Black Swans and The Matrix

Next, we delve into a thought experiment that you are already familiar with. It’s called the brain in a vat experiment, and it closely mirrors (or rather, the other way around) the premise for the movie The Matrix. What if we are all indeed just brains in vats of liquid, being externally fed a lifetime of experiences and nutrients? How could we ever know the difference unless we were physically shown the jar? And then how could we know that this vision was also true and unfiltered and untampered with? We can’t. And that’s the point. There’s more uncertainty, even to our very nature, and we again should cease all assumptions and think and question more thoroughly.

Consider a simple example, one popularized by Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan. One may spend ages with the idea or model that “swans are white” and never have occasion to question this. However, some swans are occasionally black. Discovering one would force you to update your mental model after the fact. It’s fine to be surprised by a black swan, and no big deal to change your model to “swans are usually white, but can be black sometimes.”
But what if the thing you don’t know is more important than the color of a swan? The real trouble comes when unexpected events are bigger and more impactful—like a financial crash. How can we become better at predicting the unpredictable, or, more fundamentally, knowing what we don’t know? For Taleb, the issue is that humans rely too much on what they already “know,” and don’t actively seek out what they lack knowledge of. In other words, they hold tightly to the maps they have and are caught off guard when they discover inaccuracies, or completely new territories they’re unprepared to navigate. We get too comfortable with the models we have in the moment, and fail to take risks, seize opportunities or reward new ideas; we’re like the prisoners in the cave who take the shadows in front of them as reality, and don’t ask any further questions.
So, in the real world, economists, financiers, market forecasters, trend analysts, business gurus and all manner of social or cultural prophets make claims on what the future holds, forgetting that the data they’re using is incomplete, and that they have not factored into their model the very likely possibility of being blindsided by an unpredictable or unforeseen event. We need models, yet these models always will have limitations. In a way, asking what our tools can’t do makes them more effective than merely assuming they can do it all, and then being proven wrong when we attempt to use them to solve problems they can’t solve.
We always narrow down our focus to make our appraisals of life simpler and more manageable. We look at just a few facts, or just one location, only a handful of people, or consider only a few factors or features. But it’s essential to zoom out again. We must not allow ourselves to believe that these mental shortcuts are in any way the same as reality itself.
Thinking like a philosopher allows you to temporarily glimpse behind you, rather than getting engrossed in the endless shadows playing in front of you. It’s habitually asking “in what ways could I be wrong?” instead of “where can I find evidence that I’m right?” It’s this willingness to look at things one or two layers deeper that characterizes a higher quality of thought. While most people, most of the time work on the superficial level—the level of habit, assumption, unexamined sensation and knee-jerk perception—it is possible to look beyond.

Inside the Matrix

A related philosophical thought experiment gets to the heart of some very big questions in a similar way. It’s called the “brain in a vat.” Even if you’ve never heard of it before, if you’ve watched the classic sci-fi film The Matrix, you’re already familiar with its premise.
If you read a little philosophy and pay attention to what is happening in the world of AI, you can’t help but ask eventually, “What if my life is just one big computer simulation?” Like the poor hapless people imprisoned unwittingly in the machine called the Matrix, you could, at this very moment, be living out an elaborate fantasy world while the “real you” is elsewhere—or perhaps doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps a genius mastermind has merely constructed a very convincing facsimile of the real world and trapped you inside it. This is philosopher Hilary Putman’s classic thought experiment legacy, but it was in turn inspired by Descartes and his ideas in his 1637 “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences.”
But before we examine this idea, we must address the question of how you know you’re, say, sitting on your living room sofa and reading. Your sense organs tell you. But then, what if this genius mastermind (or a deceiving demon) at some point removed your brain from your body and placed it in a vat of nutrients in a lab, with every nerve connected to a computer? You’d be fed all the data necessary to give your sense perception the belief that it was inside the living room, reading.
Here come the obvious questions: Are you even alive? Are you still you? Would the world you live in still count as real? Would you care? And the biggest question of all: how do you know that this isn’t the case already, right now? We are back in Plato’s cave again, and don’t know what we don’t know.
Descartes thought about this kind of a thing a lot, and the best he could come up with was the attitude that absolute ignorance was a great starting point; then one could carefully build up only what one 100 percent knew to be true. Let’s begin, as Descartes would suggest, by doubting all things. Now, what can be trusted? Let’s consider the sense perceptions. Can you trust that the book or device you’re holding right now is really there? Maybe, but then again, senses can be wrong sometimes, for example if you’re ill, insane, or deceived by a demon. So, let’s forget about sensory perceptions, and any kind of knowledge built on them (goodbye scientific method!).
What else do we know? Can we determine, with absolute certainty, that we ourselves exist, then? If not, and we say something like, “I possibly don’t exist,” then there must be someone to have had this thought, someone behind the “I” in the sentence. So, even if in doubt, we can know that we ourselves exist. So far so good. Here we have the basis of Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am.”
Following down this path, Descartes assures us that even if we were a brain in a vat—or indeed at the mercy of an evil demon toying with us—we could still say with certainty that we exist. Whether dreaming, living in an illusion, mistaken or ignorant, we can know one thing: there is a “we” to have all these experiences!
If that doesn’t seem like much of a triumph, it pays to remember again that thought experiments can always be updated and used for our own ends, in our modern world. Considering this experiment in terms of the nature of reality and uncertainty, we can see that it teaches us something quite uncommon: the dedication to take nothing, absolutely nothing for granted. It may seem a little extreme, but occasionally looking at the world completely stripped of every working model, every assumption you have, can reveal a depth of clarity that will only enhance your thinking.
This thought experiment can remind us of the power of getting right down to basics again. Brilliant detectives often do this kind of work naturally. A detective may look at a random assortment of facts in front of him and have to reconstruct past events to understand what happened, who’s culpable and, more importantly, whether it can be proven in court “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Legal and judicial minds practice this kind of thinking often, but we can benefit too. Wipe the slate clean and ask, what do I really know here?
Perhaps a situation looks like a robbery. But do I know that yet? I can choose to suspend my decision until I have further evidence. Have I actively considered other scenarios that might present themselves to look exactly like a robbery without actually being one? Or am I merely looking for evidence for a conclusion I’ve already unconsciously reached? Good detectives are often not those who can spin fantastical scenarios from shreds of info and clues (like Sherlock Holmes), but rather hard-nosed sceptics in the philosophical sense.
You can do the same in your own life. CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is a little like having a mini skeptic on your shoulder. If you suffer from anxiety, you may tell yourself, “That guy recognized me and didn’t wave hello. I bet he hates me.” Use the lessons from the brain-in-a-vat experiment to test these assumptions.
Can you really know that he hates you? Could your sense perceptions (or indeed your anxiety) be fooling you right now? Can you find evidence that a person who doesn’t hate you could still act in that way? (Yes, you can—you did the same thing last week to someone you genuinely like). So, have you stumbled upon an unshakeable law of the universe or is it merely a thought your brain has come up with, bearing little resemblance to reality?
Blame it on our human ego needing to feel certain and not enjoying the state of ignorance, but we often tend to avoid starting from zero, and will sometimes begin with any old assumption if it only means we don’t have to start with nothing.
But starting from nothing forces you to have a curious “beginner’s mindset” and gives you the gift of seeing a situation as neutrally as possible. Doubting everything puts a big spotlight on all your assumptions and asks whether they’re really pulling their weight or not. It can feel like such a loss to admit that much of what you take as a given is not necessarily true; but then again, if your beliefs weren’t true, you were better off acknowledging the fact than carrying on with illusions or misunderstandings.
Finding “the truth” is not easy, but it’s far easier when you aren’t carrying around the baggage of all the things you wish were true. Do you remember when Neo first leaves the Matrix, and Morpheus welcomes him into the completely empty “desert of the real”? Leaving a world of illusion is always a little scary but at some point, we all have to choose between the red or blue pill!
Thinking this way might mean that, when asked what you can truly know, you come up with “nothing,” but then at least you are functioning clearly: we all take risks, make assumptions and use incomplete models. It’s best to know, at the very least, that this is in fact what you are doing. Your understanding may be nothing more than realizing that you don’t know what you thought you did—but how monumental a leap that really is!