Do we live in a Matrix Universe?

The film “The Matrix” strikes a deep resonance with many people, so deep in fact that even respected scientists’ have asked the question, “Do we live in a Matrix Universe?” 

For those of you that haven’t seen the film, the Matrix is a computer generated reality, and humans go about their everyday lives without realising they are actually living in a computer generated world.  So compelling is this idea to some that this concept of a computer generated world has been given serious consideration.

As scientists we are in a unique position to apply the scientific method to try and ascertain whether our external “reality” is computer generated or not, in fact it is quite easy for us to work out where we should look for “glitches in the program”. 

We know from our experiments that the most interesting places to search for “the truth” are not in the well-trodden paths, but rather in those places where our current understanding appears to be breaking down.  These places are even more appropriate if we are looking for irregularities in the structure of our Universe, as regions where things seem to be going “wrong” could be indications of sloppy programming, or perhaps the computational limitations of the hardware creating our World.

So where should we look? 

We should definitely look at those areas where current science is a little uncomfortable.  Where there is an explanation for an effect, but we are more than a little uneasy with the explanation given, where the explanation itself seems pretty close to contradicting our current understanding of Physics.  We should look into the World of Quantum Mechanics; there are plenty of places there where things look more than a little flaky!

There are two clear candidates for further investigation to test out the programmer’s ingenuity at deceiving us – one is the particle two-slit interference experiment, and the other is the EPR paradox and the experiments of Alain Aspect. 

The first experiment, that of two-slit interference is perhaps the simplest to perform, but in my opinion is the most difficult to explain.  If an atomic particle is presented with two routes through spacetime each with equal likelihood of occurrence, the particle gets confused and an interference pattern results.  With equal probability spacetime paths the particle doesn’t know which route to take – so we say it takes both routes, this is already getting very uncomfortable, but we choose to stick our heads in the sand and get on with life. 

The EPR paradox, although a much more complicated experiment to perform, actually gives us a better indication of where the program is breaking down.

To recap briefly, in an EPR type experiment, two particles of opposite polarisation states are emitted simultaneously from a source.  For the sake of argument, let us say that one particle, which could be a photon, is vertically polarised, and the other particle is horizontally polarised.  If some distance from the source the polarisation state of one particle is measured, it is found that the second particle will be measured with opposite polarisation state, even if the distance between the two particles is superluminal so that a photon cannot “tell” the second particle what the first particle’s polarisation state was. 

There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly intriguing here, if the particles are produced in the first instance with opposite polarisation states, then at whatever separation distance you measure the particles they will still have opposite polarisation states and there’s really nothing strange going on at all. 

This is true when the analysers for the particle polarisation states are at right angles to one another, as in this instance both “common-sense” and Quantum Mechanical results agree with one another.  For angles other than 0, 45 and 90 degrees between the two analysers the situation is more complicated but the outcome is that “common-sense” or a straight probabilistic argument loses out to the Quantum Mechanical explanation. 

Well, once again, we might not be too unhappy about this, the “common-sense” results of Newtonian mechanics lost out to Special Relativity, and we have little difficulty in accepting the latter’s validity.  What do we have to accept in the case of the EPR experiments?

A detailed analysis of the EPR experiment shows that there only three very basic, and very plausible, assumptions on which our incorrect “common-sense” argument is based, they are:

  1. The principle of induction.
  2. Locality.
  3. The reality principle.

One (or more) of these very basic “common-sense” assumptions has to be wrong in order to explain the correct Quantum Mechanical interpretation of the results of an EPR type experiment.  Current-day physics has chosen argument 2 as being incorrect, which I believe is what concerned Einstein about this (originally a thought) experiment in the first place.

Locality implies that an event A cannot influence and event B if it requires faster than light propagation between A and B.

Induction states that it is possible to reach conclusions valid for all systems of a given type from a consistent set of observations on a large sample of systems of that type.

I will leave a definition of Reality to Einstein who said:

“If without in any way disturbing a system we can predict with certainty (i.e. with a probability equal to unity) the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of physical reality corresponding to that quantity”.

If you were given the choice from the above three assumptions, which one would you have chosen as being incorrect? 

Personally I find option 3 and the Matrix interpretation of the EPR paradox quite compelling.

You can read more on my thoughts about living in the Matrix here.

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