The scene is movie legend: Morpheus sits with Neo beside a fireplace while a storm rages outside, and tells him that the world he calls reality—what he sees when he looks out the window or turns on the television, when he goes to work—it’s all an illusion. If he takes the blue pill, Neo can remain comfortably in the illusion—you know, “The Matrix.” But if he takes the red pill, he will wake up to a very uncomfortable real world.
It’s a cool movie, but some scientists are entertaining an idea almost exactly like its premise. The “simulation hypothesis” proposes that the world around us, our bodies, and even our own minds might not be real. Instead, they could be the illusions of a sophisticated computer program created by a super-intelligent being or beings.
In fact, writing at NBC, Dan Falk quotes top scientists and philosophers who think that it’s not just possible, it’s likely. They think we could exist in some version of the Matrix. “If we are living in a simulation,” writes Oxford philosopher Nick Bostram, “then the cosmos we are observing is just a tiny piece of the totality of physical existence.” The world we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, may not be “located at the fundamental level of reality.”
Before you laugh: This idea is surprisingly hard to disprove—at least on secular assumptions. One M.I.T. scientist and author of the book, “The Simulation Hypothesis,” recalls playing a virtual reality game and forgetting he was alone “in an empty room with a headset on.” The game was just so realistic, it became his reality.
If it’s that easy to get lost in a simulation we’ve designed with our limited technology—or so goes the thinking—what must it be like in a simulation designed by an advanced race? We could live our entire lives in such a simulation, and never know it.
And what would be the purpose of such a virtual-reality reality? The answer in “The Matrix” was sentient robotic overlords who kept us distracted so they could use humans to generate energy to survive. Believe it or not, some who seriously argue for the simulation hypothesis have similarly outlandish guesses as to the identity and intent of the programmers.
Some suggest a race of extraterrestrial beings running a kind of experiment on us. Rich Terrile of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory thinks the programmers could be us—that is, future, highly-advanced (read: further evolved) humans who have decided to create a simulation of an earlier stage of their own civilization.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that these advanced beings controlling our reality quickly get deified.
If the simulation hypothesis turns out to be true, says Terrile, that means “there’s a creator, an architect—someone who designed the world.” He even recognizes he’s wrapping ancient religious ideas—specifically Eastern Monism—in “mathematics and science rather than just faith.” But he’s fine with that.
Taking the simulation hypothesis seriously forces us to deal with serious questions. For instance, could our own minds and everything we know and love be mere created computer code designed to trick itself into believing it can think? And if all of this is a simulation, does anything matter at all?
According to Harvard astronomer Abraham Loeb, such thinking could lead to massive social unrest. After all, if the world is just a computer program, it would “relieve us from being accountable for any of our actions.” And if our world is the creation of an advanced race, where did they come from? Much like the theory that says life on earth was seeded by extraterrestrials, the simulation hypothesis just moves the origin of intelligent life back a step. But it doesn’t ever explain it.
Of course, there’s a much more direct way of answering these ultimate questions. What if the improbable design of the universe, our planet, bodies, and minds were, in fact, created by an advanced Being, who instead of programming a supercomputer, called everything into existence by His Word. What if this Creator is a moral being, and so we are morally accountable to Him?
Apparently, for a few of the world’s top scientists, that’s just too much of a stretch… too unlikely, and who wants to be morally accountable anyway? And so, instead, they prefer The Matrix.