Who dreams our lives I do not know,
Nor in what land it is we meet.
~ Kathleen Raine*
The Matrix was a hit feature film that portrayed a world that is actually a computer simulation. It was so popular that it spawned two sequels. When I saw the first Matrix movie, to me it was the best representation of classic Gnosticism that I had ever seen. The Gnostics saw the material world as an evil impediment to the truth. Some saw our souls as being trapped in the world we think is real, and that only through special knowledge can we escape to the spiritual world which is the real world. You can see, then, why I was fascinated by the modern Matrix analogy.
An Intriguing Question
Now none other than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is examining the question in a panel discussion among scientists: Is it is possible that the universe that we perceive could actually be a simulation? It was the topic for discussion in this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the Natural Museum of History, with Tyson hosting the debate. [The entire panel discussion can be seen here]
The notion of whether the universe is a simulation is interesting and that it is being discussed among some leading scientists makes it all the more fascinating. I am more intrigued, however, by the fact that this whole question of the nature of reality is a recurring one, going back eons. Gnosticism, which flourished during the first and second centuries in the early Christian era, viewed the material world as evil and a creation of a lesser god (the demiurge). They saw human beings as being kept in bondage to the material world and thus requiring special divine knowledge in order to escape from that material bondage. They understood that their knowledge of spiritual reality would allow them to escape the material world when they died.
Then there was Chuang Tzu (c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC) who asked questions about whether what we know of life is a delusion. There is the famous story of his dreaming that he was a butterfly, then upon awaking asking if the dream were not the real thing and was his “waking” experience actually a butterfly dreaming it was a man?
Of course there is also the concept in Hinduism and Buddhism that our ultimate goal is to escape the wheel of reincarnation, or the wheel of suffering. They obviously envision a reality that is beyond the world of the senses where we find ourselves now. We in the West have also had our differing views as to the nature of reality.
Plato vs. Aristotle
Plato saw the world as but a shadow of the Ideal. Neoplatonism, following Plato’s school of thought has had its influence on western philosophy with its metaphysical questions, notions about the true nature of the world we perceive with our senses and whether the real is actually what we perceive. It had great influence on religion and philosophy in medieval Europe, but then the pendulum swung back to a more “sensible” view. Scholars began to re-discover Aristotle whose analytic reasoning and trust in logic would give rise to the modern scientific method. Surprisingly, it was the Islamic scholars who preserved Aristotelian thought and it was Thomas Aquinas who brought that Aristotelian logic to Western Europe.
Richard Rubenstein’s book, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, points out how refreshing it was to the people when Aquinas, following the lead of Islamic scholar, Averroes, brought Aristotle to the forefront in philosophical thought. Rubenstein said that people were weary of Neoplatonism and were glad to have Aristotelian reassurance that what they could see and feel with their senses was, in fact, the real world.
What is Real?
So why do we keep coming back to this question of how can we know what is real? I wonder if some of it has to do with the social structures we set for ourselves. Do we subconsciously realize that our sociopolitical structures are inadequate? Does living in the sociopolitical world we have created strike us as so definitely not the “real” world that probing the nature and ontology of the universe becomes a metaphor for our experience of living within these smaller systems of our own creation? Or, does our questioning the nature of reality arise from the fact that we see the vastness of the universe which is so far beyond our comprehension?
The question itself is as fascinating as any speculation of an answer.
* From Raine's poem, "I Cannot Weep." Kathleen Raine died in 2003 at the age of 95. Her obituary in The Telegraph stated that "she wrote in the romantic, visionary tradition of John Clare, Blake and Yeats, which valued above all things nature and the power of the imagination."