There’s a moment in the film The Matrix when the protagonist Neo sees a cat walking past a dark green-lit doorway … and then the same cat flits by exactly the same way, again.
“Whoa, deja vu,” Neo says.
The erratic Tank flips. “Shit. Oh shit!”
“What happened? What did you see?” Trinity asks.
“A black cat went past us and then I saw another that looked just like it,” Neo responds.
Trinity grimaces at Morpheus. “A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix.”
OK, you’ve seen the film. But what’s going on here is a deeper philosophical conversation about the nature of our universe: what is real vs. unreal, and can we humans control it? The red-pill-or-blue-pill decision given by Morpheus to Neo in the Matrix — that he can either simply believe in what is around him and follow its rules, or seek a deeper level of reality — is a choice for all of us as we explore spirituality or science or the meaning of life.
The question is: can we control ourselves? It’s either fate or free will.
Einstein vs. Schrödinger, slaves vs. freedom
The famous Albert Einstein was a proponent of fate, that the universe was fixed and we are all simply balls rolling on our paths toward a single destiny. This seems counterintuitive, the idea of Einstein backing a slave-mentality of the future, since Einstein was a liberal genius who opposed wars and controlling governments … but upon inspection his view makes sense. He proved that space and time is really one thing, spacetime, showing that the gravity of our sun would bend the light from incoming stars (later evidenced in a solar eclipse) and that time slows down the faster you move. (It’s true. Today the iPhone in your pocket picks up GPS signals from satellites in orbit that adjust their internal clocks for the slowing local time of their super-fast trajectories around Earth, just so you can avoid traffic.)
So if space and time are connected, then the time arrow of your future has to be fixed, pointed at only one place. You are on a road and you can’t get off. If you go into work tomorrow and get a raise, or get fired, or start your own business, or run away crazy to live in a cardboard box under a bridge, that future is already there. “God does not play dice with the universe,” Einstein said. In a bit of a bummer, you have no free will.
Erwin Schrödinger believed the opposite. He was Einstein’s friend, and helped conceive of quantum physics, which includes the crazy concept that at subatomic levels, particles can be in two locations at once, at least until observed. He famously thought of a cat in a box connected to a poison vial that may or may not open, triggered by a subatomic particle in two simultaneous states. Since that tiny sub-atom bit is doing two things at once, the poison is also released or not released at once, meaning the cat is still alive or dead at once … at least until you, the human observer, open the box and “fix” fate into one of two outcomes. You find either a meow or a dead cat, once you crack the lid. “Schrödinger’s Cat” became a famous idea, but beneath its curiousness is a hopeful concept: That we control our fates, because the universe moves left or right based on what we decide to do.
Nick Bostrom’s AI game
So far, easy. You can believe in a fixed future, or believe you have personal control over fate. But Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom takes all of this one level deeper.
What if whatever fate you are operating in isn’t really real?
In his whitepaper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation,” Bostrom expounds on a simple thought experiment that in the far future, any smarter descendants of today’s humans are likely to still play games, and computer games will likely become so high-resolution they’ll be filled with AI agents that see an accurate reality generated around them. So in this future of only one possible reality and hundreds of millions of game simulations, you and I are likely living … as AI replicants in some form of future game.
You think you are real, but you’re just a being in a really good future computer program, designed to see and feel and breathe and act randomly so some protagonist playing the same game gets a solid good thrill.
At first glance, Bostrom sounds whacked, perhaps over-intellectualizing his own viewing of The Matrix. But then, imagine that humans do continue to develop, and other intelligent beings follow us in evolution, until some future entity becomes as powerful as God. That God could look back and create anything, including us. So if we live in a world of action and fate filled with adventure and sorrow, is it God that created us, or a future human descendent, perhaps playing a game?
The Bible tells us God made us, anyway, right?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and a word by definition is some form of code. Is that a clue?
And if so, are we in control?
Yuval Noah Harari gives hope
So far, these ideas are an affront at several levels. We all want to believe we are in control of our future, and that God exists but that He’s benevolent, and that technology or AIs won’t replace us, and certainly that if they do, we won’t be some bonus-point target in a computer game for some 12-year-old egghead in the year 2817. And regardless of whatever level we are playing in — human, God-directed, or AI-gamed — we can only act as best as we can.
In his books on the past and future of humanity, philosopher Yuval Noah Harari notes that humans may be alone of all species on Earth in that we build our own fictions, a middle layer of observation between pure reality (stones under our feet) and perceived reality (the images of stones in our head). We tell each other fake stories. Money. Nations. Religion. Organizations. Corporations. None of these things really exist, but we act as if they do. (Ask yourself, Harari suggests: Can these things feel pain?) But we work hard all week to make “money” from the “corporations” we strive for, believing in our “nations” and “religions” and “organizations” that group us together. Most of our actions in life are motivated by pure fiction. An alien visiting from outer space would not see the lines of the United States engraved upon the Earth, and it would have a tough time understanding why we work all week for fictitious money.
We believe in our own stories.
A new Beetle appears
This post on fate and reality was inspired by my drive to work this morning. I had drifted into a bit of wonder about cars, and how the now-old new VW Beetles used to be everywhere on the road after their redesign in 1997 by J Mays. The public back in the 1990s was smitten, Beetle sales went through the roof, VW ran billboard ads that said “Other cars are starting to look funny” … and then quality issues emerged. Word spread that these cute little Bugs fell apart. Now, you never see them on the road.
I thought to myself, I haven’t seen one of those curvy new Beetles in ages.
And as I pulled up to our office drive, a blue new Beetle swung in right before me. As if I had conjured reality, or peered behind some curtain.
Had I seen the future?
If we lie to ourselves about reality, about “money” to buy rolling exoskeletons called “Beetles,” that “VW” brands exist … does it matter if we are living in a fiction?
No. That is too negative.
The better phrasing is: If we can move ourselves forward no matter what we believe in, perhaps we have full control over our destiny after all.