I’m in the middle of reading The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini, a lovely little compendium of 100 classic philosophical thought experiments discussed in plain English. (I quite highly recommend this book, by the way; it’s the sort of thing that could kick off many a late-night philosophy binge with good friends and good food. Although that seems to happen even without this book)
Anyway, I just read through an example that referenced The Matrix, on the old subject of “what if we’re living in a simulation? Would it matter?” It reminded me of a few other philosophical questions that movie raised, and so in the interest of sparking some late-night
drinkingphilosophy binges, here goes.
- In The Matrix, Neo discovers that his life is actually a computer simulation, and in the “real world” people are actually kept locked up in vats to power the computers. The few people who have escaped this simulation are ruthlessly hunted down by their robot captors, and have managed to create a marginal existence for themselves, hiding in fortified caves. He is convinced to aid this rebel cause, and free humanity from their artificial prison. Given that at the moment, humanity is living a relatively normal existence, and if this mission were successful humanity would be living in caves on a ruined world, hunted by robots, exactly what is the moral argument for doing this?
- At the end of the second Matrix movie, we discover that Neo’s magical abilities to control the state of the world around him in the simulated world (due to his understanding of its simulated nature) also extends to the real world. Set aside, for a moment, the explanation the movie gave for this;1 imagine instead that they took the more complicated route, and that these extended abilities were actually the first clue to realizing that the “real world” they thought they were in was also a simulation, and the actual “real world” was one step above. In such a case, would this change Neo’s obligations to his original world, and to the world he originally thought was the “real world?” How?
- To take this to its logical conclusion, there’s no reason the number 3 ought to be special. If there were an infinite hierarchy of worlds, each simulating the next (or even a branching tree of simulated worlds, some worlds simulating hundreds of others) so that none of them have a sound claim to being the “real” world, what are Neo’s obligations then? Is it right and/or worthwhile to save one world? At the expense of another? (As if he had saved the original “real world” by destroying the simulation where he started out) Or if one world sucks, is it reasonable for him to simply pack up and move to some other world of his choice? And given this infinite spectrum of worlds, in some of which people are systematically and deeply suffering, does he have some moral obligation to try to help people in less fortunate worlds? Given the infinitude of worlds, does this differ in any interesting ways from the ways people in this world are responsible for people in other parts of this world?
1The explanation was that he is actually the Messiah and has magical powers in the real world, as well. This is also right about the point where the movies stopped being even a little bit interesting, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. But that has nothing to do with philosophy.