Utopia vs Dystopia: A Matter of Semantics?

After witnessing the dystopian societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games, I wondered to myself, what would a Utopia really be? What differentiates a Utopia from a Dystopia? Is there always a fine line?

If you have learned of a Utopia as a perfect society, you might naively think that a Dystopia would be the opposite, or a failed society.

Yet this could not be further from the truth. The societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games are stable, successful, self-sustaining worlds, yet they are considered to be Dystopias. None of the three societies are failures. They merely contain different moral systems and social classes than what we are used to today. Yet they are considered repulsive and to be avoided at all costs.


In 1984, the world is run by three superpowers locked in constant warfare. This way, since each individual power is always at war, each government can maintain permanent martial law and rule with an iron fist. Any dissent is dealt with ruthlessly, as seen in the plot. The system works. It is, I daresay, perfect.

In Brave New World, the government does not rule with an iron fist, but rather, by providing so many distractions and recreations to the common people (analogous to TV or drugs in our world) that the average person is too amused to worry about any oppression by the government. There is a propagandized doctrine of happiness, that there are no problems as long as everyone is happy. The work is done by genetically engineered stupid people (the Epsilons) that serve as slaves to the other castes. Indeed, the way it runs, this society can be thought of as perfect as well.

The only major difference about the presentation of the Dystopia in The Hunger Games is that it presents an overly dramatic story of a rebel going through an elaborate system (the game itself) to rebel. It is also the only one so far that presents any hope to the rebels. In 1984 and Brave New World, by contrast, the government wins at the end.

In this respect, the government in The Hunger Games is nowhere near as successful as those in 1984 and Brave New World. Despite its running the games for 74 years, the government faces decadence and imperfection, which didn’t seem to affect the other two Dystopias. So in a way, the government in The Hunger Games is not a true Dystopia—it does not have lasting power, so it is not perfect. In 1984, the government could turn people against each other, and in Brave New World, everyone is happy so no one has reason to rebel. In The Hunger Games, however, people are unhappy, and these unhappy people unite together, posing a real threat to the government.

So the society in The Hunger Games is more akin to a short-lived Middle Eastern or South American state undergoing rapid regime changes, as a large amount of discontent exists and is significant. By contrast, the societies in 1984 and Brave New World are more like the former Soviet Union/the current United States. The people are either squashed in rebellion or are too mesmerized to rebel.

Where does a Utopia fit in all of this? A Utopia is supposed to be perfect, but how are the societies of 1984 and Brave New World not perfect? Sure, in 1984, the main character is tortured, but you could make the argument that if he had just listened to the government and did what it asked for, he would not have been hurt at all. Indeed, when he is brainwashed at the end, the society seems perfect to him.

And if you are a thinking human being in Brave New World, there is little reason you would want anything else from society. You are provided with all the joy you could possibly want. Sure, the lower class Epsilons are treated unfairly, but they are made dumb biologically. They might not have a consciousness as we have. They are basically machines.

You could say that in a true Utopia, everyone would be treated fairly. But how can a society actually function if this were the case? There has to be someone or a group of people in charge. Even in Plato’s Republic, containing the first proposal of a utopian society, there are social classes with clearly defined rulers.

And even with powerful and rational people at the top, this does not create a Utopia. In Watchmen, set in the Cold War, the titled superheroes try to save humanity, but the smartest and most rational of them finds, to most people’s shock, that the only way to save humanity from nuclear destruction is to initiate a massive attack on the whole world, in order to unify the United States and the USSR. While this character is considered to be the main antagonist as he killed millions of people, he is, if viewed from a purely rational perspective, the hero of humanity. And from this perspective, he took steps in creating a Utopia, not a Dystopia.

Since these moral issues are so subjective, the line between a Utopia and a Dystopia and the definition of perfect are subjective as well, as shown in all of the examples above. Then is the distinction between a Utopia and a Dystopia any more than a matter a semantics? What are your thoughts?

So What is Real?

Now obviously one blog post will be insufficient for answering this question. But that’s fine. Perhaps “what is real?” is an unreal and irrelevant question. Or perhaps it is the most meaningful question ever to have been asked. How could anyone know?

Levels of Reality

I shall take as a starting point the film Inception. In it, the dream-within-a-dream motif cascades down several times, creating many levels of reality within a coherent story. In each successive level, the dream world is more fantastic, with what would otherwise be logically impossible objects, until the final stage called Limbo, in which entire worlds can be constructed, built convincingly enough to fool a dreamer’s belief in reality. But this raises the question of which stage should be called reality. If a dreamer has been in Limbo for decades, maybe centuries, he would have spent more time in a dream than in the original level of reality, and thus Limbo would seem more real to him than the original reality. In fact, he may even forget that the original reality ever existed. Limbo would not just be a more relevant reality—it would be the only reality.

This assumes that Limbo is convincing enough. For Limbo to work, it must fool our senses so much as to cover truth with a blank canvas and let our imagination paint it with only the facts we choose to accept. Then we choose to accept nothing else, so that we have quite literally our own picture of reality.

Now Limbo is purely a fictional concept. But perhaps you have already taken Limbo as real in some part of your imagination. Maybe you have already begun to formulate your own realities in Limbo. Maybe you are designing the architecture as we speak. If so, you should pat yourself on the back for doing your job as an open-minded reader.

If, on the other hand, Limbo seems to you just as false as unicorns and the tooth fairy, then perhaps the canvas has already been placed in front of your eyes. Your own opinion of reality has excluded the possibility of Limbo, because you find it outside of what you want to accept. Since you do not think it is true, it must be false. Thus you may already be inside your own Limbo.

Determining Reality

The trouble is, it is somewhat difficult to tell whether we are in a false reality. Maybe we are merely trivial details of someone else’s dream. We might be in Limbo and thus not be real.

“I am real!” you might say. In the Limbo-sense of real, then yes, everything is real. Anything we can imagine is real within someone’s imagination. Going down one level is easy. But going up is the hard part. What kind of experiment would be able to tell us whether we are in a true or false reality?

The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Perhaps there is a giveaway error. In a dream, if you flip a light switch, the light might not change. But we can only detect this error because we are expecting the light switch to do something. If we only remembered what happened since the start of the dream and remembered nothing of what a light switch was supposed to do, then we would not be able to conclude anything when we flip it. The room would stay dark, but that would not say anything about being in a dream or not.

So maybe there is some analogous error that we can find with our common reality. But if the case is like the above, then we have no idea what we are searching for. In fact, we may have already stumbled upon the giveaway error that proves we are in a dream right now, but we do not know how to interpret it. Perhaps when you place oxygen molecules near one another, they are supposed to trigger a nuclear explosion. But in our level of reality, they do not do anything—we just breathe them in.

If we knew that flipping the light switch should trigger the light, but it doesn’t, we would deduce that we are in a dream. And if we knew that oxygen molecules should cause nuclear explosions, but they don’t, then we would likewise deduce that we are in a dream. But how are we supposed to know that oxygen molecules should explode? It would be knowledge coming from outside our universe, and would be hence unobtainable unless there were intervention from outside. This could happen if some entity came down to us, demonstrated supernatural powers (e.g., causing many black holes to form in the sky, without destroying Earth), and told us that we are in a dream. Most people would consider this entity to be a god.

But there are still issues with this method. What if the entity was not a transcendental being, but rather, just an alien with advanced knowledge of physics playing a prank on us? If that were the case, would most civilizations in the world still think of this entity as a god?

The Matrix Scrolling

Questions that Cannot Be Answered

The common belief is that if a question has no answer, then it is not meaningful. I claim that this is false, by showing examples of questions that cannot be answered and yet are meaningful. Historians, for instance, would benefit a great deal from investigating the many mysteries of mankind. But this is a cheap example, you might say. A question such as “Who shot John F. Kennedy?” has an answer, and perhaps some people alive today even know it. But surely no one today knows the answer to the question “When did Homer live?” or even “Was Homer a real person?” Even so, these questions do have answers; we just can’t find them.

There are some more bizarre questions, however, in mathematics. For example, “Can every even integer greater than or equal to 4 be written as the sum of two primes?” The answer must be either “yes” or “no,” but no one has found a proof yet. Much worse are Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which imply that there are true statements that cannot be proved. Equally bizarre is the question “Is there a cardinality between that of the natural numbers and that of the real numbers?” The answer is, almost paradoxically, that both “yes” and “no” are valid answers, which seems to raise the question of whether this constitutes an answer at all.

Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion

Then we go on to physics and metaphysics. “What is time?” “How did the universe begin?” “Is our universe a false reality?” I think that all of the questions in the last few paragraphs are relevant for us. Knowing more about time could, in the far future, open up many new technologies and possibly time travel. Knowing how the universe began would tell us much about the laws of physics, which we still don’t quite understand. And knowing the reality of the universe would grant us some much-needed insights about the truth, of which we are ever in pursuit.

Free Will: How We Do and Do Not Have It

Today’s topic of free will was chosen by Virginia W at Westwood High School. But was the topic freely chosen or was it already determined?

The answer has to do with the way our universe works. According to modern scientific theory, the universe can be broken down into a number of rules which govern how things interact. These rules are often presented to us as a series of confounding mathematical equations.

That, for example, is a formula of general relativity. Which would explain things including black holes:

[Both images courtesy of Wikipedia. For the rest of the images in this searches, thank Google search.]

Now, if you would agree at least that the movement of galaxies and stars are determined by rules, the laws of physics, the question is how far down does this go? Rather, a more interesting way is to look the opposite way, starting from the tiniest things we know: subatomic particles:

We can’t actually see them. But we know they are there. And we know about their properties through the laws of physics nonetheless.

How far up does this go? Combine subatomic particles together in certain ways and you get atoms. Put atoms together and you’ve got molecules, but wait, aren’t we now in the realm of chemistry?

These things are governed by formulas nonetheless. And when we put a bunch of these molecules together, we get a cell. Have the right kind of cell, and it’s a neuron. Your brain is a vast collection of interacting neurons:

Wouldn’t it follow that these also obey some rules? Even though we haven’t found these rules yet, all the neuron’s building blocks follow physical laws that are never violated. I remember Stumbling Upon this picture a couple of years ago, and it is still shocking. It shows the uncanny similarity between the structure of neuron clusters and the structure of galaxy clusters:

Point is, everything, including your brain, is governed by a set of rules. (You might hear in the news every so often that some law is broken, but that is only because the theory about the rule was incorrect, not the rule itself.)

Here is the tricky part. Suppose we knew all the rules, knew what the universe started from, and had a sufficiently powerful enough computer to run our universe as a simulation. (All 3 of these are far beyond are reach at the moment, especially the third, which is impossible, but is here for sake of thought experiment.) Because of the rules, the simulation would start running and emulating our universe exactly.

Sometime in the simulation a star would form, and there would be eight planets around it. On the third closest one, life forms would appear, eventually ones intelligent enough to question their own existence. They would ask, “Do we have free will?” And I’ll say, “No, but…

The answer is no, because if everything is governed by rules, then there is not any “intelligence” inside the simulation that is not part of something programmed into the simulation beforehand. What happens in the simulation only depends on what rules we decided upon and in what condition we started it, both choices having been made before the simulation ever began. There is no actual “free will” inside the simulation.

But there is always a “but.” Even supposing we figured out all the laws of our universe and its initial state, it would be physically impossible to create a simulation that could run our universe in at least real time.

Suppose in some simulation you have some number of particles. Further supposing that your computer has perfect, 100% efficiency, in that one particle in the computer could match one particle in the simulation, you would not be able to ever run the simulation, because you need as many particles in your computer as your entire universe contains! So you could run a partial simulation or a less detailed one, but this wouldn’t match your universe. Or you could slow it down, so you simulate only a fraction of the universe at a time (but still you would need storage).

The point here is, we physically cannot simulate our universe. We would need more particles than our universe contains. Even if we could tap into the resources of another universe, we would run into the problem that eventually in the simulation, the resources of another simulated universe would be tapped, thus requiring even more resources in the original universe. And so on.

So even though the universe might be determined, we can treat life as if we have free will anyways because we can never know what will come next. For all practical purposes, we do indeed possess free will. But theoretically, we don’t.

Edit: Here is a post I wrote later on an intriguing simulation aspect of determinism.

Is Time an Illusion?

[The physics and philosophy article “Is Time an Illusion?” by Craig Callender appears in the June 2010 edition of Scientific American (pp. 58-65). Online article here.]


Keith Peters Spacetime
Artwork by Keith Peters, whose illustrations (though not this particular one) appear in the article.


Does Time exist, or is Time an illusion? Craig Callender assures us that many physicists believe in the latter and far more bizarre theory. They believe that time is not an intrinsic property of the universe, but rather, an artificial convenience for human beings.

It is a mind-boggling theory. The point is that we can imagine the universe as three dimensions of space and one distinct dimension of time, for a total of four dimensions of spacetime. And our brains have the capacity to handle three dimensions. Normally these are the three dimensions of space, as we leave the effects of the remaining dimension—time—to prediction; that is, if we have one 3D frame, we can predict the next 3D frame in time.

But what if we were to visualize three dimensions again, only this time, we do so for two dimensions of space and one dimensions of time? This 3D frame would tell us exactly what happened in a 2D plane for all time, including the future. This makes much less intuitive sense for a human.

So what evidence do physicists have for casting away time? Here is an excerpt from the article on canonical quantum gravity:

Canonical quantum gravity emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when physicists rewrote Einstein’s equations for gravity in the same form as the equations for electromagnetism [….] When physicists John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt attempted this procedure in the late 1960s, they arrived at a very strange result. The equations (dubbed the Wheeler-DeWitt equation) utterly lacked a time variable. The symbol t denoting time had simply vanished.

In other words, time has within this context no intrinsic meaning.

Here is the analogy. Callender compares time to money, saying that it is only a common currency that aimed to simplify a barter system. The article supposes that a cup of coffee is worth $2, a pair of shoes $100, and a used car $2000. Then we can exchange 50 cups of coffee for a pair of shoes, or 1000 cups for a used car.

Then it supposes that light goes 300,000 km per second, the heart has 75 beats per minute, and the Earth has 1 rotation per day. These three processes—the speed of light, a heartbeat, and the Earth’s rotation—can now be described without using time. We may simply start at the base unit of a heartbeat, and say that light travels 240,000 km per beat, while the Earth rotates at 108,000 beats per rotation. A diagram in the print version of the article makes this more clear.

To sum it up: “The concepts of time and change may emerge from a universe that, at root, is utterly static.”

(By the way, according to the article “[the author] assures us that his lifelong interest in time has nothing to do with his last name.” :P)

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...

No, I don’t know the punchline. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… is actually the title of a book written by Harvard philosophy majors Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein, and is summed up by its subtitle: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Each topic, that is, contains a number of jokes that demonstrate the application, or more commonly, the misapplication of it.

Because certain members of my audience are acquainted with a certain Theory of Knowledge, I shall pull one out from Chapter 3: Epistemology. The book’s definition:

How do you know that you know the stuff you think you know? Take away the option of answering, “I just do!” and what’s left is epistemology.

One theme is reason versus faith.

A man stumbles into a deep well and plummets a hundred feet before grasping a spindly root, stopping his fall. His grip grows weaker and weaker, and in his desperation he cries out, “Is there anybody up there?”

He looks up, and all he can see is a circle of sky. Suddenly, the clouds part and a beam of bright light shines down on him. A deep voice thunders, “I, the Lord, am here. Let go of the root, and I shall save you.”

The man thinks for a moment, and then yells, “Is there anybody else up there?”

The book then wisecracks: “Hanging by the root has a tendency to tip the scales toward reason.”

Another interesting point is what we can know by reason alone. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant called this the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself. Here is a ding an sich joke:

Secretary: Herr Doktor, there’s a ding an sich in the waiting room.

Urologist: A ding an sich! If I see one more today, I think I’m screaming! Who is it?

Secretary: How would I know?

Urologist: Describe him.

Secretary: You must be kidding!

This one is actually REALLY funny when you get the philosophy.

Consciousness of Stream

No, the title is not a horrible typo. True, this is writing-wise a stream of consciousness, but for this post, I wanted specifically to inquire the meanings and values of inanimate objects. A stream first came to mind. Hence, consciousness of stream.

Imagine a stream flowing into the ocean. What is a stream? The definition certainly matters. If choose a definition that includes not only the water but also all the living organisms swimming or floating within it, then the stream deserves to be called a biosphere by itself. Then how is it different from us? Our own living bodies are composed of a combination of organic and inorganic matter. If the definition of a stream includes organic parts, then it would appear that a stream is also living.

If a stream is living, then does it have a consciousness? Of course, no brain or neuron network can be found for a stream, but then again, consciousness may not even require a nervous system. It depends on definitions again. Let us loosely define consciousness to be the awareness of external stimuli. For example, if I look up in the sky at daytime, I would be aware of the sun. In this way, a plant is also somewhat conscious, in that a plant can grow towards the sun (the scientific term is “phototropism”). To a galactic observer, it may seem that the plant is consciously growing this way. Hence, the plant gives the appearance of consciousness, or, if we take the looser definition, the plant is conscious.

Now, what about a stream? Does it possess at least the appearance of consciousness? Surely one could say so. I would agree that a stream is conscious. It responds to changes in the outside environment. It adapts over time. It is even composed of conscious entities; does this qualify the whole system as conscious? Certainly, for even if only part of the stream is conscious, then the whole system may at times act like the individual consciousness. This seems to go into the concept of a collective consciousness, a topic of which may volumes may be written.

This train of thought is somewhat harder to follow in reverse. It is due to the nature of emergent properties, properties which appear due to increased complexity. What I am saying is that a collection of inanimate objects, because of emergent properties, may appear to be conscious. This is actually the case with the plant. The plant is chemically and biologically programmed to grow towards the light, even if it lacks a brain directing it to grow lightwards. Dive further down. These biochemical processes are ultimately determined by the individual molecules and atoms, and at the fundamental level, ruled by the laws of physics. Now, it would be silly to suggest that the laws of physics are conscious, or that the laws of chemistry are conscious. Therefore, the source of consciousness is the emergent properties that arise from increasing complexity.

Philosophy of The Matrix (Part 2)

Part 2 deals with the philosophy of prophecy. Part 1 discussed the philosophy of existence and simulated realities. Later parts may cover cycles of existence, morality and ethics, and computer intelligence.

The Oracle: Prophecy

The Oracle is a sentient program who knows, or at least gives the appearance of knowing, future states of the world. First we have the intriguing self-fulfilling prophecy effect in which knowledge of a future event causes the event to happen. The question is: Would the event have occurred if the subject did not know it would occur? The following scene in the first movie is truly amazing:


			I'd ask you to sit down, but
			you're not going to anyway.  And
			don't worry about the vase.

			What vase?

	He turns to look around and his elbow knocks a VASE from
	the table.  It BREAKS against the linoleum floor.

			The vase.

			Shit, I'm sorry.

	She pulls out a tray of chocolate chip cookies and turns.
	She is an older woman, wearing big oven mitts,
	comfortable slacks and a print blouse.  She looks like
	someone's grandma.

			I said don't worry about it.  I'll
			get one of my kids to fix it.

			How did you know...?

	She sets the cookie tray on a wooden hot-pad.

			What's really going to bake your
			noodle later on is, would you
			still have broken it if I hadn't
			said anything.

	Smiling, she lights a cigarette.


In the context of the environment, it seems very doubtful that Neo would have broken the vase had the Oracle not told him to not worry about it. The scene illustrates the limitations of free will via prophecy. The realizations are quite scary. We know that the Oracle is a computer program in the matrix. Back to simulated realities for a moment, it is physically possible, because the program is running in some place outside the simulation, for the Oracle to know the future, if and only if events are deterministic. By deterministic, I mean lacking randomness or free will. This concept is more understandable built bottom-up.

Consider a universe with 100 particles moving around. Someone from another universe with more resources could theoretically create a computer simulation of those 100 particles. Now suppose the 100 particles existed only in a simulation. The scale of time in that universe is both arbitrary and meaningless. We could stop the simulation for 10 years of our time, resume the simulation, and in the point of view of the simulation, not a beat would have been skipped.

We now add one layer of complexity to the situation. Instead of the program simulating 100 particles, it is now simulating sentient beings. Those beings would have no awareness of the universe surrounding them, and hence, to them, time is relative. Now suppose the simulation is fully deterministic. It should then be theoretically possible to create a second simulation, starting with the exact same states. We may then speed up one of the simulations, or slow/pause the other, causing the faster one to surpass the other in time. Then we could technically observe what happens in the faster simulation and relate to the beings in the slower simulation what will happen in the future.

But, by telling them what will happen, we are interfering with the simulation. If in the faster simulation, a certain character, say Bob, is supposed to be involved in a car accident, but we tell the other simulation’s Bob that he is going to have a car accident, then the second Bob could theoretically avoid the accident. Therefore, the second simulation is not deterministic because an unpredictable, outside entity interfered with it.

Let us first look at two other cases of self-fulfilling prophecy, both in self-contained, deterministic worlds. For this purpose, we exit the Matrix temporarily. Consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If you are not familiar with the plot of this play, then look up the summary on Wikipedia or skip this paragraph if you do not want spoilers. Now, in the play, Macbeth learns from three witches that he is to be the future king of Scotland. Acting on this knowledge, he then lays a trap, murdering the current king and then proclaiming himself king. Had he not known the witches’ prophecy, he would most likely not have murdered the king and become king himself. Philosophically, this plot is deterministic. Since it is entirely possible that the witches merely made a random guess, there is no outside force influencing the plot (the visions and ghosts later on can be physically interpreted as hallucinations.) So, if you ran the universe again, the same thing would have happened.

One more example is Premonition (2007). If you actually want to see this movie (despite that it had mostly negative reviews as a film, it has a very thought-provoking plot), go ahead and skip this paragraph. Otherwise, continue. In the movie, Linda experiences non-chronological order, waking up on Thursday, then Monday, then Saturday, etc. (because of this, the movie is somewhat confusing the first time). She learns on Thursday from a sheriff that her husband Jim died on Wednesday in a car accident, and that it happened at the main road’s “Mile 220” sign. She later wakes up on Wednesday. Jim is still alive. She tries to “save” him, but ends up getting Jim to be at the “Mile 220” road. A speeding car comes by and narrowly misses Jim’s car. Although Jim survives and Linda is relieved that the accident was “avoided,” Jim’s car fails to start, and he is stuck in the middle of the road. A large truck full of gasoline approaches and cannot stop in time, exploding on impact and causing Jim’s car to explode as well. What is fascinating, however, is that had Linda not had the premonition, Jim would not have been killed.

Now, the fundamental difference between these two cases and the one in The Matrix is that in the last case, the world is not deterministic. Hence the real question is, How did the Oracle know? A computer cannot simulate something more complex than itself, that is, the total number of things to simulate cannot exceed the limits by the computer’s processing power. (A counter-argument is that the computer can run a more complex simulation at a slower rate, but the Matrix is a real-time simulation, so the counterclaim is invalid here.) In order for the Oracle program to predict what will happen in an interaction between itself and a human, it will need to be able to fully simulate both the human and itself because there is mutual interaction. But hold on a second, a computer cannot simulate itself plus something else! It is analogous to fitting the space of  a larger box completely inside a smaller one; it cannot be done.

Unless, of course, there are two layers of simulation, not one. Suppose the Earth combined with its Matrix program are being simulated in a more “real” universe. Then because the more real beings do not have to interact with our universe, our universe would be deterministic, along with everything within it. So, in the outer-universe, programmers could have run two simulations of us, and fed in information from one simulation into the Oracle program-within-a-program in the other simulation. However, there is another way to explain how the Oracle knows: the Oracle is using knowledge from previous existences.


Script of The Matrix: (Accessed 11/24/09) <http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/matrix_96_draft.txt>.