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Are we living in an illusory reality? Part1

Are we living in an illusory reality? Researchers say yes

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a puzzle that has stimulated our brain cells for time immemorial. Let’s set the mood for this blog article by exploring the allegory in brief detail. In a cave, prisoners are chained in a fashion that they can look only way; towards the cave wall. Behind them, roars a fire, and bridging this fire and the prisoners is a short wall, a wall which the puppeteers use to walk across. The puppet masters, who are located behind the prisoners, on somewhat of an elevation are not discernible to the prisoners as they have their backs turned to them.  

Meanwhile, the puppet masters cast shadows on the walls of the cave, the wall that the prisoners are forced to face. The prisoners are blissfully unaware of the puppet masters, or of the instruments that they control, which are in reality, creating the objects on the wall before them. The prisoners are merely viewing shadows and echoes put forth by objects that do not enter their immediate perception, directly anyways. If they did so, the prisoners would have another dimension of knowledge that would make them question the forms on the wall. 

These prisoners effectively perceive the shadows of the puppets as being indicative of some deep meaningful reality. They would just assume that the things which are projected onto the wall they face are real beings, they would be totally in the dark (no pun intended) with regards to the origin of the shapes and sights that they see displayed on the walls. Rather ironically, in this case, the truth didn’t set them free. 

These prisoners would therefore misconstrue the shadowy appearances as reality. Let’s dive one step further, right into the meat and potatoes of the allegory. When the prisoners discuss an impression, one they see displayed on the cave walls, what exactly are the prisoners referring to? How could they possibly know for sure? Let’s assume the puppet masters use a toy monkey to cast shadows on a wall. One of the prisoners then confirms: “I see a monkey.” How does he know this information? 

How is he aware of this insight? All he has observed, in reality, are mere shadows on a wall of manipulation. The prisoners assumes they are perceiving a real monkey, when all they are in actuality witnessing, is a shadow of a toy monkey. If a prisoner claims to see a monkey, he is making an observation of the shadow on the wall, the reality of the “monkey”, he can never see, because he has been blissfully cut off access to the actual reality – there is no monkey, there is only a toy monkey being projected onto the wall. Plato comes to a startling idea, showing just how ahead of his time he was. The lexicon of our languages are not the “names” of the actual, tangible objects that we see. They, in reality, refer to things we cannot see, concepts we can only perceive with the mind.  

After their release, the prisoners look back behind them. They realize the error of their ways. They’ve been told a lie all along. 

In a very similar way, our very perception of reality, the very fabric of it, everything that we hold near and dear and refer to as consciousness might in fact be nothing more than one of those shadows on Plato’s wall. Whether we literally are ones and zeros living in a computer somewhere, determining this unsettling reality, might hinge on advance AI (Artificial Intelligence) research or measurements at the forefront of cosmology. 

On Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, the host had just detailed the simulation hypothesis, the concept that we are in reality, digital beings existing within the scope of a computer simulation. If this is the case, the simulation would probably invoke perceptions with regards to reality on demand in contrast to simultaneously simulating all of our physical reality. To understand this, take the example of video games. As the player explores more and more of the digital universe, parts of it are unlocked, when previously they were restricted access to the player. As the player explores and moves into new environments, the game engine renders new, unique environments, providing the players with the illusion that they are making progress by discovering new things. 

“This might be the reason behind why we’ve been unable to travel at light-speed, even theoretically, and if had an understanding of this immensely complicated and potentially impossible subject, we’d already be going to alien galaxies of unknown territories.” Nice, the podcast’s co-host, provided some lively banter with Tyson. Tyson interrupted Nice with glee, and proclaimed “Before they can program it.” “The limits have been built in by the programmer.” 

Many scientists may scoff at such arguments, or perhaps, raise an indignant eyebrow. But since the time of Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford publishing a breakthrough paper on the simulation hypothesis in 2003, intellectuals all over the globe have been wrestling with the notion of our reality being a simulation, a shadow on a cave wall. 

Many researchers have attempted to determine ways in which we can conclusively determine if we are indeed digital beings. While others have made efforts to estimate the probabilities of us being digital entities, a catalogue of ones and zeros inside an unfathomable computer. Brand new research indicates the probability we are dwelling in a base reality – that is a reality which is not simulated, are pretty much 50-50. The research also shows that if humanity were to develop the capability to simulate other conscious entities themselves, the probability would drastically increase with regards to us, as well being simulated beings in somebody’s computer. It is worth noting that we still don’t have consensus of what “consciousness” actually means, forget about finding procedures to simulate it. 

In 2003, Bostrom conceptualized a technologically sophisticated civilization that held massive computational power, and only requires a small percentage of that power to simulate other, disparate realities, with apparently conscious entities living within them. In this scenario, his simulation theory demonstrated that at least one of the following statements in the trilemma to follow are true:

  • Humans unanimously go extinct (cease existing) prior to attaining the simulation capability phase
  • Even if humanity does make it to that phase, they are not probably going to interested in simulating their ancestral past.
  • The probability we are living in a simulation is close to one.

Prior to Bostrom, Hollywood took a gander at this theory. The Matrix, had done its mojo in making mainstream the idea and concept that we are living in a fabricated reality. The concept has deep foundations in international philosophical schools. Previously, we saw Plato’s cave allegory. There is also Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream. Elon Musk has further stirred the pot by making the shocking and bone-chilling statement that “the odds we are living in a base reality is one in billions.” 1 in billions. Imagine this for a second. Let it sink in. Elon Musk, one of the greatest minds of our generation, a real-life Iron Man, almost godlike in his stature both within the technological and business world, a true global leader, is standing up and telling us that we have a one in billion chance of living in some kind of reality. 



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