Recent claims by prominent leaders and gurus in the Information Technology community, such as Elon Musk, that we could very well be living inside a computer simulated reality suggest that our apparently physical world may at its heart be a vast set of mathematical computations.
The film The Matrix — which philosopher William Irwin saw as an updated version of Plato’s Cave re-envisioned in the parlance of computer technology — has now been converted from fantasy into a real hypothesis for further investigations. We will dub this the Musk-Matrix Hypothesis (MMH).
So what’s Plato got to add here? The notable scientist, Werner Heisenberg, asserted that Plato was right to define physical reality as mathematical:
‘I think that on this point modern physics has definitely decided for Plato. For the smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or—in Plato’s sense—Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics’
The Wikipedia entry sums up this Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH):
‘Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure. That is, the physical universe is mathematics in a well-defined sense…’
Related to this is Computationalism, which suggests that our powers of cognition are at bottom mathematical (an idea explored eloquently by roboticist Hans Moravec in his discussion of mathematical realism; also known as Mathematical Platonism). Since humans are born, according to Plato, with innate ideas of mathematical structures, then our minds — once we receive the proper education — can grasp reality’s underlying mathematical structure; a kind of ghostly skeleton that lurks behind the apparently robust, but actually illusory, world of ephemeral empirical experience. Alternatively put, reality analogous to the ‘software’, mathematical structure, the ‘hardware.’
However, as Plato argued, because we are prisoners in the cave of ordinary daily life we confuse those ephemeral shadows and images with the truth. What we naively label ‘real-time’ is actually virtual reality. Researchers investigating a putative computer simulated reality, are trying to drag us out of this Cave/Matrix. We are like Neo waiting for our Socrates/Morpheus, but played now by Elon Musk.
Yet, along with his mathematical ideas, Plato’s psychology investigated gaps and irregularities in human thinking and behaviour. Could the MMH be tweaked to explain such anomalies?
In his dialogues, Plato depicts humans plagued by a species of Attention Deficit Disorders, which includes a lack of focus, as Jeffrey Edward Green observed. For Plato, people are restless, fail to concentrate, lose their attention span, and then fall asleep.
Though Plato adduced these examples to support his theory of knowledge and critique of democracy, the MMH suggests another possible explanation. If our reality is one vast computer simulation, then perhaps these irregularities are evidence of viruses or malware ‘attacking’ our simulated reality. A wandering attention span sounds remarkably like the restless behaviour of a computer infected with malware, which redirects the system’s focus to other websites. And could virus attacks be responsible for forgetfulness and, in general, muddled thinking; our version of data loss, system shutdown, and corrupted files?
While these speculations may sound farfetched, they are no more absurd than the original MMH, which once was a cinematic fantasy, but is now the stuff of serious debate.
Thomas White is a Wiley Journal Author, who has published essays, poetry and fiction, digital and print, in the United States, Canada, and Australia. He is the founder and former facilitator of the Maryland Socrates Cafe in Takoma Park, Maryland (USA), and is writing a book on the meaning of moral evil.
How about you, dear reader, do you think Plato discovered that reality is a simulation? Would this simulated universe be susceptible to viruses?