If you've ever seen The Matrix movies, you might be familiar with an old philosophical argument that suggests human life is nothing but an illusion.
Back in 2003, Oxford University's Nick Bostrom took it in another direction, pondering the possibility life as we know it is actually just a simulation running on a supercomputer built by an incredibly advanced civilisation.
Everything we think we 'know', from our planet to the stars above, our families, memories, emotions and even our bodies, is part of a staggeringly complex series of calculations set in motion by some vastly more intelligent 'post-human' life form.
Future generations have created us, posits Bostrom, to understand how they got to be them. We are like a virtual ancient history project, a large-scale version of 'sea monkeys' children grow in fish tanks.
Take a listen to Bostrom's argument here. He says it's actually highly probable this is the case.
In Western thought this concept dates back to Plato's 'allegory of the cave' and Rene Descarte's 'evil demon/genius', which spun off into the 'brain in a vat' theory (similar to the premise of The Matrix) and then Bostrom's 'simulation argument'.
The part of his hypothesis I find interesting is not proving it wrong or right - you can send yourself as batty as a professor of philosophy trying to do so - but in considering it from a programming perspective.
If you sat down at your futuristic mega-superduper-computer to code a program that created sentient life, what properties would you start with?
The most obvious is the 'will to live', a survival instinct which, as the organism increases in complexity, becomes a sense of self-preservation, selfishness or self-interest.
The will to live is evident in every organism on our planet. From single-cell bacteria to Barack Obama, it's monotonously present, a constant, almost like it's the most basic property of the 'life program'. It is matched in power only by our second 'property' - the 'will to reproduce'.
As a father, I've found it equally fascinating and unsettling how my 'first property' - genetic selfishness - manifests to ensure the success of the 'second property' - reproduction; that is, the most astonishing love and protectiveness for my child. There is literally nothing I would not do to protect her - my DNA.
The 'evil genius' of this love is I can rationalise it as selflessness, as I'm certain billions of humans have done to justify all sorts of barbarity, from conquest to colonisation, cruelty, crime and conspicuous consumption; they did it for their family.
Our savage love for our own has made Homo sapiens the most powerful and destructive species on the planet in just 160,000 short years (compared to earthworms, that have been around for 600 million years and are yet to poison one river).
The joke being played on us human lab rats by our supercomputer programmer, however, is that our base properties - the will to live and reproduce - may also be the things that cause the system to crash and destroy us.
I highly doubt even a minority of humans have the awareness or altruism to consider the fate of others above their own by ignoring these instincts. Self-sacrifice might help save the planet, but it won't see your DNA reproduced, will it?
This makes me wonder if the purpose of the grand experiment we call life is to see whether our species can make the leap of consciousness to override our own base coding and put others before ourselves?
It'd make a good movie.
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