Inside The Matrix: philosophers discuss the possibility that we are living in a simulation

Statement made 20 years ago in The Matrix is taken seriously: is it possible that our world is a computational simulation?

Disclaimer: This is the translation of an article originally published at CNN Brasil.

Twenty years after the release of the debuting title of the franchise, The Matrix is back with the sequel Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski, one of the two sisters responsible for the work.

As the 21st century approached, the debuting film raised debate around its true meaning. Right at the first minutes, for instance, we see Neo holding the book Simulacra and Simulations by Jean Baudrillard, which became known for presenting the premise that there is an illusion of another reality fabricated by new technologies and their images.

In The Matrix, what we watch is precisely the journey of a hacker who is invited to discover the truth behind the veil of a computational simulation.

The debate has grown so popular in the collective imagination that, in 2003, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper called “The Simulation Argument”, in which he suggests that we could be living inside a simulated universe — as if we were living inside a video game… or the Matrix.

However, for this to be true, only one of the three statements should be correct:

  1. There is a great chance that humanity will be extinct before reaching post-humanity (that is, the next stage in evolution of species, which would be ignited by technology);
  2. It is very unlikely that any post-human civilization will be capable of creating a significant number of simulations in its history;
  3. It is mostly certain that we are living in a simulation.

Despite the fact that the first two statements suggest exactly that it is unlikely that humanity will be able to create a simulation in which ourselves or other people would be inserted, it was the third option that caught the attention of people like the billionaire Elon Musk.

Back when Bostrom published his paper, the founder of Tesla was already saying that he believed that the world we live in is, in fact, a simulation.

More recently, in a reply to a tweet about the game Pong, released in 1972, Musk argues that, 49 years later, video game graphics are growing increasingly more sophisticated, to the point that they are able to create new worlds that are indistinguishable from reality. “What does that trend continuing imply about our reality?”, he questions.

Curiously, in December 2021, Matrix was also used as a pretext to showcase the abilities of the Unreal Engine 5 game engine, which is a system used to create games that are increasingly closer to our reality. Check the demonstration in the video below:

From Matrix to the Metaverse

For Bruno Pato, host of a TV show about games and a virtual reality (VR) evangelist, Musk’s proposition makes him believe that we are indeed living in a simulation.

In his podcast Papo VR, for example, every guest is invited to share their opinion about that: are we living in the Matrix or not? The answers, according to Pato, vary a lot.

In the case of Alfredo Suppia, professor of cinema at Unicamp, the belief that we are living in the Matrix has a political and economic layer when Bostrom claims that, in order to make the third statement true, it is necessary that “individuals relatively prosper wish to create simulations, and that they are free to do that.”

That is the case of Elon Musk himself, but also Mark Zuckerberg, who recently announced the rebranding of Facebook to Meta, which is derived from his decision to focus on the metaverse — that is, virtually simulated universes that can be accessed through devices of immersive technologies, such as is the case of virtual, augmented or mixed reality.

Despite the hype of the term “metaverse” among technology enthusiasts and investors (specially at this stage of NFTs and the selling of “virtual land”), this is a concept created by the beginning of the 1990s, when the writer Neal Stephenson released his science fiction book Snowcrash.

While some interpretations tend to see the novel as a parody of the main topics of cyberpunk, other people (including Stephenson himself, who became a futurist consultant at Magic Leap) see in the concept an opportunity for business.

A pioneer in the field of immersive technologies, Boo Aguilar was responsible for creating the center of immersive technologies Snowcrash at the Brazilian company Flag.

Since the beginning of the 2010s, Aguilar has worked on different projects that aim to combine virtual reality with artificial intelligence and medicine.

For him, what was an “underground” movement has turned into something much bigger and dangerous as it was incorporated to the agenda of big tech. “There are already very sophisticated mapping devices which were developed years ago, but they weren’t released because first they want to add algorithms capable of analyzing human behavior,” he explains.

What is already true in platforms like Instagram and Facebook is thus becoming the next step for metaverse too. To support his claim, Aguilar mentions a project that used VR headsets with eye movement trackers, which ultimately allowed the profiling of the users’ personality with high precision.

The Game of Life

In his paper “O argumento da simulação e seu caldo de cultura” (The Simulation Argument and its Cultural Developments), Suppia argues that the fact that Musk is trying to bring back the simulation argument now is, in fact, the attempt to kickstart a new stage of neoliberalism.

According to him, “all defenders of the simulation, academic or not, are consciously or not responsible” for this perpetuation of the capital.

After all, if the world is really a simulation, Suppia believes that the only thing that we can do is, therefore, play: “It is like capital could say: if almost everything is a simulation, it is likely that there is no reality; we need to play this simulation, choose our roles wisely and obtain our best performance.”

In this case, Suppia mentions Ready Player One (2018), a movie directed by Spielberg in adaptation for a homonymous book in which the players compete not only for a victory in the game, but also for prizes in money — while the “real world” lives in misery –, thus perpetuating the idea of meritocracy.

According to Alexey Dodsworth, PhD in philosophy and science fiction writer, when Bostrom suggests that we are living in a simulation, his assumption is not comparable to the classic Allegory of the Cave proposed by Plato. In this case, it is claimed that there is an actual world (outside the cave) and a simulation (the projected shadows).

In The Matrix, we are able to see the difference between reality and simulacra, whereas in Bostrom’s theory, all universes are actually simulations. “He speaks about simulation not as a synonym of illusion. It has more to do with something generated by a program that creates innumerable realities,” argues Dodsworth, who believes that The Matrix is much closer to the Allegory of the Cave than Bostrom’s theory.

As explained by the researcher, The Matrix has the same “naivety” of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. After all, as different philosophers have already disputed, who can assure us that, after leaving the cave, we will really be in the real world? What if it’s just an even more sophisticated simulation? In this viewpoint, which is closer to Bostrom’s theory and perhaps to Matrix Resurrections’ new premise, nothing assures us that “getting out of the Matrix” will take Neo back to reality.

Virtually Real

An important point to be considered is thus this one raised by the historian and researcher Vanessa Bortulucce: each time deals in different ways with virtualities.

She mentions a story dating back from Ancient Greece in which Zeuxis (approx. séc 5 B.C.) painted a bunch of grapes on a wall in such a realistic style that even birds tried to peck the image. “This is a tradition that is followed throughout history, especially in the Western case, when we see dome paintings that imitate nature to give the feeling that one is outdoors, while, in fact, it’s just the wall,” she adds.

Bortulucce also mentions that, from this perspective, currently it is already possible to say that some people abdicate from the “real world” to live in these virtualities which are increasingly more realistic due to the developments in computer graphics and video games.

This is also a point raised by Pato, who stresses that there are already people who spend much more time in simulations like VRChat than “offline”.

However, for the historian, there is no such a thing as the opposition between “real” and “virtual”, since “everything comes from reality” and, oftentimes, this reality is also idealized.

In this case, the fact that The Matrix has so many different interpretations is already an argument for the ambiguity between what is real or true, and what is idealized or what we don’t even capture with our senses.

One of the reasons why Lilly Wachowski decided to not direct the sequel Resurrections with her sister has to do with the fact that, for her, The Matrix was always a metaphor about gender transition. However, back in the day, the executives didn’t allow them to address this topic so explicitly. Now that both sisters have publicly transitioned, Lilly doesn’t see a reason to work again on the franchise.

In other words, The Matrix is not just about what is real and what is simulated from a technological perspective. The work itself, in a metalinguistic way, is able to multiply itself in different interpretations.

Although the first movies have clearly differentiated reality from simulation, there is hope that Resurrections strengthens this debate by including Bostrom’s theory of a Russian-doll-like reality. If we are indeed living in a simulation — is it ever possible to get out of it and not fall prey of yet another simulation?

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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