Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Can You Miss the Religious/Materialist Tropes in the Matrix?

Remember that scene in the Matrix, where Special Agent Smith is having dinner (in our simulated world) with eventual sell-out Joe Pantoliano, and this Judas figure comments that the steak tastes no less delicious for being a neurochemical construct? I had always thought this was an obvious but nonetheless cleverly situated example of the temptation of worldly power subverting morality and higher good. If you grew up in a Christian culture, you can't help but think here of the Biblical story of Satan's temptation of Christ on the mountain. The power to tempt comes from the ability to offer the pleasures of the flesh or "the world", as Christians use the term, and maya, as Buddhists and Hindus consider it.

A submerged assumption in these parables is that they describe tragedies because the these pleasures are less important than higher values and are ultimately temporary and illusory. The stories lose some steam if you start thinking that there might a reason to consider whether there is value in pleasure for pleasure's sake. (Give up? Answer: yes.) What was interesting to me is I ended up in a discussion about this very scene New Years Eve, and the person I was talking to thought of this as a classic secular betrayal scene, e.g. Benedict Arnold. He a) hadn't thought about any possible religious allusions in this scene, even though b) he claimed to be spiritual himself (SBNR, even if not a member of an organized religion.)

Mike Treder has re-posted a question to his readers about what we would do with full virtual reality simulation. For my part, I would actually be quite anxious if I thought such technology to be currently viable (and indeed the Bostrom simulation argument interests me for exactly this reason; it even has implications for the Fermi paradox. In fact if this becomes real my first priority in life becomes looking for a token, a la Inception). I answered Treder's post in the comments, stating that there are reasons to think such technology would largely be used to augment reality instead of replace it, for the simple reason that our continued experience requires the persistence of physical objects, i.e. our bodies, that if neglected tend to change in a way that makes experience stop, i.e. death.

This is the first of two important points neglected by VR proponents, that if indeed our universe is a simulation, it is in an important sense hierarchical; if we're just running on a computer somewhere, and if somebody turns it off or spills a beer on it in that universe, then our experience ends. But in another sense it's not hierarchical: your experience is the result of changes in electrochemical potentials inside your nerves. If something doesn't change electrochemical potentials in your nerves, you cannot experience it. By bypassing your light/vibration/pressure/motion etc.-to-electrochemical transducers, i.e. your sense organs, and hooking your nerve endings (or the nuclei in the brain that they feed) to computer outputs, you're just changing the source of your experience.

In fact this already happens all the time. Mentally ill people hear and see things that aren't "there", though they're genuinely having the experience of hearing a voice. Or two mentally healthy but honest people can look at the same process and see proof of the triumph of capitalism and the failure of capitalism (although their honesty doesn't mean at least one of them isn't wrong.) Shamans and college kids ingest chemicals that make them see concrete, discrete objects and beings that others do not. And it's amazingly easy to forget that every time you sleep, while your eyes are closed and you aren't moving, you live out amazing experiences. The difference is that these experiences, although not resulting from the same kinds of reproducible interactions of our nerves and the rest of the world through our transducers, can't be controlled as we expect VR technology will be able to. So in another sense, VR is non-hierarchical - your nerves are getting data from another object separate from themselves in a different way than before, and that's all; nothing fancy. It is a certainty that the experience of steak is always a neurochemical construct; it's irrelevant to the quality of the experience whether it's evil Matrix computers depolarizing cells in the nucleus tractatus solitarius in your medulla or cranial nerve seven with chemical transducers in your tongue. Calling this non-hierarchical is admittedly more mundane than what most people think of when discussing non-hierarchical epistemology. That is, it's different from some science fiction story or Taoist thought experiment where we find out the simulation is circularly simulating us.


TGP said...

Regarding deep levels of simulations: Follow the money.

There is a non-zero input of energy into maintaining a simulation of some sort. Why would someone maintain 'brain in a jar VR' for free?

In The Matrix, the machines made a net energy profit because other energy options were pretty much off the table. (and the machines with giant digger drills hate geothermal energy!)

In reality, why would an IT staff/society bother to maintain a large number of non-participating human brains? It's a net energy loss. It might be nice to keep grandma alive in a land of puppies and kitties, but when everyone does it for generations of grandmas, eventually, those brains are going to have to go on the ice floe.

Long term VR 'heaven' for everyone is very quickly unsustainable.

Michael Caton said...

That's a good anti-Bostrom argument that I've not encountered before; that the motivation of extradimensional beings (at least from our viewpoint) to expend effort doing this is dubious - because it's possible doesn't mean it's likely.

TGP said...

To me, the only way the mass-VR thing makes sense is this sort of scenario:

1. The VR overlords want some kind of information from us. It's high-tech interrogation.

2. The VR overlords are studying human reactions. We're in an experiment or zoo.

3. The VR overlords are sadists with energy to spare. Hey, that's God!