Some of you may have seen a movie called “The Thirteenth Floor”. It is a film treatment of Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3″. I can give you no better synopsis of the novel than Wikipedia’s;
“Simulacron 3 is the story of a virtual city (total environment simulator) for marketing research, developed by a scientist to reduce the need for opinion polls. The computer-generated city simulation is so well-programmed, that, although the inhabitants have their own consciousness, they are unaware, except for one, that they are only electronic impulses in a computer.”
The theme is a popular one in science fiction, it will be familiar to fans of the “Matrix” series of films, or other SF films like “Inception” and “Existenz”, where there is a level of reality below (or maybe above) the everyday reality which we all inhabit.It isn’t necessary for you to have seen or read any of these fictions, the philosophical point they make should make sense: the day to day reality of our everyday experience is not real, or if real, is simply an artifact of some other level of reality. And for the characters inhabiting these virtual worlds, it is impossible to tell the difference. The question immediately arises, if it is impossible to determine if you are in the real world, does it really matter? We are forced to deal with the reality we perceive. If there is a “real” reality above it (or below it) which is actually the one that matters, we are nonetheless forced to deal with the one our consciousness believes itself to be embedded in.
In The Thirteenth Floor, the protagonist eventually learns that his world, the world in which the simulation was developed, is itself a simulation programmed by yet another world. The conceit here is that the conscious beings existing only in a computer can themselves use their intelligence and creativity to create their own simulation. Forgetting the implication that reality could be an infinite series of nested virtual universes, let us consider the philosophical consequences of just one of them.
To begin with, the concept of distinct but subordinate levels of reality is not limited to speculative fiction. Modern monotheistic religion tells us the world of our sensory experience is a subset, an artifact, of an external universe where god rules and creates. The purpose of religion is to educate the inhabitants of the created world (us) about the requirements and realities of the superior reality (god’s). More “primitive’ religions often blur this boundary, to members of many tribal cultures, the supernatural and the physical world are indistinguishable. Both coexist simultaneously in the same space and time, and like Galouye’s characters, they are convinced that’s the way it is.
Modern science also has a similar nested concept of reality, but one based on scale. To the physicist, there is a quantum universe inhabited by odd mathematical constructs obeying incomprehensible rules, a classical physical reality of our ordinary experience and easily understood by its inhabitants, and a relativistic world in the universal realms of space and time at large scales and high velocities. Each of these nested universes is real, is understood with its own set of unique rules, and yet is totally different from the others. The physicists are trying to unify these realities, but until or if they do, they are perfectly capable of changing paradigms and seamlessly switching from one to another, with the same glib facility as a Baptist minister. It is not hypocrisy or inconsistency on the scientist’s part, any more than it is on the minister’s. They both know exactly what they are doing and why. It’s just that in certain situations, you perceive the universe in different ways, in ways appropriate to that situation.
Consider for a moment the world of classical physics, the universe of invariant time and space, of
forces and momentum, kinematics, dynamics, mechanics, and their extensions into thermodynamics, acoustics, optics and the other branches of Newtonian physics. That knowledge alone is capable of allowing enormous understanding, of the prediction of numerous natural phenomena, and the creation of varied useful mechanical devices and processes. We navigate our day to day lives with a simplified version of Newtonian physics, the knowledge of the universe we rely on to move our bodies and manipulate objects. But even a baseball-playing physicist does not rely on Newtonian dynamics to pitch a no-hitter or make a double play, and a detailed knowledge of bouyancy and hydrodynamics is of little use to a sailor. The rules on which a game is based may not be the rules you need to play it well. And of course, wrapped around the physical world of particles and waves, fields and forces are the worlds of our sensory experience, the psychological universe, the social environment, the onion layers of career, family, community, nation, history–all of them simultaneously real! There is no one true reality, they all exist at once, side by side, and we usually we have to deal with several simultaneously. The real universe may be all about gravity, electricity and chemistry, but how does that help us deal with a layoff, a divorce, a lawsuit, or the death of a loved one?
Besides time and space, there is another dimension to reality we have not yet discussed: the axis of complexity. As we consider more and more complex systems, it becomes increasingly more difficult to describe or predict their behavior based on fundamental physical rules. The emotional realities of hunger and love may ultimately be based on chemical states in the human body, but even materialists convinced of that reductionism don’t deal with those sensations in that way. They get hungry, satisy that hunger with a meal, and they love their families and friends the same way other people do. There is an emotional and psychological reality just as real as the whirling substrate of particles, fields and waves it is ultimately based on. And collectives of human beings; families, communities, nations, civilizations, also have a physical reality in space and time, one based on the world of the physicist, but which cannot be understood by relying solely on the methods of the physicist.
Like Galouye’s automata, we deal in a “real” world run by rules but we create abstracts and digests of those rules for many of our activities. And even the physicist will easily admit his rules have little relation to reality other than they give the right answers to some problems under certain restricted circumstances. Like the inhabitants of the Simulacra, we live in a universe of nested realities, one within the other, and we handle each one separately, as if the others did not exist. Yes, no doubt there is some ultimate physical reality, the one sought by the physicist. And there are arbitrary physical models of that reality sometimes useful in engineering, but we are natural creatures, we inhabit a psychological universe just as real as the physical one that underlies it. And that biological being interacts socially with others, both on a local and a global version, all through historical, economic, political and cultural universes, each operating on their own rules with their own dynamics, and all of them only poorly understood.
These universes are just as real as the physical one, and obviously dependent on it, but they are totally different in the way they manifest themselves and they follow their own rules, rules which we haven’t agreed on yet. And even the human being who understands this and is aware of these multiple interacting levels must still deal with the one he is in at the time, by its rules. Physics is of little use to those engaged in their day to day psychological universe. And the most self-aware and introspective man must learn to deal with his social surroundings, with other men. Enterprises and nations interact, and there even appears to be some kind of logic to history itself. But knowledge or success at one level is no guarantee of wisdom or survival in another. This is the “relativism” that modern critical thought is struggling to define and articulate. (Not very successfully, I might add.) It is an attempt to locate the boundaries between these universes in a systematic way so we know which set of rules apply, and which to follow, and which aren’t rules at all, just our tribal prejudices and superstitions. This relativism is often criticized as a denial of modern science, and sometimes it does come across that way, sharing as it does so many elements of superstition, religion and anomalism. But it need not be a rejection of scientific method. In some ways, it is the final consequence and triumph of the scientific world view.
We are thrown into a world we have to deal with, with precious little warning and information about it. Like the automata, we don’t even realize we are only engaged in one level of it, with our universe influenced and dominated by forces and realities below it, and above it, which we are not even aware of. To rely on only one paradigm, even the highly successful scientific one, is dangerous, and foolish.