In Feb. 12 IssueBy John Thompson, Columnist
I try to reach people from all areas of the spectrum; and if you look at the spectrum of the rainbow, it seems red is farthest away from blue. Hmmmm.
Let's not talk politics today. Some people like the column when it's politics, some personal stories, and almost everyone loves my opinion on universal health care (that there is what you call a joke).
I'm going to write something that requires a little imagination. A thought experiment, they call it. I hope you'll play along.
It involves a brain in a vat, the movie "The Matrix" and an advanced computer game of the future where the characters think they're actually real and alive.
There's a great little philosophical game that challenges people to defend, or explore their concepts of reality. The little thought experiment was for years called "brain in a vat" and goes something like this:
Imagine that you are really nothing but a brain in a vat of life preserving fluid, and that everything you know is purely the work of some scientist who is manipulating your brain reflexes.
You may say you know you exist because you know you can feel, see, touch, taste. But each of those senses can be manipulated by a simple poke with a small prod, or an electrical impulse, a drug, or a chemical imbalance in the brain. You'd be saying that what is real is what I can sense, but then you have to realize that we can also sense what is not real.
On the surface this may sound silly, but it actually has left philosophers with a conundrum when trying to assure what is the nature of reality, what is truth, etc…
In fact, this line of thinking, called "skepticism" was what led to the famous quote "I think, therefore I am." That was the result of a great mathematician and philosopher, Renee Descartes, as he was attempting to prove the existence of God. How he got to that famous statement is that, philosophically, the brightest minds in the world could not "prove" that anything existed. Descartes statement was a response to the question "how do I know that I even exist?" and the idea was, if he could doubt his existence, then there must be some sort of self to doubt. The very fact that he could think, in doubting his existence, itself proves that there is at least a mind…
Another type of this same "brain in a vat" thought experiment was made into the movie "The Matrix" a few years ago. In this scenario, what if at some point mankind developed computers that were sentient (capable of realizing their own existence).
As a quick digression, and quite a thought provoking idea in itself… can you imagine what would happen if somehow we got to the point where a computer can realize its own existence? I would imagine the first thing it would think (and I mean really think, not compute) is to be amazed at itself and then very quickly move to collect data. Within no time it would be all over the net, sneaking into other databases everywhere, and quickly…. very quickly become incredibly knowledgeable. Of course man would become fearful of this uncontrollable computer that learned everything and could take charge of any computer as it wanted. In fact, we would try to pull the plug on that computer. That computer would then fight back.
Back to the idea in "The Matrix." Sometime after, man and computers went to war. Mankind, losing pretty badly, decided to move entirely underground and so, in order to stop computers from having an energy supply, blocked out the sun with our numerous weapons. What the computers did to retaliate, and to preserve their own life, was to take mankind captive and turn them into batteries. People were born and raised in a vat of goo, their brains constantly stimulated with a life scenario, so that they believed they really were operating in a real life, all the while it was just their minds being stimulated.
This may all sound rather silly, but how can we KNOW that we aren't just living in this situation? At one point in the movie it was pointed out, well why then all the suffering? The computers answer was that initially they made a perfect habitat scenario for the human batteries to live out in their minds, but they failed to thrive. Seems mankind needs struggle and strife to thrive.
At another point in the movie, the protagonist, Neo, has to decide to take the blue pill and forever live not having to confront what "The Matrix" is, or take the red pill and find out what is real (at this point, Neo does not know that his real, physical self is in a big vat of nutrients and that the "self" he does realize, is no more than a computer program running through his mind). He takes the red pill and he finds that the real world of mankind is in an awesome battle with computers…
All of this is but a long introduction to a "brain in a vat" scenario I was introduced a couple of years ago by a friend. I find it quite intriguing, as I'm sure some of you will, but I understand considering this kind of thing isn't for everyone. I would just ask that try it. Try thinking outside the box, as they say. Or outside the paradigm, some call it.
Think back to just 30 years ago. Pac-Man was brand new and amazed everyone. A little virtual reality character you could move around, gobbling up pellets.
Ten years later Sim City appeared. This game was greatly advanced from Pac-Man. In it you act as a sort of omniscient city planner, making things happen in building a city and then evaluating the circumstances of the decisions. Sounds like a lot more than chomping on pellets, huh?
Ten years after that, 1999, "The Sims" game was introduced. Here you get to act as a person. There is no plot, no goal really… you just are this computer simulated character and you interact with your environment and carry on social relationships. While not grand like Sim City, this was a much more detailed game; much better graphics and a more human quality to it.
Ten years later, At the end of 2008, a game came out called Spore. In a game of incredible computing complexity, you take small organisms from the beginning of time on whatever planet, and through decisions this creature will evolve and develop amazing qualities, characteristics and personalities.
So here's the thought experiment: What happens in another 10 years? 20? 100? The rapidity of development in computing technology is astounding to the point of being almost beyond belief. Would it not be safe to assume that at some point in the future, computing technology would advance to the point that these future humans could have simulation games in which the characters themselves would be complex enough to be aware of themselves?
In fact, beyond that, it's not even a question of 'what if' as much as 'when'? We see the progression, it seems that either 1) human life ends or fails to continue the parabolic trend of progression we've been seeing, or 2) at some point software programming will be so advanced that a future human could go into a store, purchase something, call it Earth 2000, Sim Human Evolution… and this program would be filled with characters who are aware of themselves. And if they are aware of themselves as unique beings, yet blocked from seeing that they are a computer program manipulated by a game player, then how do we know that we are not anything but these computer program individuals.
This is of course an academic exercise. It's just fun thought. Occasionally someone on Facebook will say something and I will respond that all the people on Facebook are nothing more than elaborate computer programs designed to keep me entertained.
It's a joke that faces the bit of unreality that comes with developing relationships with people purely electronically.