virus: What is the matrix? Science fiction or dawning nightmare

Andre Croucamp (
Thu, 17 Jun 1999 09:33:34 -0600

Dear David

I left the virus list as there was just too much to wade through everyday. Here are two articles inspired by the International Conference on Consciousness, held at Kings College, London, in April this year. The first is a popular version for the newspapers. The second is a little more academic. Enjoy, and forward if you please. I would welcome intelligent responses.


Today you will create the future. Choose carefully.

Andre Croucamp
21 Dundalk Ave
South Africa

Tel.: +27 11 486 4685

[I've converted the first article from MS Word format and included it here. -- David]

Dear Virions

Here is a popularized version of my article on the conference. It is not recommended for the existentially squeamish. Enjoy at your own risk.


Brace yourself, the way you imagine things to be is about to be shattered. What I am about to offer you is not unlike the choice given to Neo, played by Keanu Reeves in the film The Matrix. You are offered a blue pill and a red pill. If you take the blue pill all your delusions about the way things are will be affirmed and happiness will be yours. If you take the red pill the veil of illusion will be lifted - you will see reality for what it is - and you will never be able to go back to experiencing the world the way you did. Neo takes the red pill and "wakes up" to a nightmare of truth. Which pill would you take?

There have been a number of films recently (including Dark City, Truman Show, and Pleasantville) suggesting that experience is an illusion, and that reality lurks somewhere behind it, hidden by some conspiracy of evil design. Hollywood hype? Not according to some of the world's leading neuroscientists and researchers into consciousness. How intense is your desire for the truth? If you desire it, as much as you desire to breathe air, then read on. If not - if you value your delusions, stop reading now. Attending the 1999 Conference on Consciousness was like attending a script writing workshop for The Matrix - and was as entertaining. Between 24 and 26 April, philosophers, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligence enthusiasts gathered at King's College London to offer each other blue pills and red pills in a game that may decide the fate of the human soul. Their red pills were research and philosophical thought experiments. Their blue pills, fast losing popularity, were sentimental hankerings after notions of a soul and a coherence of identity. There was general agreement that conscious experience is an illusion, and that there is a hidden reality we have little access to.

As far as we know, the brain is the most complex object in the universe - quite capable of generating illusions, including your sense of self. Its complexity rests in the huge number of nerve cells, or neurons, and the intricate connections between them allowing electrical messages to form an almost infinite variety of elaborate patterns. In the cortex, usually referred to as the higher brain (controlling speech, thought, complex patterns of movement, and appreciation of aesthetic), there are more than one million billion connections between nerve cells. If you had to count each connection, one per second, it would take you 32 million years. A peculiar example of this complex brain's capacity for generating illusion is that of people who experience itches and pains in "ghost limbs" long after their legs have been amputated. Another example is that of people who experience hallucinations - indistinguishable from "reality" - when areas of their brain are probed during surgery done under local anaesthetic.

There were those at the conference who resisted the implications of this data. Let's call them the "essentialists." Essentialists believe that there is some essential thing, some intrinsic value that makes consciousness quite different from the rest of your biology. One of the leading essentialists was the young charismatic philosopher Professor David Chalmers from the University of Arizona. He believes that consciousness has unique properties that cannot be observed by a third person. It is these subjective properties, he argues, that make consciousness a phenomena in a league of its own - one that cannot be studied using the principles of biology. Chalmers believes that we will discover physical processes like that of perception, memory and imagination, but not a physical process that corresponds to the feeling of "what it is like to be me."

On the other side of the debate were the red pill "physicalists" who believe that consciousness has no special property that can be distinguished from the physical electro-chemical processes of human brain. Their patriarch, Professor Daniel Dennett, looking as imposing as Charles Darwin himself, gave the impression that empiricism will help you explain yourself away. There is no immaterial mind. The reason mental states have direct consequences in the physical world is because they are in fact physical states - governed by the laws of nature. Not unlike Neo in the film, you are a brain in a tank, suspended, as it were, in a nurturing "tank" of chemicals, electricity and the fields of space-time, but experiencing a dream you call reality.

In his book The User Illusion, Tor Norretranders compares consciousness to the computer interfaces we deal with everyday. To use a computer you do not have to know how it works, or have any knowledge about programming or engineering. You have the "user illusion", which is exactly what consciousness is in relation to your brain-body complex. We all suffer the user illusion. Most researchers maintain that our experience is an internally generated representation of a very small part of the stimulus our body receives. Our experience is not even the stimulus (sound, light, texture, etc.) itself. As Professor Nicholas Humphrey put it, "No subjective experience is being done to you. All experience is done by you". You have no access to what is "outside". You are not "being pained", for example, you are "paining". You are the active agent of your own experience. Sensation is an action performed by your own brain. This point is strengthened by the fact that the brain receives more inputs from itself, than from sensory organs bearing inputs from the outside world.

What about our memories? Are they all constructs too? Your brain doesn't store whole memories (like the face of your lover). It stores dismembered bits of experience that you then literally re-member - piece together every time you experience a memory. And every time you do this you invent huge parts of it. What is frightening is that you cannot tell the difference between those bits that are a close approximation to what really happened, and those bits that you have fabricated. Memory is more like dreaming than recalling reality. Unlike the plot in The Matrix, there is no evil conspiracy controlling the dream. Your brain-body complex itself is generating the illusion. There is also no one, like Neo in the film, who can wake up and see the truth. There is no self to be woken. Self is the most crucial illusion of all. The dream is the dreamer. Ultimately, there is no one at home.

This suggests that we should reevaluate the primacy of consciousness in our daily lives. The physicalists teach us that consciousness is not in control. It lags at least half a second behind everything else being experienced by the body - including thoughts! We experience our own thoughts after the fact. Half a second doesn't sound like much, but in neural terms it is a long time. We can never be in-the-moment consciously. Cases were sited of people who became unconscious while playing the piano, and were able to continue playing the piece to the end. Physicalists use this data to support the primacy of non-conscious processes, and criticize the way we rarify our sense of self.

Do you feel you are something else other than brain-body activity? If so - What evidence do you have apart from sentimental intuitions? If not - Do you think we will ever be able to study what it feels like to be you? If the physicalists are right, can we punish conscious minds for crimes? What implications will their theories hold for the education of your children? Will subliminal advertising, that appeals directly to non-conscious processes, make a come back? Will the new spirituality be chemistry? Will psychology, that tries to change behaviour through talking, be replaced by physical tools that are able to change behaviour by changing the biology? Other therapies that tweak the physical brain-body complex, like gene therapy, are waiting in the wings and will soon become major players in the designer human game.

Even physicalists have their fears. Professor Susan Greenfield has said, "If we really and deeply knew how groups of neurons generated consciousness, then we couldn't exclude the possibility that we could hack into each other's consciousness. If we did that, then we'd annihilate the individual, and I for one would not want to see that day."

What of our dreams of transcending our biology? Going to heaven? Having an identity that exists in the world of ideas rather than the world of matter? Or are we stuck forever in the user illusion? As computer scientist Alan Kay has put it: the user illusion "is the simplified myth everyone builds to explain (and make guesses about) the system's actions and what should be done next".