Posts Tagged ‘Is this world a hologram?’

Is this Real Life? Is it Just Fantasy?

April 6, 2016

Recently a serious panel discussion debated whether or not the reality we experience is, in fact, just a hologram, a computer simulation.  I haven’t posted anything in awhile, so I thought I’d like to jump in.  I won’t swim out into the deep waters, just wade around a bit.

This isn’t actually a new idea at all.  One standard variation that comes up often in Introduction to Philosophy classes was put forward by Bishop George Berkeley in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous between 1710 and 1713 (full text here).  Bishop Berkeley was an Anglican cleric, and also heavily influenced by the English empiricist John Locke.  Locke and Descartes are often treated as co-fathers of the Enlightenment, with Descartes the founder of Rationalism and Locke the founder of Empiricism.  Descartes had famously argued, “I think, therefore I am.”  All the sense information we have is potentially mistaken, so we have to discard it; since the only thing I am certain of is my own existence, I must start there, and try to logically deduce knowledge of the rest of existence.  Descartes claimed to be able to do this because there were certain innate ideas, inborn in his mind; most importantly, he claimed innate possession of the concept of God, a concept that could not have come from his senses and which must be real.  Locke argued that this is impossible.  Locke asserted that the mind is like a blank piece of paper.  Experience writes on that paper.  Until experience provides us with some words, the paper is and remains blank; once we have some words, we can rearrange them imaginatively in new combinations.  Thus for Locke, all knowledge originates in the senses.  Everything we know is known either through the senses, or by abstraction and recombination from the senses.  For example, I know the color white because I have seen it; if I had been blind from birth the concept “color” would not exist for me.  I can imagine a white even whiter than any I have seen in real life.  I can imagine a white object, like a white lawn, even though I have never seen white grass, by combining my memories of lawns and whiteness.

One problem with Locke’s original philosophy, though, is that it is so experiential, but also strives for common sense.  We “know” that some events cause other events, that there is a material substance that we don’t experience that underlies the qualities we do experience (we say, “That flower changed color” as if there were something besides the color we see, some unseen reality, a “matter” underlying the “accidents”), and that the material substance can affect our minds and vice versa (my material body is supposedly directed by my mind and somehow can make “me” feel pain or hunger or joy).  Locke does not adequately explain how this can be, and for that matter, neither does Descartes.

Berkeley’s solution is as elegant as it is apparently insane:  there is no material world.  There are only minds:  God, and all the other minds God created.  God sends sensations to those other minds directly.  I see my glowing white computer screen with black letters because God is sending me those visual sensations, just as God is sending me the physical sensations of touch through what I perceive to be my fingers while I type.  As I tell my students, Berkeley really thought we were in the Matrix, with one essential difference; if we were disconnected from God, there would be nothing physical remaining, not even our bodies.

Once one gets past the initial shock, this theory actually makes some sense.  First, as a bishop, Berkeley accepts Christian teaching that the universe exists every instant solely because God sustains it.  In his philosophy, that is quite literally true; if God ever stopped sending out these sensations to the other minds, they would have no world.  They would not even perceive each other.  The only world that exists is the world that God projects to each mind individually; the only connection they have to one another is the connection through God, as God sends you the sensation of me saying these words.  As an empirical metaphysician, Berkeley is able to answer most of the difficult questions Locke chose to ignore, like how we could know that “substance” exists when we never perceive it and our only source of knowledge is perception.  For Berkeley, “to be is to be perceived;” what is not perceived literally does not exist.  This is the source of that famous philosophical riddle, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?  For Berkeley, there is no tree and no sound unless someone hears it.  If it exists in God’s mind, then God perceives it and it is real; but as far as we know, it has no existence at all when we are not around to witness it.  God may shut down those parts of the Matrix until someone’s thoughts wander into that part of the program.

The existential/pragmatic question is, what difference would this make?  The fact is, Berkeley says, this literally is the only reality there is.  It is not “real” in the sense you thought it was, but it is the only game in town; if you want to play, you have to play this hand.  Reality still operates under the same physical and moral laws you always thought it did; there is just a different reason why.  This raises another question:  if we still live our lives the same whether we believe in a material universe or not, is there even a meaningful sense in which we can adopt either Berkeleyan or holographic idealism?  Wittgenstein raised the question, suppose someone believed that thieves broke into his house every night, and stole everything he had and replaced everything with exact replicas.  How would he live his life any differently than someone who believed that the objects he left in his house in the morning were the same as those he found when he returned at night?  If in fact this “belief” had no difference, then it is hard to say he even has a belief at all; perhaps the notion is literally nonsense.  If the holographic idealism theory is anything other than nonsense, then, it has to suggest some sort of difference in our lives.  Perhaps it could inspire us to try to contact the programmers we believe set up the computer simulation we live in, or otherwise try to verify this theory.  In the absence of some way to to this, without some Morpheus to lead us to the “real world,” we have no choice but to keep swallowing the blue pill.