Enter the maze

Are we living in The Matrix?

A wire frame virtual reality

In the film 'The Matrix', it turns out that real life as we know it is just one vast simulation, that actually we are all just plugged into a massive computer and everything we see is an illusion. This isn't a new idea. Philosophers and scientists have been thinking about ideas like this for hundreds of years in a bid to find out whether the world 'out there' is real or not.

Can we work out whether we are all really living in 'The Matrix', and if we are, what should we do about it? Sam Tazzyman, a student at UCL (if he really exists), looks at the arguments for cs4fn.

The French Connection

Have you ever had a dream that seemed amazingly real? So real that you didn't realise it was a dream until you woke up? In 1641 a clever Frenchman named Rene Descartes (who also invented the coordinate system of x and y axes we all know and love) published a book called 'Meditations on First Philosophy'. In writing this book he thought hard about the consequences of these sorts of dreams.

"If dreams like that seem so real," he reasoned, "how do I know that I'm not dreaming at the moment?" In other words, how do you know that your whole life isn't just a big dream, and that any minute now you'll wake up? Descartes went further than that, though. "What if an evil demon were confusing me? ... so that everything I saw, heard, felt, smelt or tasted was an illusion?"

Brains in vats

Nowadays people aren't so scared of demons as they were back in the 17th century, but we can find a more modern equivalent of Descartes' concerns. Suppose instead of an evil demon there was a mad scientist. Instead of the life you think you lead, you are actually just a brain in a vat of liquid in the mad scientist's lab.

There are wires going from a supercomputer to the brain, and everything you think that you see, hear, feel, smell or taste is actually just information coming through the wires from the computer, just like in 'The Matrix'! When you eat lunch, your sensation of lunch is actually just computer signals going through the wires to your brain. When you ride a bike, all the experiences are just computer signals going through the wires to your brain. Anything you experience through your senses is in reality just this kind of computer signal. The only thing real about you is your brain, which is of course not really in your head but in the vat in the mad scientist's lab.

Total simulation

A face stripped by a pixel wind

In recent years another philosopher called Nick Bostrom, from Oxford University, has taken the argument on still further. He imagines a future civilisation so advanced that they can create really amazingly good simulations. These simulations would be even more advanced than 'The Matrix', being completely realistic so that they are impossible to distinguish from the real world, but better because even the people in the simulation don't need to be real - they can be simulations too, and if the simulation was really perfect they wouldn't even know it!

Imagine a real person from this future civilisation playing a super-advanced future version of Grand Theft Auto. When playing it they can roam around doing anything a person could do in the year 2007. When they meet people, the people act 100% realistically (which certainly doesn't happen in our versions of computer games). In fact the simulated people think and feel and sense things exactly like a real person. They don't know that they are just a simulation inside a computer program! From their point of view they are a real person carrying on with their real life.

Now, here's the amazing bit. This future civilisation is so advanced that they can run hundreds of millions of simulations like this. This means that there will be far, far more simulated people than there ever were real people... but then how do you know that you aren't just a simulated person in a futuristic computer program that is already here? If there are lots more simulated people than real ones, the chances are that you are in fact simulated.

Of course this only works if we agree that a future super-advanced civilisation is possible, and that they would want to make this kind of simulation. It makes you think, though. Perhaps even 'The Matrix' doesn't go far enough!


All this sounds crazy, but one of the reasons that the idea has been around for so long (though in different forms) is that it is very difficult to convincingly disprove. How could you show someone that you aren't in 'The Matrix' (or something similar like the evil demon or the brain in a vat)? Everything you point to could be part of the illusion! If even you are part of the illusion, how can you be certain of anything?

Worried? Maybe you don't have to be - does it really make any difference to your everyday life whether or not what you experience is 'real'? Philosophers are divided on this (actually they are divided on most things!), but I generally agree with the ones who say that it really doesn't matter much. After all, whether or not the world you see is actually real, it certainly seems real to you! When you kick a stone (or ride your bike, or watch the TV, or talk or laugh or sing) you don't need to worry about whether the stone (or bike or TV or ...) is real or not, because the whole point is you can't tell. Perhaps the real lesson is to try and make the most of your life ... or maybe that's just what the robots controlling 'The Matrix' want you to think!

The Hampton Court Maze

The maze

This is a dead end. Back to the East is a ghostly battleship