The Matrix As Metaphysics


I. Brains in Vats

The Matrix presents a version of an old philosophical fable: the brain in a vat. A disembodied brain is floating in a vat, inside a scientist’s laboratory. The scientist has arranged that the brain will be stimulated with the same sort of inputs that a normal embodied brain receives. To do this, the brain is connected to a giant computer simulation of a world. The simulation determines which inputs the brain receives. When the brain produces outputs, these are fed back into the simulation. The internal state of the brain is just like that of a normal brain, despite the fact that it lacks a body. From the brain’s point of view, things seem very much as they seem to you and me.

The brain is massively deluded, it seems. It has all sorts of false beliefs about the world. It believes that it has a body, but it has no body. It believes that it is walking outside in the sunlight, but in fact it is inside a dark lab. It believes it is one place, when in fact it may be somewhere quite different. Perhaps it thinks it is in Tucson, when it is actually in Australia, or even in outer space.

Neo’s situation at the beginning of The Matrix is something like this. He thinks that he lives in a city, he thinks that he has hair, he thinks it is 1999, and he thinks that it is sunny outside. In reality, he is floating in space, he has no hair, the year is around 2199, and the world has been darkened by war. There are a few small differences from the vat scenario above: Neo’s brain is located in a body, and the computer simulation is controlled by machines rather than by a scientist. But the essential details are much the same. In effect, Neo is a brain in a vat.

Let’s say that a matrix (lower-case “m”) is an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world. So the Matrix in the movie is one example of a matrix. And let’s say that someone is envatted, or that they are in a matrix, if they have a cognitive system which receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to a matrix. Then the brain at the beginning is envatted, and so is Neo.

We can imagine that a matrix simulates the entire physics of a world, keeping track of every last particle throughout space and time. (Later, we will look at ways in which this set-up might be varied.) An envatted being will be associated with a particular simulated body. A connection is arranged so that whenever this body receives sensory inputs inside the simulation, the envatted cognitive system will receive sensory inputs of the same sort. When the envatted cognitive system produces motor outputs, corresponding outputs will be fed to the motor organs of the simulated body.

When the possibility of a matrix is raised, a question immediately follows. How do I know that I am not in a matrix? After all, there could be a brain in a vat structured exactly like my brain, hooked up to a matrix, with experiences indistinguishable from those I am having now. From the inside, there is no way to tell for sure that I am not in the situation of the brain in a vat. So it seems that there is no way to know for sure that I am not in a matrix.

Let us call the hypothesis that I am in a matrix and have always been in a matrix the Matrix Hypothesis. Equivalently, the Matrix Hypothesis says that I am envatted and have always been envatted. This is not quite equivalent to the hypothesis that I am in the Matrix, as the Matrix is just one specific version of a matrix. And for now, I will ignore the complication that people sometimes travel back and forth between the Matrix and the external world. These issues aside, we can think of the Matrix Hypothesis informally as saying that I am in the same sort of situation as people who have always been in the Matrix.

The Matrix Hypothesis is one that we should take seriously. As Nick Bostrom has suggested, it is not out of the question that in the history of the universe, technology will evolve that will allow beings to create computer simulations of entire worlds. There may well be vast numbers of such computer simulations, compared to just one real world. If so, there may well be many more beings who are in a matrix than beings who are not. Given all this, one might even infer that it is more likely that we are in a matrix than that we are not. Whether this is right or not, it certainly seems that we cannot be certain that we are not in a matrix.

Serious consequences seem to follow. My envatted counterpart seems to be massively deluded. It thinks it is in Tucson; it thinks it is sitting at a desk writing an article; it thinks it has a body. But on the face of it, all of these beliefs are false. Likewise, it seems that if I am envatted, my own corresponding beliefs are false. If I am envatted, I am not really in Tucson, I am not really sitting at a desk, and I may not even have a body. So if I don’t know that I am not envatted, then I don’t know that I am in Tucson, I don’t know that I am sitting at a desk, and I don’t know that I have a body.

The Matrix Hypothesis threatens to undercut almost everything I know. It seems to be a skeptical hypothesis: a hypothesis that I cannot rule out, and one that would falsify most of my beliefs if it were true. Where there is a skeptical hypothesis, it looks like none of these beliefs count as genuine knowledge. Of course the beliefs might be true — I might be lucky, and not be envatted — but I can’t rule out the possibility that they are false. So a skeptical hypothesis leads to skepticism about these beliefs: I believe these things, but I do not know them.

To sum up the reasoning: I don’t know that I’m not in a matrix. If I’m in a matrix, I’m probably not in Tucson. So if I don’t know that I’m not in a matrix, then I don’t know that I’m in Tucson. The same goes for almost everything else I think I know about the external world.

II. Envatment Reconsidered

This is a standard way of thinking about the vat scenario. It seems that this view is also endorsed by the people who created The Matrix . On the DVD case for the movie, one sees the following:

Perception: Our day-in, day-out world is real.

Reality: That world is a hoax, an elaborate deception spun by all-powerful machines that control us. Whoa.

I think this view is not quite right. I think that even if I am in a matrix, my world is perfectly real. A brain in a vat is not massively deluded (at least if it has always been in the vat). Neo does not have massively false beliefs about the external world. Instead, envatted beings have largely correct beliefs about their world. If so, the Matrix Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis, and its possibility does not undercut everything that I think I know.

Philosophers have held this sort of view before. The 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley held, in effect, that appearance is reality. (Recall Morpheus: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”) If this is right, then the world perceived by envatted beings is perfectly real: they have all the right appearances, and appearance is reality. So on this view, even envatted beings have true beliefs about the world.

I have recently found myself embracing a similar conclusion, though for quite different reasons. I don’t find the view that appearance is reality plausible, so I don’t endorse Berkeley’s reasoning. And until recently, it has seemed quite obvious to me that brains in vats would have massively false beliefs. But I now think there is a line of reasoning that shows that this is wrong.

I still think I cannot rule out the hypothesis that I am in a matrix. But I think that even I am in a matrix, I am still in Tucson, I am still sitting at my desk, and so on. So the hypothesis that I am in a matrix is not a skeptical hypothesis. The same goes for Neo. At the beginning of the film, if he thinks “I have hair”, he is correct. If he thinks “It is sunny outside”, he is correct. And the same goes, of course, for the original brain in a vat. When it thinks “I have a body”, it is correct. When it thinks “I am walking”, it is correct.

This view may seem very counterintuitive at first. Initially, it seemed quite counterintuitive to me. So I’ll now present the line of reasoning that has convinced me that it is correct.

III. The Metaphysical Hypothesis

I will argue that the hypothesis that I am envatted is not a skeptical hypothesis, but a metaphysical hypothesis. That is, it is a hypothesis about the underlying nature of reality.

Where physics is concerned with the microscopic processes that underlie macroscopic reality, metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality. A metaphysical hypothesis might make a claim about the reality that underlies physics itself. Alternatively, it might say something about the nature of our minds, or the creation of our world.

I think the Matrix Hypothesis should be regarded as a metaphysical hypothesis with all three of these elements. It makes a claim about the reality underlying physics, about the nature of our minds, and about the creation of the world.

In particular, I think the Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to a version of the following three-part Metaphysical Hypothesis. First, physical processes are fundamentally computational. Second, our cognitive systems are separate from physical processes, but interact with these processes. Third, physical reality was created by beings outside physical space-time.

Importantly, nothing about this Metaphysical Hypothesis is skeptical. The Metaphysical Hypothesis here tells us about the processes underlying our ordinary reality, but it does not entail that this reality does not exist. We still have bodies, and there are still chairs and tables: it’s just that their fundamental nature is a bit different from what we may have thought. In this manner, the Metaphysical Hypothesis is analogous to a physical hypotheses, such as one involving quantum mechanics. Both the physical hypothesis and the Metaphysical Hypothesis tells us about the processes underlying chairs. They do not entail that there are no chairs. Rather, they tell us what chairs are really like.

I will make the case by introducing each of the three parts of the Metaphysical Hypothesis separately. I will suggest that each of them is coherent, and cannot be conclusively ruled out. And I will suggest that none of them is a skeptical hypothesis: even if they are true, most of our ordinary beliefs are still correct. The same goes for a combination of all three hypothesis. I will then argue that the Matrix Hypothesis hypothesis is equivalent to this combination.

(1) The Creation Hypothesis

The Creation Hypothesis says: Physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time.

This is a familiar hypothesis. A version of it is believed by many people in our society, and perhaps by the majority of the people in the world. If one believes that God created the world, and if one believes that God is outside physical space-time, then one believes the Creation Hypothesis. One needn’t believe in God to believe the Creation Hypothesis, though. Perhaps our world was created by a relatively ordinary being in the “next universe up”, using the latest world-making technology in that universe. If so, the Creation Hypothesis is true.

I don’t know whether the Creation Hypothesis is true. But I don’t know for certain that it is false. The hypothesis is clearly coherent, and I cannot conclusively rule it out.

The Creation Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if it is true, most of my ordinary beliefs are still true. I still have hands, I am still in Tucson, and so on. Perhaps a few of my beliefs will turn out false: if I am an atheist, for example, or if I believe all reality started with the Big Bang. But most of my everyday beliefs about the external world will remain intact.

(2) The Computational Hypothesis

The Computational Hypothesis says: Microphysical processes throughout space-time are constituted by underlying computational processes.

The Computational Hypothesis says that physics as we know it not the fundamental level of reality. Just as chemical processes underlie biological processes, and microphysical processes underlie chemical processes, something underlies microphysical processes. Underneath the level of quarks and electrons and photons is a further level: the level of bits. These bits are governed by a computational algorithm, which at a higher-level produces the processes that we think of as fundamental particles, forces, and so on.

The Computational Hypothesis is not as widely believed as the Creation Hypothesis, but some people take it seriously. Most famously, Ed Fredkin has postulated that the universe is at bottom some sort of computer. More recently, Stephen Wolfram has taken up the idea in his book A New Kind of Science, suggesting that at the fundamental level, physical reality may be a sort of cellular automata, with interacting bits governed by simple rules. And some physicists have looked into the possibility that the laws of physics might be formulated computationally, or could be seen as the consequence of certain computational principles.

One might worry that pure bits could not be the fundamental level of reality: a bit is just a 0 or a 1, and reality can’t really be zeroes and ones. Or perhaps a bit is just a “pure difference” between two basic states, and there can’t be a reality made up of pure differences. Rather, bits always have to be implemented by more basic states, such as voltages in a normal computer.

I don’t know whether this objection is right. I don’t think it’s completely out of the question that there could be a universe of “pure bits”. But this doesn’t matter for present purposes. We can suppose that the computational level is itself constituted by an even more fundamental level, at which the computational processes are implemented. It doesn’t matter for present purposes what that more fundamental level is. All that matters is that microphysical processes are constituted by computational processes, which are themselves constituted by more basic processes. From now on I will regard the Computational Hypothesis as saying this.

I don’t know whether the Computational Hypothesis is correct. But again, I don’t know that it is false. The hypothesis is coherent, if speculative, and I cannot conclusively rule it out.

The Computational Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. If it is true, there are still electrons and protons. On this picture, electrons and protons will be analogous to molecules: they are made up of something more basic, but they still exist. Similarly, if the Computational Hypothesis is true, there are still tables and chairs, and macroscopic reality still exists. It just turns out that their fundamental reality is a little different from what we thought.

The situation here is analogous to that with quantum mechanics or relativity. These may lead us to revise a few “metaphysical” beliefs about the external world: that the world is made of classical particles, or that there is absolute time. But most of our ordinary beliefs are left intact. Likewise, accepting the Computational Hypothesis may lead us to revise a few metaphysical beliefs: that electrons and protons are fundamental, for example. But most of our ordinary beliefs are unaffected.

(3) The Mind-Body Hypothesis

The Mind-Body Hypothesis says: My mind is (and has always been) constituted by processes outside physical space-time, and receives its perceptual inputs from and sends its outputs to processes in physical space-time.

The Mind-Body Hypothesis is also quite familiar, and quite widely believed. Descartes believed something like this: on his view, we have nonphysical minds that interact with our physical bodies. The hypothesis is less widely believed today than in Descartes’ time, but there are still many people who accept the Mind-Body Hypothesis.

Whether or not the Mind-Body Hypothesis is true, it is certainly coherent. Even if contemporary science tends to suggest that the hypothesis is false, we cannot rule it out conclusively.

The Mind-Body Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if my mind is outside physical space-time, I still have a body, I am still in Tucson, and so on. At most, accepting this hypothesis would make us revise a few metaphysical beliefs about our minds. Our ordinary beliefs about external reality will remain largely intact.

(4) The Metaphysical Hypothesis

We can now put these hypotheses together. First we can consider the Combination Hypothesis, which combines all three. It says that physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time, that microphysical processes are constituted by computational processes, and that our minds are outside physical space-time but interact with it.

As with the hypotheses taken individually, the Combination Hypothesis is coherent, and we cannot conclusively rule it out. And like the hypotheses taken individually, it is not a skeptical hypothesis. Accepting it might lead us to revise a few of our beliefs, but it would leave most of them intact.

Finally, we can consider the Metaphysical Hypothesis (with a capital M). Like the Combination Hypothesis, this combines the Creation Hypothesis, the Computational Hypothesis, and the Mind-Body Hypothesis. It also adds the following more specific claim: the computational processes underlying physical space-time were designed by the creators as a computer simulation of a world.

(It may also be useful to think of the Metaphysical Hypothesis as saying that the computational processes constituting physical space-time are part of a broader domain, and that the creators and my cognitive system are also located within this domain. This addition is not strictly necessary for what follows, but it matches up with the most common way of thinking about the Matrix Hypothesis.)

The Metaphysical Hypothesis is a slightly more specific version of the Combination Hypothesis, in that in specifies some relations between the various parts of the hypothesis. Again, the Metaphysical Hypothesis is a coherent hypothesis, and we cannot conclusively rule it out. And again, it is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if we accept it, most of our ordinary beliefs about the external world will be left intact.

IV. The Matrix Hypothesis as a Metaphysical Hypothesis

Recall that the Matrix Hypothesis says: I have (and have always had) a cognitive system that receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world.

I will argue that the Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to the Metaphysical Hypothesis, in the following sense: if I accept the Metaphysical Hypothesis, I should accept the Matrix Hypothesis, and if I accept the Matrix Hypothesis, I should accept the Metaphysical Hypothesis. That is, the two hypotheses imply each other, where this means that if one accepts the one, one should accept the other.

Take the first direction first, from the Metaphysical Hypothesis to the Matrix Hypothesis. The Mind-Body Hypothesis implies that I have (and have always had) an isolated cognitive system which receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to processes in physical space-time. In conjunction with the Computational Hypothesis, this implies that my cognitive system receives inputs from and sends outputs to the computational processes that constitute physical space-time. The Creation Hypothesis (along with the rest of the Metaphysical Hypothesis) implies that these processes were artificially designed to simulate a world. It follows that I have (and have always had) an isolated cognitive system that receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world. This is just the Matrix Hypothesis. So the Metaphysical Hypothesis implies the Matrix Hypothesis.

The other direction is closely related. To put it informally: If I accept the Matrix Hypothesis, I accept that what underlies apparent reality is just as the Metaphysical Hypothesis specifies. There is a domain containing my cognitive system, causally interacting with a computer simulation of physical-space time, which was created by other beings in that domain. This is just what has to obtain in order for the Metaphysical Hypothesis to obtain. If one accepts this, one should accept the Creation Hypothesis, the Computational Hypothesis, the Mind-Body Hypothesis, and the relevant relations among these.

This may be a little clearer through a picture. Here is the shape of the world according to the Matrix Hypothesis.

At the fundamental level, this picture of the shape of the world is exactly the same as the picture of the Metaphysical Hypothesis given above. So if one accepts that the world is as it is according to the Matrix Hypothesis, one should accept that it is as it is according to the Metaphysical Hypothesis.

One might make various objections. For example, one might object that the Matrix Hypothesis implies that a computer simulation of physical processes exists, but (unlike the Metaphysical Hypothesis) it does not imply that the physical processes themselves exist. I will discuss this and other objections in later sections. For now, though, I take it that there is a strong case that the Matrix Hypothesis implies the Metaphysical Hypothesis, and vice versa.

V. Life in the Matrix

If this is right, it follows that the Matrix Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. If I accept it, I should not infer that the external world does not exist, or that I have no body, or that there are no tables and chairs, or that I am not in Tucson. Rather, I should infer that the physical world is constituted by computations beneath the microphysical level. There are still tables, chairs, and bodies: these are made up fundamentally of bits, and of whatever constitutes these bits. This world was created by other beings, but is still perfectly real. My mind is separate from physical processes, and interacts with them. My mind may not have been created by these beings, and it may not be made up of bits, but it still interacts with these bits.

The result is a complex picture of the fundamental nature of reality. The picture is strange and surprising, perhaps, but it is a picture of a full-blooded external world. If we are in a matrix, this is simply the way that the world is.

We can think of the Matrix Hypothesis as a creation myth for the information age. If it is correct, then the physical world was created, just not necessarily by gods. Underlying the physical world is a giant computation, and creators created this world by implementing this computation. And our minds lie outside this physical structure, with an independent nature that interacts with this structure.

Many of the same issues that arise with standard creation myths arise here. When was the world created? Strictly speaking, it was not created within our time at all. When did history begin? The creators might have started the simulation in 4004 BC (or in 1999) with the fossil record intact, but it would have been much easier for them to start the simulation at the Big Bang and let things run their course from there. When do our nonphysical minds start to exist? It depends on just when new envatted cognitive systems are attached to the simulation (perhaps at the time of conception within the matrix, or perhaps at time of birth?). Is there life after death? It depends on just what happens to the envatted systems once their simulated bodies die. How do mind and body interact? By causal links that are outside physical space and time.

Even if we not in a matrix, we can extend a version of this reasoning to other beings who are in a matrix. If they discover their situation, and come to accept that they are in a matrix, they should not reject their ordinary beliefs about the external world. At most, they should come to revise their beliefs about the underlying nature of their world: they should come to accept that external objects are made of bits, and so on. These beings are not massively deluded: most of their ordinary beliefs about their world are correct.

There are a few qualifications here. One may worry about beliefs about other people’s minds. I believe that my friends are conscious. If I am in a matrix, is this correct? In the Matrix depicted in the movie, these beliefs are mostly fine. This is a multi-vat matrix: for each of my perceived friends, there is an envatted being in the external reality, who is presumably conscious like me. The exception might be beings such as Agent Smith, who are not envatted, but are entirely computational. Whether these beings are conscious depends on whether computation is enough for consciousness. I will remain neutral on that issue here. We could circumvent this issue by building into the Matrix Hypothesis the requirement that all the beings we perceive are envatted. But even if we do not build in this requirement, we are not much worse off than in the actual world, where there is a legitimate issue about whether other beings are conscious, quite independently of whether we are in a matrix.

One might also worry about beliefs about the distant past, and about the far future. These will be unthreatened as long as the computer simulation covers all of space-time, from the Big Bang until the end of the universe. This is built into the Metaphysical Hypothesis, and we can stipulate that it is built into the Matrix Hypothesis too, by requiring that the computer simulation be a simulation of an entire world. There may be other simulations that start in the recent past (perhaps the Matrix in the movie is like this), and there may be others that only last for a short while. In these cases, the envatted beings will have false beliefs about the past and/or the future in their worlds. But as long as the simulation covers the lifespan of these beings, it is plausible that they will have mostly correct beliefs about the current state of their environment.

There may be some respects in which the beings in a matrix are deceived. It may be that the creators of the matrix control and interfere with much of what happens in the simulated world. (The Matrix in the movie may be like this, though the extent of the creators’ control is not quite clear.) If so, then these beings may have much less control over what happens than they think. But the same goes if there is an interfering god in a non-matrix world. And the Matrix Hypothesis does not imply that the creators interfere with the world, though it leaves the possibility open. At worst, the Matrix Hypothesis is no more skeptical in this respect than the Creation Hypothesis in a non-matrix world.

The inhabitants of a matrix may also be deceived in that reality is much bigger than they think. They might think their physical universe is all there is, when in fact there is much more in the world, including beings and objects that they can never possibly see. But again, this sort of worry can arise equally in a non-matrix world. For example, cosmologists seriously entertain the hypothesis that our universe may stem from a black hole in the “next universe up”, and that in reality there may be a whole tree of universes. If so, the world is also much bigger than we think, and there may be beings and objects that we can never possibly see. But either way, the world that we see is perfectly real.

Importantly, none of these sources of skepticism — about other minds, the past and the future, about our control over the world, and about the extent of the world — casts doubt on our belief in the reality of the world that we perceive. None of them leads us to doubt the existence of external objects such as tables and chairs, in the way that the vat hypothesis is supposed to do. And none of these worries is especially tied to the matrix scenario. One can raise doubts about whether other minds exist, whether the past and the future exist, and whether we have control over our worlds quite independently of whether we are in a matrix. If this is right, then the Matrix Hypothesis does not raise the distinctive skeptical issues that it is often taken to raise.

I suggested before that it is not out of the question that we really are in a matrix. One might have thought that this is a worrying conclusion. But if I am right, it is not nearly as worrying as one might have thought. Even if we are in such a matrix, our world is no less real than we thought it was. It just has a surprising fundamental nature.

VI. Objection: Simulation is not Reality

(This slightly technical section can be skipped without too much loss.)

A common line of objection is that a simulation is not the same as reality. The Matrix Hypothesis implies only that a simulation of physical processes exists. By contrast, the Metaphysical Hypothesis implies that physical processes really exist (they are explicitly mentioned in the Computational Hypothesis and elsewhere). If so, then the Matrix Hypothesis cannot imply the Metaphysical Hypothesis. On this view, if I am in a matrix, then physical processes do not really exist.

In response: My argument does not require the general assumption that simulation is the same as reality. The argument works quite differently. But the objection helps us to flesh out the informal argument that the Matrix Hypothesis implies the Metaphysical Hypothesis.

Because the Computational Hypothesis is coherent, it is clearly possible that a computational level underlies real physical processes, and it is possible that the computations here are implemented by further processes in turn. So there is some sort of computational system that could yield reality here. But here, the objector will hold that not all computational systems are created equal. To say that some computational systems will yield real physical processes in this role is not to say that they all do. Perhaps some of them are merely simulations. If so, then the Matrix Hypothesis may not yield reality.

To rebut this objection, we can appeal to two principles. First, any abstract computation that could be used to simulate physical space-time is such that it could turn out to underlie real physical processes. Second, given an abstract computation that could underlie physical processes, the precise way in which it is implemented is irrelevant to whether it does underlie physical processes. In particular, the fact that the implementation was designed as a simulation is irrelevant. The conclusion then follows directly.

On the first point: let us think of abstract computations in purely formal terms, abstracting away from their manner of implementation. For an abstract computation to qualify as a simulation of physical reality, it must have computational elements that correspond to every particle in reality (likewise for fields, waves, or whatever is fundamental), dynamically evolving in a way that corresponds to the particle’s evolution. But then, it is guaranteed that the computation will have a rich enough causal structure that it could in principle underlie physics in our world. Any computation will do, as long as it has enough detail to correspond to the fine details of physical processes.

On the second point: given an abstract computation that could underlie physical reality, it does not matter how the computation is implemented. We can imagine discovering that some computational level underlies the level of atoms and electrons. Once we have discovered this, it is possible that this computational level is implemented by more basic processes. There are many hypotheses about what the underlying processes could be, but none of them is especially privileged, and none of them would lead us to reject the hypothesis that the computational level constitutes physical processes. That is, the Computational Hypothesis is implementation-independent: as long as we have the right sort of abstract computation, the manner of implementation does not matter.

In particular, it is irrelevant whether or not these implementing processes were artificially created, and it is irrelevant whether they were intended as a simulation. What matters is the intrinsic nature of the processes, not their origin. And what matters about this intrinsic nature is simply that they are arranged in such a way to implement the right sort of computation. If so, the fact that the implementation originated as a simulation is irrelevant to whether it can constitute physical reality.

There is one further constraint on the implementing processes: they must be connected to our experiences in the right sort of way. That is when we have an experience of an object, the processes underlying the simulation of that object must be causally connected in the right sort of way to our experiences. If this is not the case, then there will be no reason to think that these computational processes underlie the physical processes that we perceive. If there is an isolated computer simulation to which nobody is connected in this way, we should say that it is simply a simulation. But an appropriate hook-up to our perceptual experiences is built into the Matrix Hypothesis, on the most natural understanding of that hypothesis. So the Matrix Hypothesis has no problems here.

Overall, then, we have seen that a computational process could underlie physical reality, that any abstract computation that qualifies as a simulation of physical reality could play this role, and that any implementation of this computation could constitute physical reality, as long as it is hooked up to our experiences in the relevant way. The Matrix Hypothesis guarantees that we have an abstract computation of the right sort, and it guarantees that it is hooked up to our experiences in the relevant way. So the Matrix Hypothesis implies that the Computational Hypothesis is correct, and that the computer simulation constitutes genuine physical processes.

VII. Other Objections

When we look at a brain in a vat from the outside, it is hard to avoid the sense that it is deluded. This sense manifests itself in a number of related objections. These are not direct objections to the argument above, but they are objections to its conclusion.

Objection 1: A brain in a vat may think it is outside walking in the sun, when in fact it is alone in a dark room. Surely it is deluded!

Response: The brain is alone in a dark room. But this does not imply that the person is alone in a dark room. By analogy, just say Descartes is right that we have disembodied minds outside space-time, made of ectoplasm. When I think “I am outside in the sun”, an angel might look at my ectoplasmic mind and note that in fact it is not exposed to any sun at all. Does it follow that my thought is incorrect? Presumably not: I can be outside in the sun, even if my ectoplasmic mind is not. The angel would be wrong to infer that I have an incorrect belief. Likewise, we should not infer that envatted being has an incorrect belief. At least, it is no more deluded than a Cartesian mind.

The moral is that the immediate surroundings of our minds may well be irrelevant to the truth of most of our beliefs. What matters is the processes that our minds are connected to, by perceptual inputs and motor outputs. Once we recognize this, the objection falls away.

Objection 2: An envatted being may believe that it is in Tucson, when in fact it is in New York, and has never been anywhere near Tucson. Surely this belief is deluded.

Response: The envatted being’s concept of “Tucson” does not refer to what we call Tucson. Rather, it refers to something else entirely: call this Tucson*, or “virtual Tucson”. We might think of this as a “virtual location” (more on this in a moment). When the being says to itself “I am in Tucson”, it really is thinking that it is in Tucson*, and it may well in fact be in Tucson*. Because Tucson is not Tucson*, the fact that the being has never been in Tucson is irrelevant to whether its belief is true.

A rough analogy: I look at my colleague Terry, and think “that’s Terry”. Elsewhere in the world, a duplicate of me looks at a duplicate of Terry. It thinks “that’s Terry”, but it is not looking at the real Terry. Is its belief false? It seems not: my duplicate’s “Terry” concept refers not to Terry, but to his duplicate Terry*. My duplicate really is looking at Terry*, so its belief is true. The same sort of thing is happening in the case above.

Objection 3: Before he leaves the Matrix, Neo believes that he has hair. But in reality he has no hair (the body in the vat is bald). Surely this belief is deluded.

Response: This case is like the last one. Neo’s concept of “hair” does not refer to real hair, but to something else that we might call hair* (“virtual hair”). So the fact that Neo does not have real hair is irrelevant to whether his belief is true. Neo really does has virtual hair, so he is correct.

Objection 4: What sort of objects does an envatted being refer to. What is virtual hair, virtual Tucson, and so on?

Response: These are all entities constituted by computational processes. If I am envatted, then the objects that I refer to (hair, Tucson, and so on) are all made of bits. And if another being is envatted, the objects that it refers to (hair*, Tucson*, and so on) are likewise made of bits. If the envatted being is hooked up to a simulation in my computer, then the objects it refers to are constituted by patterns of bits inside my computer. We might call these things virtual objects. Virtual hands are not hands (assuming I am not envatted), but they exist inside the computer all the same. Virtual Tucson is not Tucson, but it exists inside the computer all the same.

Objection 5: You just said that virtual hands are not real hands. Does this mean that if we are in the matrix, we don’t have real hands?

Response: No. If we are not in the matrix, but someone else is, we should say that their term “hand” refers to virtual hands, but our term does not. So in this case, our hands aren’t virtual hands. But if we are in the matrix, then our term “hand” refers to something that’s made of bits: virtual hands, or at least something that would be regarded as virtual hands by people in the next world up. That is, if we are in the matrix, real hands are made of bits. Things look quite different, and our words refer to different things, depending on whether our perspective is inside or outside the matrix.

This sort of perspective shift is common in thinking about the matrix scenario. From the first-person perspective, we suppose that we are in a matrix. Here, real things in our world are made of bits, though the “next world up” might not be made of bits. From the third-person perspective, we suppose that someone else is in a matrix but we are not. Here, real things in our world are not made of bits, but the “next world down” is made of bits. On the first way of doing things, our words refer to computational entities. On the second way of doing things, the envatted beings’ words refer to computational entities, but our words do not.

Objection 6: Just which pattern of bits is a given virtual object? Surely it will be impossible to pick out a precise set.

Response: This question is like asking: just which part of the quantum wavefunction is this chair, or is the University of Arizona? These objects are all ultimately constituted by an underlying quantum wavefunction, but there may be no precise part of the micro-level wavefunction that we can say “is” the chair or the university. The chair and the university exist at a higher level. Likewise, if we are envatted, there may be no precise set of bits in the micro-level computational process that is the chair or the university. These exist at a higher level. And if someone else is envatted, there may be no precise sets of bits in the computer simulation that “are” the objects they refer to. But just as a chair exists without being any precise part of the wavefunction, a virtual chair may exist without being any precise set of bits.

Objection 7: An envatted being thinks it performs actions, and it thinks it has friends. Are these beliefs correct?

Response: One might try to say that the being performs actions* and that it has friends*. But for various reason I think it is not plausible that words like “action” and “friend” can shift their meanings as easily as words like like “Tucson” and “hair”. Instead, I think one can say truthfully (in our own language) that the envatted being performs actions, and that it has friends. To be sure, it performs actions in its environment, and its environment is not our environment but the virtual environment. And its friends likewise inhabit the virtual environment (assuming that we have a multi-vat matrix, or that computation suffices for consciousness). But the envatted being is not incorrect in this respect.

Objection 8: Set these technical points aside. Surely, if we are in a matrix, the world is nothing like we think it is!

Response: I deny this. Even if we are in a matrix, there are still people, football games, and particles, arranged in space-time just as we think they are. It is just that the world has a further nature that goes beyond our initial conception. In particular, things in the world are realized computationally in a way that we might not have originally imagined. But this does not contradict any of our ordinary beliefs. At most, it will contradict a few of our more abstract metaphysical beliefs. But exactly the same goes for quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and so on.

If we are in a matrix, we may not have many false beliefs, but there is much knowledge that we lack. For example, we do not know that the universe is realized computationally. But this is exactly what one might expect. Even if we are not in a matrix, there may well be much about the fundamental nature of reality that we do not know. We are not omniscient creatures, and our knowledge of the world is at best partial. This is simply the condition of a creature living in a world.

VIII. Other Skeptical Hypotheses

The Matrix Hypothesis is one example of a traditional “skeptical” hypothesis, but it is not the only example. Other skeptical hypotheses are not quite as straightforward as the Matrix Hypothesis. Still, I think that for many of them, a similar line of reasoning applies. In particular, one can argue that most of these are not global skeptical hypotheses: that is, their truth would not undercut all of our empirical beliefs about the physical world. At worst, most of them are partial skeptical hypotheses, undercutting some of our empirical beliefs, but leaving many of these beliefs intact.

New Matrix Hypothesis: I was recently created, along with all my memories, and was put in a newly-created matrix.

What if both the matrix and I have existed for only a short time? This hypothesis is a computational version of Bertrand Russell’s Recent Creation Hypothesis: the physical world was created only recently (with fossil record intact), and so was I (with memories intact). On that hypothesis, the external world that I perceive really exists, and most of my beliefs about its current states are plausibly true, but I have many false beliefs about the past. I think the same should be said of the New Matrix Hypothesis. One can argue, along the lines presented earlier, that the New Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to a combination of the Metaphysical Hypothesis with the Recent Creation Hypothesis. This combination is not a global skeptical hypothesis (though it is a partial skeptical hypothesis, where beliefs about the past are concerned). So the same goes for the New Matrix Hypothesis.

Recent Matrix Hypothesis:
 For most of my life I have not been envatted, but I was recently hooked up to a matrix.

If I was recently put in a matrix without realizing it, it seems that many of my beliefs about my current environment are false. Let’s say that just yesterday someone put me into a simulation, in which I fly to Las Vegas and gamble at a casino. Then I may believe that I am in Las Vegas now, and that I am in a casino, but these beliefs at false: I am really in a laboratory in Tucson.

This result is quite different from the long-term matrix. The difference lies in the fact that my conception of external reality is anchored to the reality in which I have lived most of my life. If I have been envatted all my life, my conception is anchored to the computationally constituted reality. But if I was just envatted yesterday, my conception is anchored to the external reality. So when I think that I am in Las Vegas, I am thinking that I am in the external Las Vegas, and this thought is false.

Still, this does not undercut all of my beliefs about the external world. I believe that I was born in Sydney, that there is water in the oceans, and so on, and all of these beliefs are correct. It is only my recently acquired beliefs, stemming from perception of the simulated environment, that will be false. So this is only a partial skeptical hypothesis: its possibility casts doubt on a subset of our empirical beliefs, but it does not cast doubt on all of them.

Interestingly, the Recent Matrix and the New Matrix hypothesis give opposite results, despite their similar nature: the Recent Matrix Hypothesis yields true beliefs about the past but false beliefs about the present, while the New Matrix Hypothesis yields false beliefs about the past and true beliefs about the present. The differences are tied to the fact that in Recent Matrix Hypothesis, I really have a past existence for my beliefs to be about, and that past reality has played a role in anchoring the contents of my thoughts that has no parallel under the New Matrix Hypothesis.

Local Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of a fixed local environment in a world.

On one way of doing this, a computer simulates a small fixed environment in a world, and the subjects in the simulation encounter some sort of barrier when they try to leave that area. For example, in the movie The Thirteenth Floor, just California is simulated, and when the subject tries to drive to Nevada, the road says “Closed for Repair” (with faint green electronic mountains in the distance!). Of course this is not the best way to create a matrix, as subjects are likely to discover the limits to their world.

This hypothesis is analogous to a Local Creation Hypothesis, on which creators just created a local part of the physical world. Under this hypothesis, we will have true beliefs about nearby matters, but false beliefs about matters further from home. By the usual sort of reasoning, the Local Matrix Hypothesis can be seen as a combination of the Metaphysical Hypothesis with the Local Creation Hypothesis. So we should say the same thing about this.

Extendible Local Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of a local environment in a world, extended when necessary depending on subject’s movements.

This hypothesis avoids the obvious difficulties with a fixed local matrix. Here the creators simulate a local environment and extend it when necessary. For example, they might right now be concentrating on simulating a room in my house in Tucson. If I walk into another room, or fly to another city, they will simulate those. Of course they need to make sure that when I go to these places, they match my memories and beliefs reasonably well, with allowance for evolution in the meantime. The same goes for when I encounter familiar people, or people I have only heard about. Presumably the simulators keep up a database of the information about the world that has been settled so far, updating this information whenever necessary as time goes along, and making up new details when they need them.

This sort of simulation is quite unlike simulation in an ordinary matrix. In a matrix, the whole world is simulated at once. There are high start-up costs, but once the simulation is up and running, it will take care of itself. By contrast, the extendible local matrix involves “just-in-time” simulation. This has much lower start-up costs, but it requires much more work and creativity as the simulation evolves.

This hypothesis is analogous to an Extendible Local Creation Hypothesis about ordinary reality, under which creators create just a local physical environment, and extend it when necessary. Here, external reality exists and many local beliefs are true, but again beliefs about matters further from home are false. If we combine that hypothesis with the Metaphysical Hypothesis, the result is the Extendible Local Matrix Hypothesis. So if we are in an extendible local matrix, external reality still exists, but there is not as much of it as we thought. Of course if I travel in the right direction, more of it may come into existence!

The situation is reminiscent of The Truman Show. Truman lives in an artificial environment made up of actors and props, which behave appropriately when he is around, but which may be completely different when he is absent. Truman has many true beliefs about his current environment: there really are tables and chairs in front of him, and so on. But he is deeply mistaken about things outside his current environment, and further from home.

It is common to think that while The Truman Show poses a disturbing skeptical scenario, The Matrix is much worse. But if I am right, things are reversed. If I am in a matrix, then most of my beliefs about the external world are true. If I am in something like The Truman Show, then a great number of my beliefs are false. On reflection, it seems to me that this is the right conclusion. If we were to discover that we were (and always had been) in a matrix, this would be surprising, but we would quickly get used to it. If we were to discover that we were (and always had been) in the Truman Show, we might well go insane.

Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of macroscopic physical processes without microphysical detail.

One can imagine that for ease of simulation, the makers of a matrix might not both to simulate low-level physics. Instead, they might just represent macroscopic objects in the world and their properties: e.g. that there is a table with such-and-such shape, position, and color, with a book on top of it with certain properties, and so on. They will need to make some effort to make sure that these objects behave in a physically reasonable way, and they will have to make special provisions for handling microphysical measurements, but one can imagine that at least a reasonable simulation could be created this way.

I think this hypothesis is analogous to a Macroscopic World Hypothesis: there are no microphysical processes, and instead macroscopic physical objects exist as fundamental objects in the world, with properties of shape, color, position, and so on. This is a coherent way our world could be, and it is not a global skeptical hypothesis, though it may lead to false scientific beliefs about lower levels of reality. The Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis can be seen as a combination of this hypothesis with a version of the Metaphysical Hypothesis. As such, it is not a global skeptical hypothesis either.

One can also combine the various hypothesis above in various ways, yielding hypotheses such as a New Local Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis. For the usual reasons, all of these can be seen as analogs of corresponding hypotheses about the physical world. So all of them are compatible with the existence of physical reality, and none is a global skeptical hypothesis.

The God Hypothesis: Physical reality is represented in the mind of God, and our own thoughts and perceptions depend on God’s mind.

A hypothesis like this was put forward by George Berkeley as a view about how our world might really be. Berkeley intended this as a sort of metaphysical hypothesis about the nature of reality. Most other philosophers have differed from Berkeley in regarding this as a sort of skeptical hypothesis. If I am right, Berkeley is closer to the truth. The God Hypothesis can be seen as a version of the Matrix Hypothesis, on which the simulation of the world is implemented in the mind of God. If this is right, we should say that physical processes really exist: it’s just that at the most fundamental level, they are constituted by processes in the mind of God.

Evil Genius Hypothesis: I have a disembodied mind, and an evil genius is feeding me sensory inputs to give the appearance of an external world.

This is Rene Descartes’s classical skeptical hypothesis. What should we say about it? This depends on just how the evil genius works. If the evil genius simulates an entire world in his head in order to determine what inputs I should receive, then we have a version of the God Hypothesis. Here we should say that physical reality exists and is constituted by processes within the genius. If the evil genius is simulating only a small part of the physical world, just enough to give me reasonably consistent inputs, then we have an analog of the Local Matrix Hypothesis (in either its fixed or flexible versions). Here we should say that just a local part of external reality exists. If the evil genius is not bothering to simulate the microphysical level, but just the macroscopic level, then we have an analog of the Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis. Here we should say that local external macroscopic objects exist, but our beliefs about their microphysical nature are incorrect.

The evil genius hypothesis is often taken to be a global skeptical hypothesis. But if the reasoning above is right, this is incorrect. Even if the Evil Genius Hypothesis is correct, some of the external reality that we apparently perceive really exists, though we may have some false beliefs about it, depending on details. It is just that this external reality has an underlying nature that is quite different from what we may have thought.

Dream Hypothesis: I am now and have always been dreaming.

Descartes raised the question: how do you know that you are not currently dreaming? Morpheus raises a similar question:

Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

The hypothesis that I am currently dreaming is analogous to a version of the Recent Matrix Hypothesis. I cannot rule it out conclusively, and if it is correct, then many of my beliefs about my current environment are incorrect. But presumably I still have many true beliefs about the external world, anchored in the past.

What if I have always been dreaming? That is, what if all of my apparent perceptual inputs have been generated by my own cognitive system, without my realizing this? I think this case is analogous to the Evil Genius Hypothesis: it’s just that the role of the “evil genius” is played by a part of my own cognitive system! If my dream-generating system simulates all of space-time, we have something like the original Matrix Hypothesis. If it models just my local environment, or just some macroscopic processes, we have analogs of the more local versions of the Evil Genius Hypothesis above. In any of these cases, we should say that the objects that I am currently perceiving really exist (although objects farther from home may not). It is just that some of them are constituted by my own cognitive processes.

Chaos Hypothesis: I do not receive inputs from anywhere in the world. Instead, I have random uncaused experiences. Through a huge coincidence, they are exactly the sort of regular, structured experiences with which I am familiar.

The Chaos Hypothesis is an extraordinarily unlikely hypothesis, much more unlikely than anything considered above. But it is still one that could in principle obtain, even if it has miniscule probability. If I am chaotically envatted, do physical processes obtain in the external world? I think we should say that they do not. My experiences of external objects are caused by nothing, and the set of experiences associated with my conception of a given object will have no common source. Indeed, my experiences are not caused by any reality external to them at all. So this is a genuine skeptical hypothesis: if accepted, it would cause us to reject most of our beliefs about the external world.

So far, the only clear case of a global skeptical hypothesis is the Chaos Hypothesis. Unlike the previous hypothesis, accepting this hypothesis would undercut all of our substantive beliefs about the external world. Where does the difference come from?

Arguably, what is crucial is that on the Chaos Hypothesis, there is no causal explanation of our experiences at all, and there is no explanation for the regularities in our experience. In all the previous cases, there is some explanation for these regularities, though perhaps not the explanation that we expect. One might suggest that as long as a hypothesis involves some reasonable explanation for the regularities in our experience, then it will not be a global skeptical hypothesis.

If so, then if we are granted the assumption that there is some explanation for the regularities in our experience, then it is safe to say that some of our beliefs about the external world are correct. This is not much, but it is something!

David Chalmers
David Chalmers’ website:
(Some philosophical notes on this article can be found here.)