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The Question

February 27, 2007

What is the Matrix?  That was the question that set the hook for the plot in the 1999 Sci-Fi classic.   In the movie, the majority of humanity lives in perpetual coma, connected to a vast network of machines that derive electricity from the human batteries.  The people live their entire physical lives trapped in their own minds in a perpetual dream state, fed a continuous stream of data directly into their brains.  Knowing no differently, this existence is the limit of their reality, as they cannot sense beyond it, and cannot wake.   A small group of humans live in the real world, know about this reality, and are able to link into the artificial world at will through computer interfaces.  When they “jack in”, the computer feed supplants all their normal sensory feedback from their live bodies, and the computer simulation becomes their entire world.   Life or death in that world, although simulated carries real consequences for their live human bodies, for if the brain believes the input that it has died, it will shut down all the body functions with it.  The only advantage the outsiders have, is the knowledge of the “real” world, and the fact that the computer world is not real.  This allows them to seemingly defy the physical laws in the computer world.

When I watched this for the first time in theatres, I thought “wow”, someone has developed a metaphore for perhaps the truth about our world and delivered the story to the masses in a vehicle that millions will see over and over again.   I’m not saying that I believe we are all secretly plugged into a computer somewhere, or that our lives are controlled by malevolent machines.    I am saying that we don’t know the truth about who and what we really are, and our ability to see, touch, hear, and even imagine the truth is limited by the physical world in which we live.  So long as we passively accept all that we can hear, smell, touch, and see as the limits of what exists, then that will be our “matrix” and we will live out our time in it, unaware. 

Pretty far fetched, huh?  Maybe.   Consider with me.  We can’t see past the speed of light.   The potential for what lies beyond the limits of the human form, and the science it wields to detect and comprehend it is pretty vast.   I don’t know what the question to ask about our existence is, but most everyone who lives, thinks about it at one time or another, or should be.

What are we?  Why are we here?  Where were we before we were born?  Where will we go, what will we be after our bodies die?  Are we more than the sum of this two hundred pound mass of walking meat and bone?   Are we just an extremely complex organic machine?   Science and Religion are both ways that mankind has sought to find the answer to the question behind all the questions.  That question is undefinable, yet when we take a break from all the comparatively inconsequential activities in our lives, it creates a need we try to fill.

Science can’t satisfactorily explain what we are beyond a highly evolved mammal – ala Darwin.   Current science, including all branches of medicine approach humans as highly complex machines.   Surgeons approach people like machines to be worked on.  Our hearts are pumps, our circulatory system is plumbing, our joints are mechanical assemblies to be screwed back together, or replaced when they wear out.   Not only are we mechanical, but we also contain an extremely complex set of chemical reactions.  Drugs, work on us at the chemical level.  At root, our brains are electro-chemical computers.  We are programmed through education –  through the sum of  all prior experiences. Everything we read, hear, see, smell, touch, or otherwise interact with.  We are a learning computer.  Our brains are random access storage devices.   If we malfunction, our program is altered either chemically through drugs, or through different learning patterns, working through the external interfaces of the body via therapy – formal or informal.   Never thought about it that way?   Look back several posts to Accesorizing Humanity.  Consider how science approaches replacing lost limbs.   We make artificial replacements, and try to patch into the original nerve feeds.  Neat, but crude.   As a living machine, why can’t our cells be re-programed to replicate the lost tissue the way a lizard will regrow a lost tail?   Couldn’t we study the cells of the lizard before and after the tail is removed and analyze what the change is?  Couldn’t we then replicate that in human terms?  Complex to do, yes, but the logic of the approach is sound.  But let’s look beyond the machinery we see in the mirror.

 For the last 2000 years, longer really, mankind has focused his energies of discovery outward.  He has mapped the planet, learned to create his own environments, created weapons and technology to dominate nature and himself, and has even left and returned safely to earth.  But for all that, what do we know about ourselves really?  We still treat ourselves like living machines.

Are we more than very complex organic machines?  What are human beings, really?  

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2007 8:35 pm

    Let me initiate a Socratic conversation. What do you think of the latest life strategy craze, “The Secret” which has been hyped on Oprah and in Newsweek?

  2. March 1, 2007 6:46 am

    “I think, therefore I am” – who said that? Is our perception of reality limited by the capacity of our brain?

    The movie Memento made it clear that without lasting memories we had no future. Without a concept of a past we had nothing to plan.

    My cat anticipates, therefore does that mean she has a memory? Does she have wishes? Desires?

    When we are very young time seems to crawl by. Is it relative to the fact that a lifetime, for us at that time, is only a handful of years long? As we get more years under our belts time moves much faster and the months fall away as if they were a calendar pealing pages away in a movie.

    When we were children the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas took forever and now it is a blip in our busy lives. Would time pas even faster if we lived to be 400?

    If we live a long life, die, and no one remembers us, does our life have any value?

    Do we value ife simply because we have no idea what comes after?

  3. March 1, 2007 12:26 pm

    Krista, I’ll check it out – the trailer software just looped for me so far. Technical issues viewing it.

    Jim, interesting points. If I continue to my point about humans functioning as a machine, and our brains as complex analog computers, then I would extend this line of thought to suggest that our normal level of conciousness, the current frame we exist in moment to moment is akin to a computer CPU. It is ready to do work, process information, and gets a steady stream of inputs from our senses, but in order to do work, with requires some context, and that comes from memory. Your tie in to Memento their is on point – with some context, some past that creates continuity of line and purpose we are lost, our brain does “no-ops”.

    The perception of time is worthy of a whole discussion in and of itself. You offer a new explanation / perspective I had not considered. That the apparant speed of passage is driven by how much history we have behind us. I’ve written in past posts about my thoughts that the perception of speed is also a function of 1) how aware we are day to day – our level of conciousness, and 2) How much overhead we have in our lives. Point 2) was where I hung my hat in the prior discussion.


  1. The Challenge » Biological approach to the universe (part deux)

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