Is reality real? Probably most of us have asked this question to ourselves, at least once in our lifetimes. Naturally, the question of reality has also been a subject of philosophy. The assertion saying that the physical world is an illusion is almost as old as the history of humanity, but no one has yet been able to prove it 100 percent.
Before we go into the details of the matter, I would like to share with you a related quote from one of my favourite movies, “Waking Life”:
“You have these serotonic neurons that inhibit hallucinations that they themselves are inhibited during REM sleep. See, this allows dreams to appear real, while preventing competition from other perceptual processes. This is why dreams are mistaken for reality. To the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action, and actually the waking perception and action.”
Indeed, in our dreams we think that we are in the real world, and if the differences in perception between dreams and reality are only based on neural activities, who could say this life is not just another dream? Through history, a lot of philosophers have thought on the issue, and some have come out with remarkable explanations:
As an answer to the question “Is reality real?”, Plato asserted his theory of forms, in which he defined the physical world as ‘a shadow of reality’. According to him, the ultimate reality (the realm of forms) could only be absorbed by thinking.
Another famous philosopher, George Berkeley claimed that the objects in the physical world do not exist independently of our minds, and anything that we see and perceive is actually a part of ‘a plenary thought’. I do not agree with Berkeley in some points, but I think he was right on the point that the existence of entities is somehow related to consciousness. You can check out my post “Metaphysical Idealism and Materialism: Practice vs Theory” for more information.
In the last two decades, the illusion hypothesis has gotten populer again in connection with the irrepressible progress in technology. However, this time it has a different name: “The Simulation Hypothesis”.
Today, we are able to create computer simulations almost on the level that they can not be distinguished from real life, and naturally people ask the question “What if our reality is simulated too?”. Some may think this argument is nonsense, but even Elon Musk -the ideas of whom are appreciated by most of the people- thinks that it is probable:
“Given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.“
I, also, had spent a lot of time thinking on the question “Is reality real?”, and eventually I made some strong logical inferences. I will share with you what I think, but before that we have to dig deeper in the subject:
In our Universe there are limits; an upper limit to speed (speed of light), a lower limit to lenght (Planck lenght), a lower limit to temperature (0°K ), etc. This means that there are rules in the Cosmos, just like the rules in computer games. This similarity supports the simulation hypothesis.
Some people could say “God established those rules.” as a counter-argument, but that would also mean that someone (God) simulated the Universe, right? That suggestion does not confute the hypothesis at all.
Studies in the field of quantum mechanics have shown us that the fabric of the Universe is actually made of ‘potentials’. I can hear some of you saying “What do you mean by potentials?”, let me briefly explain:
In the Cosmos, there are particles which have different forms than the entities we are used to. Subatomic particles, such as electrons, are able to exist potentially instead of existing clearly like the objects we observe.
When an electron is detached from the rest of the Cosmos (when it is not interacting with any other particle) it exists in many different positions, as a pack of potentials. When it is free, it does not have a perceptible form nor a definite position.
Let me put it this way:
Think of yourself as a superhero. Your talents are being invisible like a ghost, and being at various places simultaneously. You can be both at home and at the grocery at the same time. Well, subatomic particles have that superpower. A free subatomic particle is invisible, and it exist in various different positions simultaneously.
This phenomenon is scientifically proven, no magic included. If you would like more information, I suggest you to read about the double-slit experiment.
The strange thing is, when you observe the particle by using a particle detector, it behaves just like a normal object. The minute that it is detected, it locates itself to one and only definite position and takes a tangible form.
The fact that subatomic particles start to behave like normal objects when they are observed reminds me of the maps in computer games, parts of which are not rendered until they come into view. When the player is not observing, the unseen parts of the map are not really there, they only have potential existence, just like the particles I have mentioned.
I want to share with you that a poem written by Omar Khayyam, which elegantly epitomizes the relationship between the observer and reality. After that, I will explain my own simulation theory:
“When I am absent
Neither roses nor cypresses exist
Fragrant wines, red lips
Mornings, evenings, sorrow and joy
None of them exist, when I am absent
This world exists as long as I think
Without me, there is nothing”
Now, let us say the physical realm is a simulation, but why would anyone simulate such a horrible world? Just for fun? What is the catch here?
These kinds of questions had made me think of a different possibility: What if the Cosmos is simulating itself? This life could either be an illusion that arises compulsorily, by itself. Here are the inferences I made after I had come up with this idea:
Certain existence is impossible without consciosness. Something can ‘certainly exist’ only if someone knows its existence. See, you can not call an object that you have not perceived nor learnt about “a categorically existing entity”.
On the other hand, the entities which have not been perceived yet have potential existence, because a thing can not be “nothing”. The undetected things are components of the set “things we do not know yet”. Nonetheless, unless there is a conscious being, the set of potentially existing things (the unknown set) can not be defined neither. In short, consciousness is essential for all existence.
Nothingness is impossible. Therefore, everything must somehow be existent, and for that, there must be at least one conscious mind.
I now want you to think of existence as a whole. Can the Cosmos -as a whole- be conscious? It can not, because there is no outer world for the Cosmos (the set that comprehends the whole existence). One can not have a conscious ego unless there is an outer world.
Let me explain why:
We define ourselves in a field, in the Universe. If there was no outer world, could you define yourself as “I”? Without the existence of other things, you would not be able to make a distinction between others and yourself in order to realize your own identity.
You would also not be able to perceive time, because there would be no outer movement (since there would be no outer world). Time perception arises from the perception of the outer movement. If you were “everything”, you could not have consciousness also because you would not have a time perception. The perception of time is essential for experiencing consciousness.
The Cosmos can not be conscious as itself, because there is no other thing. However, there must be consciousness, because nothingness is impossible.
Therefore, the conscious minds are compulsorily simulated inside the Cosmos. The Cosmos is obliged to simulate the minds inside itself, due to the need of consciousness for the existence of things.
Thus, the physical realm has to be simulated too, because there must be things for the mind to perceive. If there was nothing to perceive, there would be nothing to ‘think about’, and without thinking we could not be conscious.
In this case, the distinction between reality and illusion disappears, and the question “Is reality real?” becomes meaningless. Reality and illusion are now synonymous notions, because there is no other way.