A week or so back, I had gone over to a friend’s place. Now like all typical teenagers seem to do these days, he thinks himself estranged from his parents and has decided to entirely move into the basement of his house. As is with all collections of minimally lit four walls placed away from prying eyes, this environment was also conducive to conducting ‘thought experiments’ of our own.
Picture this – three teens, all heavily entrapped in their personal diatribes about their own worlds; sprawled around a languid circle and musing about life’s greatest challenges while lazy smoke curls away towards whatever minimal ventilation is present. ‘Mellow’ is the perfect word to describe the atmosphere.
‘Why am I here, bro?’ the rejected son wails, ‘Why couldn’t I have been on a beach in Goa sipping, I don’t know, a mimosa or something. The chill life, bro. That’s what I want!’
Me, a Computer Science undergraduate having signed up for a red-pill course of Critical Thinking and obviously thinking myself savvy with all philosophical ideas, was immediately piqued. I draped myself more comfortably over the armchair and settled in for a long night of aesthetic banter, ‘How do you know you aren’t?
Two pairs of cold eyes stared back at me.
‘No, seriously, think about it. Remember Inception? How can you be certain that you aren’t indeed sunbathing on Calangute Beach when you fell asleep, and that’s why you’re stuck here with us in this moment? You would only realise that a dream is a dream when you wake up.’
‘Why can’t I be dreaming of Megan Fox instead.’
‘You mean something like The Matrix, right?’ The intellectually gifted statistics major spoke up. ‘The entire premise of being placed in an alternate reality without being actively aware of it – scary, obviously, but highly plausible as well. There’s just no way to know that this environment that we’re in isn’t an artificial simulation.’
‘Yes, exactly. The Matrix was a revolutionary movie in the sense that it actually forced people to think beyond their immediate surroundings. The niggling doubt of ‘could this be true?’ was seeded into people’s minds. In fact, for the movie to be this well accepted, the audience had to have already been open to such kind of scepticism. Like Morpheus said in the movie, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” And this sort of questioning of what reality actually is, and whether what we see, touch, hear etc is real was also proposed by a philosopher named Rene Descartes, the same person who gave us coordinate geometry.’
Although we may just be entitled kids thinking the world is owed to us, we had managed to touch upon an age-old philosophical debate while in that hazy state we had been in. Having done extensive research on the very same topic I’d picked for my Research Paper; I realised that this would be the perfect moment to hash out ideas and soundboard analyses off of a bunch of like-minded individuals willing to hear me rant.
Rene Descartes was a seventeenth-century modern philosopher, scientist and mathematician. At some point in his life, he realised that a lot of the things he thought to be true were in fact lies. This got him wondering whether the facts he presently held as truth were indeed true or not. Much like you don’t realise you’re dreaming till you wake up, you don’t understand that you’ve been believing lies till you actually find your beliefs to be false. He decided that the only way to be confident that you believed only truths was to start out by disbelieving everything. This form of scepticism, called Cartesian Scepticism or Cartesian Doubt, doesn’t necessarily question whether we know things, but calls into question whether we know things with certainty.
He started by tackling all empirical beliefs – beliefs gained through our senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. The act of questioning your senses, known as academic scepticism, was the foundational basis of Descartes’ thought experiment. His thinking can be supported by many simple examples that prove that our senses can indeed be deceiving. Think of a stick dipped in water. To the eye, it appears bent; but it feels straight to touch. Hence, we can conclude that either one, or maybe even both, of our senses must be deceiving us. However, these are merely temporary instances. Once the situation changes, we can realise that our experience was false. But what if we’re living in a false reality, just like in The Matrix; and everything we see is a deception?
A parallel thought experiment was given by Bertrand Russell in which he hypothesised that the entire universe was created just five minutes ago, including all signs of history and human memory. My memory of spending an evening in my friend’s basement could very well be pre-fabricated and put into place by the creator of the universe according to this theory. While it may seem preposterous, there is, in fact, no way to disprove this theory with absolute certainty.
Descartes was not the first one to doubt the reality of our surroundings. Before him, Plato had asked the same question. In his famous Allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of The Republic; Plato describes a group of people born into a cave and chained facing the back wall. A fire burns behind them. All they can see are shadows on the wall from people and things occasionally passing by. Suddenly, one prisoner is freed and wanders out of the cave. At first, the brightness of the sun hurts his eyes, but after his eyes have adjusted, he is able to see the objects that he had previously only seen shadows of, and is told that this is reality. When he returns to the cave, he tries to explain what he saw to the other chained prisoners but is met with hostility. Moreover, his eyes find it hard to focus in the darkness and he is unable to see the shadows. Thinking him damaged by his trip outside the cave, the other prisoners violently reject his attempts at freeing them.
Plato gave this allegory as a means of describing what it was like for a philosopher to try teaching the average people. However, it can actually be read in many ways. Plato’s Allegory can be connected to his Theory of Forms. Yes, the objects outside the cave are more real than their shadows, but is it not possible that there are things more real than these objects also? This ultimate reality was named The Realm of Forms by Plato, where ‘form’ refers to the ideal version of an object. Everything around us is a mere imitation of these forms. Much like how a sculptor carving a sculpture is merely trying to make copies of ideal things like perfect shapes and beauty. Having never experienced this ultimate reality, it might be unfathomable for most of us to come to terms with the thought that our reality is not the realest.
Let us go back to Descartes. While analysing each of his beliefs to decide whether they were, in fact, true, he ideated the existence of an Evil Genius who had been putting false beliefs into our heads to prevent us from getting close to the truth. He posited that even the most basic ideas that we take to be universal truths, like the shape of a square or 2 + 2 = 4, could have all been placed in our minds by this Evil Genius and we would have no way of knowing this simply because we have never known anything else. It is impossible to be certain of something beyond the dimensions of what we already have been exposed to. Like Plato’s prisoners who lived in a two-dimensional world of shadows, we cannot think beyond the three dimensions outside of our cave of present existence. Even if one of us is set free and tries to think of an alternate reality, it is too hard a pill for others to digest and those thoughts are found to be troublesome.
But for the Evil Genius to be deceiving us, we must exist in order for him to do so. We must exist for us to doubt our own existence. And thus Descartes concluded, ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’
Extending this absolute belief of his existence, Descartes says that as a thinking being, his mind is full of diverse ideas. One of these ideas is the actuality of a ‘supremely perfect being’. He reasons that because we as finite beings cannot think of an infinite being, this idea of a perfect being must have been placed into our minds by a perfect being himself, thus proving the existence of God. In the Fifth Meditation, he writes,
But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature.René Descartes
He continues with this train of thought, saying that if the universe is run by a good and all-powerful God, it isn’t possible that we are being continuously deceived, and hence the Evil Genius does not exist.
‘Hang on,’ the statistics major was irked, ‘why does God need to be pulled into this?’
Truth be told, having been brought up in a so-called ‘forward-thinking’ environment, this sudden appearance of God in a discussion about the nature of reality annoyed us. I am studying in a STEM curriculum. I like Science. While they may very well be excellent points of debate that must be further explored, logical conclusions about omnipotent beings seem irrelevant to me, probably because I’m uncomfortable with the entire basis of religion. Besides, Descartes’ musings are all on the immaterial world. Just because he can think, doesn’t mean that his thoughts are connected to material reality. I do not agree that just because we are finite, we cannot think of infinite things. Thoughts and theories about infinity have been put forth since time immemorial. It has been one of the fundamentals of Physics. In fact, Descartes’ Evil Genius might himself be placing these thoughts in our minds. Instead, I believe we can think of God, but we cannot be certain of his existence.
Another route down scepticism was taken by Hilary Putnam in his argument of a Brain in a Vat. Suppose that your brain has been removed from your body and placed in a jar of nutrient medium. It is then hooked up to a supercomputer. This computer stimulates your brain to receive electrical impulses which places you in the real world. Simultaneously, it also senses your reactions and sends appropriate impulses for those as well.
‘So, in theory,’ I continue, ‘I believe that I am here sitting and talking to you, but since it is all a bunch of electrical impulses from firing neurons, I could very well be just a brain in a vat whose nerves are receiving the sensory stimulus of sound. I don’t actually need to be hearing you for my brain to be in the same state artificially.’
And this is precisely what the entire plot of The Matrix is – humans are suspended in vats and made to exist in an alternate reality because the present world is just too unpleasant. Descartes’ ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ proves the existence of a thinker, but it doesn’t prove the material presence of one. All we need to think is the brain, and the brain doesn’t necessarily need a body to exist.
Just like we could be a brain in a vat, we could also be living in a computer simulation. This theory was put forth by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in his paper titled ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation’; which opens with the paragraph
This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor‐simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.Bostrom, N (2001). Are You Living In A Computer Simulation, Page 1
This theory of living in a computer simulation where the simulated people are conscious was made even more popular by Elon Musk. He says that there is a billions in one chance that we are not in a simulation. Mathematically, he is not wrong.
‘Because we can’t prove that we aren’t in an advanced version of The Sims, let’s suppose for a minute that we are. Whoever is playing the game has scheduled us to be ‘socialising’ because our ‘fun’ levels had decreased.’ I had picked up the example of the most common life simulation video game I could think of. ‘The latest release, The Sims 4, has sold about 30 million copies. Keeping in mind the exponential growth rate of video game sales and including all the expansion packs that are released, a billion is not an unlikely number. The chances that we are a part of the real world, and not a character within the game, are thus indeed one in billions. The scary part is that with advancements in technology and the emergence of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, we are quite close to creating such simulations if we aren’t already within one. Or maybe we’re creating simulations while within a simulation, and our simulations would then be able to create simulations of their own. Who knows, the possibilities are endless.’
‘Guys, please,’ he says waking up from his stroll along Baga Beach, ‘I do not care whether I’m actually at the beach or not. I just want to feel as if I am.’
And therein lies, what I believe to be, the most important question of all. Sure, our reality might not be real after all; but does it really matter? I might not actually be with my friends, but I am having fun and enjoying myself. Does whether or not my happiness actually exist in the outer world really make a difference to me, who may or may not be a part of an artificial alternative. Of those who were woken up in The Matrix, very few chose to stay back, and most wanted to return to their ‘dreams’. Let us take this quote by Zhuangzi, an influential Chinese philosopher of around 4th century BC,
Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.Zhuang Zhou
One of the most anchoring plot points of Inception was the fact that some of the people who entered dreams often mixed up their reality and thought they were dreaming when in fact they weren’t. There were also addicts who were so dissatisfied with their ‘real’ lives, that they chose to live continually in a dream.
In season three of Riverdale (which I will shamefully admit I continued watching just because Cole Sprouse had been cast in it) many of the children were discovered to be playing a game called Gryphons and Gargoyles where they believed that they could ‘ascend’ by doing tasks and pleasing the Gargoyle King. To an outsider, this concept of the Gargoyle King is actually quite similar to Descartes’ Evil Genius. While playing the game, they forget about their surrounding realities and begin to accept the doctrines of the game as absolute truths. These thoughts have been placed into their minds by whoever is pretending to be the Gargoyle King, and is, in turn, manipulating the players.
One of the aptest applications of this question of reality is, in my personal opinion, Black Mirror’s Netflix special – Bandersnatch. Black Mirror is a show that is based on how technology can manipulate human behaviour, and is startlingly terrifying because it is visibly set in the near future. Bandersnatch was an interactive film. This meant that the viewer could control the outcome of the film by making many dichotomous choices which were presented along the way. As the film progressed, the protagonist was instilled with a sense of déjà vu and was beginning to understand that his decisions weren’t really his own. Towards the end, he becomes increasingly paranoid and is thought to be mentally unstable by those around him. However, during the times when he didn’t know that he was being controlled by someone else, he was happy and living his life like any other ‘normal’ human being. And thus I bring us back to the same question – does certainty of knowledge really matter?
If I were to be a hundred per cent honest, I would have to say that despite spending so much time researching this topic and coming across so many theories that do in fact bring in suspicion about ‘reality’, I still think that I am real. Sure, there is a doubt in my mind, but that doubt exists purely for academic reasons. I have read so much, and heard so much, about this; that I feel as if it’s my obligation to think this way. I can’t really say to myself that maybe none of this is real. The reason I can’t convince myself is that I still have to finish writing my research paper, I still have to study for the end semester exams, I still have to continue doing the things that I do on a regular basis. My life will not stop just because I start believing that none of it actually exists, and thus it doesn’t really make a difference. It might not be that big of a deal to whatever ultimate reality is out there, but in the reality I exist in, my thoughts and actions do hold weight. Thus in my own reality, everything is real.
So, as we feel ourselves returning to normalcy, I look to my fellow companions and conclude for the night, ‘I am as real as you are.’