full range of human intelligence. These Sims would have no idea that they weren’t real, and we could create a virtually limitless number of them. So the odds that such a culture has already done that to us means that the mathematical odds that we’re amongst the nearly-limitless Sim population dwarfs the likelihood that we’re real.

Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, explains:

They [members of this advanced civilization] would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

There are two things to point out about this theory. First, it follows logically from materialism. Second, it’s utterly ridiculous.

If human minds are nothing more than advanced computers, then current computers are nothing less than simple minds. Shouldn’t human rights (or at least animal rights) activists start advocating on behalf of abused laptops? By this reasoning, is there any moral difference between owning an iPhone and owning a slave — and if there is, is it just that the iPhone isn’t smart enough yet?

As far back as 1983, Robert and Mueller were asking, Would an intelligent computer have a “right to life”? And the EU parliament just voted in January in favoring of granting personhood rights to AI, a conclusion promoted by a study sponsored by the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry some ten years ago. So that’s where this line of reasoning leads. Or more ominously: once computers become more advanced than human brains (in terms of computational powers), this logic would suggest that human rights ought to be considered inferior to robotic rights. (Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading futurists advocating this, openly recognizes this possibility).

So let’s make a few things clear. First, human life isn’t reducible to consciousness (you’re alive even when you’re unconscious), and consciousness isn’t reducible to computational ability (you’re self-aware, and a calculator is not). These distinctions are true in principle, not just based upon current technology. In other words, the exact moment that Bolstrom’s argument goes wrong is here: “Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct).” Bolstom has aptly (if advertantly) demonstrated why a materialist philosophy of mind can’t be true without leading to absurd conclusions.

Computers might get (and are already getting) very good at mimicking human conversation and thought processes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re actually persons. The mind is not reducible to the brain, and the brain isn’t reducible to a computer. These bad assumptions are built into Bolstrom’s model, and the model suffers as a result.

Mistake #2: Materialism Can’t Account for the Human Person

Closely related to the last point, materialism reduces the human person to a collection of information, or an internal processor, or a collection of cells. Carl Sagan put it this way:

I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity. For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.

But if that were true, if you’re only a collection of molecules, consider what follows. Over the course of your life, you’ve expelled far more molecules (sweating, using the restroom, shedding skin, and the rest) than you currently possess. So why don’t we consider those assorted, discarded cells as the “true” Carl Sagan, or the “true” you?

And you equal the collection of molecules that happen to exist within your body at this exact moment, that collection has only existed for a fraction of a second, and already doesn’t exist by the time you finished reading this sentence. So it follows that you don’t exist, or at least, you’re actually a different person than the one who started reading this. In other words: if materialists are right, you are only a few moments old, and have simply inherited somebody else’s memories.

This problem is nothing new. The seventeenth-century philosopher David Hume argued that minds are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” As a result, he was logically forced to deny the existence of himself:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

This also led him to claim he doesn’t exist when he’s asleep:

When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.

Of course, Hume’s argument is self-refuting: if I don’t exist, how is there is neither an “I” capable of stumbling (and certainly not “always” stumbling), nor a stable “myself” upon which to stumble.

In other words, any attempt to reduce human beings to mere matter will always fail, because our matter is in flux. We eat things, we digest, etc. If we don’t have something immaterial like a soul, there’s simply no coherent way we can speak of enduring human consciousness.

Or to put it another way, there is a you that is made up of cells, and has certain information in your brain, and contemplates things mentally, and which has grown and changed in countless ways. You’re not reducible to any of these processes, or to any of the stages of any of these processes, because these are things happening in you and to you.

Mistake #3: Refusing to Consider God as a Possibility

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the “we’re living in a computer simulation” argument is that the universe is filled with evidence of design. Scientific American points out:

And there are other reasons to think we might be virtual. For instance, the more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws. Perhaps that is not a given, but a function of the nature of the universe we are living in. “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical,” said Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.”

Furthermore, ideas from information theory keep showing up in physics. “In my research I found this very strange thing,” said James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland. “I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry? This brought me to the stark realization that I could no longer say people like Max are crazy.”

These scientists have rightly seen that the universe appears to be mathematical, rational, and designed in a way that a randomly self-creating universe wouldn’t. Considering the universe to have randomly come-into-being despite its clear order and structure is a bit like assuming that the book you’re reading is the product of a series of random ink spills that happened to produce the letters in just such an order. (And a great many of the New Atheists’ arguments amount to saying, “this book couldn’t have been written, because I didn’t like Chapter 3!”)

Cosmologists like Tegmark and physicists like Gates, each of whom regularly bump into evidence of designedness in the course of their daily jobs, rightly recognize that “the universe just happened” is a bad explanation. It doesn’t account for the design at all. And yet, materialists refuse to accept even the possibility that this might point to the existence of a Divine Creator. The evolutionary biologist Richard C. Lewontin (himself an atheist) lets the cat out of the bag in an essay for The New York Review of Books:

What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

So no matter how strong the evidence may be, materialists refuse to accept the possibility that the right answer might be a Divine one. And so, if you recognize that the universe is designed, but refuse to accept God as a possibility, you’re forced to come up with ever-more-convoluted explanations instead. That’s how you end up with amusing moments like Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the smuggest popular opponents of religion, openly wondering if we live in a computer. Or this line from the philosopher David Chalmers:

And if someone somewhere created our simulation, would that make this entity God? “We in this universe can create simulated worlds and there’s nothing remotely spooky about that,” Chalmers said. “Our creator isn’t especially spooky, it’s just some teenage hacker in the next universe up.”

Part of the hilarity of these absurd explanations is that they’re so short-sighted. The “teenage hacker in the next universe up” apparently lives in a universe just as designed and mathematically-structured as our own, enabling him to code and omnisciently govern this universe. So why is that universe designed? This explanation just kicks the can down the road one step. The attempt to avoid God as an answer succeeds in creating foolish theories, but fails in eliminating the need for God.

In other words, the conversation has gone more or less like this:

Scientists: “You know there’s a lot of evidence that this universe was designed…”

Materialists: “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!! You’d have to be an idiot to believe that!”

Scientists: “… maybe it was an alien or a teenage hacker?”

Materialists: “Oh, those are valid theories! Let’s consider them carefully!”

There is a more rational explanation, guys. Just let the Divine Foot in the door already.