Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 14 2024

Do We Live in the Matrix?

One of the most popular existential questions in recent years is, “Do we live in the Matrix?”—of course, this is referring to the 1999 movie of the same name. As it ages, of course, people replace it with the more generic, “Do we live in a simulation?” The question is about whether anything that we do here in our universe is real and matters. We’re going to discuss both, but the more relevant one to this blog is the latter because when something matters, it has significance or meaning.

Let’s start with whether what we live in is “real”. Of course, we have to define “real” first or people could debate forever what they’re even talking about: by “real”, we mean is exists in a physical reality and is not either a figure of someone’s imagination, a computer program, or some other fake kind of existence that isn’t how we understand it today. The reason why this aspect of the discussion is fascinating is that there is no way to tell. The closest historical question is DeCarte’s famous, “I think, therefore I am,” claim after realizing that he couldn’t prove that he existed by any scientifically sound measure since all perception involves his mind—his thought. Therefore, he is able to think and perceive everything, and that’s how he knows he exists.

The problem with the question of whether you live in a simulation is that if you existed in the simulation and were programmed not to perceive anything outside it, then you’d never know. A person who is part of the system and only able to perceive it could never view beyond. The closest humans have gotten is in the ideas behind dark matter, black holes, and the multiverse: you can prove that something that you can’t see is there based on its impact on everything around it. For example, you can’t see what’s in a black hole, but based on the behavior around it you can tell that it’s not empty space but rather gravity so strong that light can’t escape. You couldn’t observe anything in there for the same reason, but you can see how things behave outside it and draw conclusions.

Because of this fact—that it’s impossible to tell because you would be in the simulation and wouldn’t be able to—we will never be able to tell for certain whether this is real or not. So the more interesting question, which helps answer the first question in a way, is, “Does it matter?” We’ll define this in two ways: whether there are implications for your life (the pragmatic “matter”), and whether it makes your life any more or less significant either way (the subjective, philosophical “matter”).

Starting with the first definition: if the simulation is so real to you then you can’t tell the difference, then no, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still go to jail if you commit a crime, so you probably shouldn’t do that if you want to avoid living there for years. Nothing changes in that regard. What people usually mean is that if we lived in a simulation, then “God” and “heaven” as many religions believe them to be wouldn’t exist and so many people around the world would likely behave more hedonistically than piously. So that would be significant if you were living one life because you thought you were trying to act correctly according to a philosophy that then turned out to be false due to you living in a simulation.

But other than that point, your life is the same. It’s not like now that you know it’s just a simulation that you’ll start walking around naked and licking people’s faces everywhere you go. Some people use “none of it matters, anyway,” as an excuse to commit bizarre or criminal behavior—and, to be fair, some use it to free themselves from societal pressures—but many people use that as a justification for their actions (“That car was really awesome and I wanted to drive it, so I stole it…who cares?  Nothing matters, anyway…”) rather than a driver of their actions (“I realized that nothing really matters, and so I went and stole a car…”). Society has become secularized enough where most behaviors are due to societal norms and agreed upon rules over belief in things outside of this reality, so it doesn’t have too much impact.

The more interesting point is the “significance” definition: does it make your life any more significant or not? Yes, this is a subjective question, but let’s go to the extreme and assume for a moment that, objectively, the universe being “real” makes it more significant than it being a computer simulation. In that extreme case, that could be a decent case for it not mattering since it’s nearly universally agreed upon that if a child shut off his video game of The Sims and those people were all self-aware and then just disappeared, no one would notice or care. If, however, a meteor hit the Earth from someone screwing with our simulation, everyone would care desperately in this world but the person outside wouldn’t necessarily (ironically enough, the only being outside this universe that it is popular to believe exists, God, cares in all of the books). And maybe that’s why people ask the question from this perspective: does anyone outside our world care about our existence?

As I’ve covered extensively in these writings, caring is the act of placing significance or meaning on something, and so asking if anyone “cares” is the equivalent of there being anything outside of life on Earth that would perceive its significance. That, of course, cannot be scientifically answered, but it comes back again to why people ask the question. People care about things. People want others to care about things—either them or what they care about. People want to live their lives feeling like it’ll matter to someone, have a positive impact in some way, or have some sort of reward or continuation after it’s over. That’s the desire and search for significance in this universe: wanting to find and foster meaning and impact. It’s why people want to leave a legacy, why people strive to be the best, and why they want to help others and society. It’s in our DNA to seek growth and avoid harm, and we deem people and things that reflect or enable growth as being significant. It’s why we think Jupiter is “more significant” (it’s larger), why we think the best NFL football player is more significant (he grew into a better player), and why societal leaders are more significant (they enabled the growth of society more than most others).

So I can’t tell you, for obvious reasons, whether we live in a simulation. All I can tell you is that it only matters if you are behaving in a way that you don’t like because you think the reality as you perceive it is different. I can’t tell you whether that’s the right way to perceive the world or the right way to live. What I can tell you is that if would live in a way that’s more beneficial to you and others and doesn’t hurt anyone, you should consider the beliefs you hold about your reality as hindering you, and if you want to believe that nothing matters so you can cause harm, that’s more a reflection of your pain and misery and not a reflection of reality and whether anything in life actually matters. But I can tell you that if you seek significance, seek growth; that’s the only way to find it.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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