Plato’s Allegory of the Cave tells of a group of prisoners who have lived their entire lives in chains, facing the wall of a cave. They’ve spent every moment of their existence facing the wall, seeing nothing but reflected shadows cast from an unseen light.
The prisoners, trying to understand their world, begin to name the various shapes of the shadows, to give them forms and quantify them.
According to the allegory, “the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.” But the shadows are only one infinitesimal slice of the real world, an illusion not representative of the universe’s true nature.
The fundamental idea of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is that we are all prisoners, and it is the duty of philosophers — those who have been freed — to enlighten and guide us to a better understanding of our reality.
Welcome To The Real World
“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
– Morpheus, The Matrix
The 1999 sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix takes Plato’s allegory (as well as other philosophical quandaries, such as Descartes’ “Evil Demon”) and shapes it into something more relatable to modern culture.
The Matrix (the cave), as described by Morpheus (the philosopher), is a “neural-interactive simulation,” a “computer-generated dream world,” created to control the human population, while synthetic organisms harvest them for energy.
Neo is, of course, a prisoner in this universal facade.
But that’s clearly just science fiction. A fun, philosophical musing on the nature of our universe with no basis in reality.
It From Bit
There’s an actual branch of theoretical science known as Digital Physics, which explores the very real possibility that our universe can fundamentally be described by information.
That it’s computable, meaning it could theoretically exist within a computer program. Or, in terms of The Matrix, it may very well be the result of a “simulated reality.”
“It from bit” refers to a phrase used by John Wheeler (yes, the John Wheeler of Everett-Wheeler’s Many-worlds interpretation) to describe this perplexing possibility:
“It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits.
‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses.”
This idea, that the entire universe is a “digital computer,” was first proposed by computer scientist Konrad Zuse in his 1969 book “Calculating Space.”
It’s gained some popularity: Recent findings show that the equations we use to explain our universe may, at their core, contain traces of computer code.
The Mysterious Research Of Dr. Jim Gates
Is our universe fundamentally derived from computer code? Are we living in some kind of virtual reality?
How would we even know?
According to Dr. Jim Gates, “One way might be to try to detect computer codes in the equations that describe our world.”
Gates, who has spent most of his life working in physics and, more specifically, supersymmetry, says his recent findings indicate that, yes, traces of computer code do exist in many of our equations.
We may very well be living within a simulated universe.
“Hidden inside of these equations, there are computer codes,” says Gates, “They’re the kind of computer codes that make browsers work…that’s just kind of weird.”
Gates is not finding just any kind of code. It’s a “special kind of computer code” that was invented in the 1940s by computer scientist Claude Shannon.
During the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, Gates elaborated on this strange new research:
“We say they’re computer codes first of all because the structure of the equations is such that they dictate that there are certain things that are actually strings of ones and zeros. That’s just digital data. But it’s not just random ones and zeros…”
Instead, it’s something called error-correcting code.
“Most of us sit at our computer screens and we type on the keyboards and…if we’re using a browser, we’re sending strings of ones and zeros elsewhere. But…in the transmission process, there’s always some fluctuation.
So a zero you type here, because of static in the line, might be read as a one at the other end, and vice versa. And so, in fact, when you sit and type on a keyboard, your computer is doing something behind your back.
Namely, it throws in a bunch of extra ones and zeros — and these things are called error-correcting codes — so that the computer on the other end can…figure out if there were bits that were being flipped back and forth. And that’s how you get accurate transmission of digital data.
Among the codes that are used for this purpose are a special class of codes that are called block-linear self-dual error-correcting codes…These are the codes that we find buried in the equations.”
Check it out: Watch the entire 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate
What Gates is proposing is, of course, at the very distant edge of theoretical physics. Almost, perhaps, entering the fringe of science. But that doesn’t make it any stranger than the already proven, seemingly bizarre theories of our universe.
It’s just another mystery to solve.
Is The Matrix Real?
Whether or not we live inside a computer simulation isn’t the ultimate point of this peculiar story.
The truth is that the world we see, the world that feels very much alive and real, is not a true representation of the universe.
We see one tiny fraction of existing light, what we call the “visible light spectrum.” We’re not aware of the invisible radiation that surrounds and permeates us every moment of every day. We can only hear a certain range of frequencies. We’re not aware of the electromagnetic field that we, ourselves, generate. And, ultimately, we’re a relatively insignificant species on a lonely blue planet, floating in a universe that is incomprehensibly big.
The idea that everything we see around us is nothing more than the output of some kind of cosmic computer program only pushes us farther down the rabbit hole.
We are still prisoners waiting for a philosopher to show us the way.