Are you really reading this? This website, the view from your window, you yourself...is any of it REAL?
It’s a question that’s been bothering humankind for hundreds, thousands of years… How do we know if anything is real?
The words you’re reading now, the chair you’re sitting on, your friends, your family… Does any of it exist in the way you think it does?
It’s something the ancient Greek philosopher Plato thought about. A lot.
He tried to explain his ideas in a story about a cave.
In this cave lived a group of men.
The men were all chained up to a wall in such a way they could only look forwards.
They could only see the wall of the cave in front of them.
On that wall are shadows cast from the outside world behind them. Shadows of the life in the outside world the men knew nothing about.
These shadows are the only things the men can see. And so they believe the shadows to be real.
But what, Plato asks, would happen if one of the men escaped?
If he left the cave and saw the things that were creating the shadows – the birds, the trees, the animals?
And if he went back into the cave to tell the others about the outside world, would they believe him? Or would they think he was crazy?
That is the conundrum of the human condition.
We think we understand the world. But we are like the men in the cave. We’re trapped in our own bodies and minds. We only see what we understand. Like the men in the cave, we can only look forwards.
But what if the world around us is like the shadows in the cave? What if it isn’t real? What if it’s an illusion?
In recent years, scientists have started asking if our world could be just that. Nothing more than an illusion.
And if it were, how would we ever know?
Take the field of artificial intelligence…
For a long time, scientists have pointed out how difficult it is for artificially intelligent entities, like robots, to understand that the things they think and feel are not actual thoughts and emotions.
Indeed, the most successful robots react just like human beings do.
Could the same be said for us? Are we artificial intelligences living in a simulated world created by something much larger than our understanding?
If we can create robots that simulate real life, has someone or something else created us?
Our brains, and the electricity that runs through them, could be fed by sensory inputs from a giant computer.
And this is not just the stuff of science fiction. Researchers, scientists and academics at universities around the world have studied the possibility for decades.
At the heart of some of this research are the biggest mysteries of the natural world.
Just where does instinct come from, if not programmed into the neurons and synapses of our brains by a computer?
Take the instincts we all have from the moment we’re born.
Without being told, babies know how to suck a breast or a bottle for food. And to cry for attention. And even to breathe.
Most species are born with instincts like our own.
Fish know how to swim, birds to fly, bees to make honey.
Could we all come programmed with this information in the same way as a computer or smart phone comes with programmed functions and apps?
If so, who’s tapping into the keyboard? God? Something else?
Our reality could be nothing more than a computer simulation. Which raises the question, if we are computers, what are our thoughts..? And what are our souls..?
Back in the 16th century, French philosopher Rene Descartes came up with the famous phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’.
What he meant was that nothing we see around us is necessarily true or real. In fact, the only thing we can rely on is that we have a mind and a consciousness – and that our minds and consciousnesses allow us to feel we really exist.
But how can we know for certain where our thoughts come from? What are our minds? Just another part of the computer programme?
We then come back to the same problem. That we’ll never know the truth.
And if some top scientist in some top university were to find proof we were part of a simulated universe, would we believe it?
Or would we think the scientist was crazy? Just like the men in Plato’s cave.
Have we been condemned to an eternity believing in nothing more than shadows?
The Matrix and Plato
In the 1999 film, Keanu Reeve’s character Neo symbolises the man who escapes from the cave in Plato’s ancient story. Before leaving his cave, everything Neo thought was real is only an illusion – like the people in the cave. Once he’s free and has seen what reality is, Neo tries to teach the rest of humanity the truth – just like the man in the cave.