Is Reality A Simulation?

Photo taken by author

We Are Not Here By Accident

“The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.” – Terence McKenna

I walk daily on a group of trails. Evergreen pine trees, ferns and moss greet me most days. Yesterday there was a colorful dinosaur climbing a tree. I have no idea how the dinosaur got there, presumably it was left by a child playing. I wonder what the child was imagining as they played. My childhood — a distant memory, a blurry color-washed polaroid photo. Barely surfacing is an image of myself playing with a small plastic dinosaur.

During a conversation with fellow writing group member Chris Wong, I said that maybe we are hallucinating all the time because our brain naturally produces a chemical called DMT, short for dimethyltryptamine, that is structurally related to LSD. This led to Chris challenging me to write an essay considering the question: Is reality a simulation? Taken aback and my curiosity piqued, not only would I consider this question, I already began to process my reality. In my mind’s eye I reviewed my life, the movies that explore this idea, and my reading in diverse areas.

Before the walk when I met the plastic dinosaur, I was in a group call with an older Lakota Sioux woman who began a meeting talking about her morning.

“First of all I want to tell you how my day started because it was an unusual magical day. And I think it is a precursor to us meeting. I woke up this morning to solid snow, thick snow falling. In about a half hour the sun came out and it continued to snow, and the clouds moved away, and the sky was bright blue, and it continued to snow. And it snowed for twenty minutes with the sun out. So I think it’s a miracle. And even if it isn’t a miracle it’s absolutely gorgeous, and it’s unusual, and it can be done. If anyone told you it snowed for twenty minutes without any clouds would you believe them until you saw it?”

Later in the meeting she said, “We are not here by accident.”

Our lives have meaning. Being alive is a miracle. I believe that each of us is here to walk a good, true, and beautiful path. And nobody can tell you what to believe. Instead let’s journey together. I will share some pivotal life experiences that have made me question the nature of reality.

Saving A Cat

…the mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.” – Douglas Sirk

Computers and virtual reality headsets have changed how we literally and figuratively perceive reality.

Computer adventure games – I love them. These games are a mixture of puzzle solving and immersion into an interactive story. I played a variety of these games. Playing text adventure games such as Zork where you type instructions such as “north” and “open door” immersed me in the world of the game’s creators. It was like reading those choose-your-own adventure books from the 1970’s where you made a choice and turned to a random page, instead of reading cover to cover. With games like Zork you ended up making a map on a piece of paper to denote your progress. Later I was amazed by the graphics of Myst. Wandering around on a seemingly abandoned island, solving puzzles and piecing together a mysterious story.

While living in Tokyo a friend and I went to a virtual reality exhibit at NTT’s Intercommunication Center. At one exhibit there was an actual steel beam on the ground and at the end of it was a stuffed cat covered in sensors. I put on a VR headset along with a pair of gloves that contained sensors. In the simulation I rode an elevator up to the 50th floor and then walked out on the steel beam to rescue a frightened meowing cat. I was sweating, short of breath and felt my muscles clenching as I made every attempt to not fall to my death. My fear of heights had kicked in and I failed to rescue the cat. The cat remained on the end of the beam plaintively meowing for rescue as I carefully backed up to the safety of the elevator. I then watched on a monitor my friend successfully rescue the now purring cat. 

The use of physical objects to improve the simulation was fascinating. Also multiple live views of the same event. Watching my friend in real life walk out on the beam and pick up the stuffed cat while also watching what happened on a video monitor gave me the illusion I was voyeuristically seeing the world as my friend privately saw it. Close friend Shirley Rivera delighted me by reflecting, “SOMETHING i LOVE about this – which is like watching the reality of someone else’s virtual reality – in YOUR REALITY.”

The multiple views reminds me of a scene in the 1973 German science fiction film World On A Wire. Inside the mirror-filled Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, the staff watch identity units on a bank of television screens, computer simulated people based on those who work at the Institute. The units are unaware they are just a simulation inside a generated world called Simulacron. The lead character and hero of the story, Fred Stiller, says the doppelganger identity units are “like people on TV dancing for us.” Stiller ends up entering Simulacron which in part leads him to realizing that we are all living in a simulation. One is able to exit the revealed simulation of this world and enter true reality, which in turn may also be a simulation, like nested Russian dolls. 

The movie was originally shown as a two-part movie on German television as viewers watched this story about simulation from the reality of their homes.

Indistinguishable From Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Psychologists have written books on how our environment can affect both our mood and our perspective.

I had a strange experience in a float tank — lying naked in warm water mixed with epsom salt so that my body floated. The lid on the tank was closed. The lights were off. I wore ear plugs. At one point I saw Egyptian looking hieroglyphs before my eyes. They were glowing with a green light like text on an old computer terminal. As I looked more closely at what I thought was a drawing, I realized it was lines made out of tiny ones and zeroes. Yes, binary. I thought of the protagonist, Neo, in the movie The Matrix as I reached to touch the drawings on the roof of the float tank. The drawing remained. Fascinating. I know it was not real but still it was happening. I believe our minds are hallucinating like this all the time, but we are so busy with our lives that we do not notice.

After a while the hieroglyphs went away. By so drastically removing visual and auditory stimuli, and allowing my body to relax with the floating, I was able to see a subconscious reflection of my thoughts. I am reminded of the phosphene patterns we see by closing our eyes and gently pressing on our eyelids.

BBC Horizon Clip of McGurk effect

In this McGurk Effect demonstration, you hear and see a person saying “ba.” The image of the speaker’s mouth is then changed and they appear to be saying “va.” If you close your eyes you correctly hear “ba” but if you open them you hear “va” even though you know the person is saying “ba.” This effect is created by manipulating video. It is fascinating how our sense of sight overrides our sense of hearing.

Perhaps based on our environment and mental state we are subtly manipulating reality, but being able to alter reality is not the same as reality being a simulation.

Recreating The Past

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” – Rap song

A reality simulation does not just recreate the matter of the physical world, time is also recreated. What is past, present, and future become interchangeable. Memory becomes a time travel video game.

False memories have led to people being found guilty of crimes they did not commit.

Classic. Ronald Cotton was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 years for the rape of Jennifer Thompson. During the rape Jennifer focused on remembering the face. When questioned by a police detective and shown a photo lineup she was sure she had identified the correct person. DNA evidence led to finding a different person. Ronald and Jennifer have since become friends and worked to change the laws around how police interrogations happen.

Dramatic. A woman Beth who was experiencing anxiety and received counseling from her church. Thru counseling they uncovered that she had been raped by her father and had two abortions, one that she had given herself using a coat hanger. A gynecological exam by a doctor revealed that Beth was a virgin.

My friend and fellow writer Laila Faisal mentioned that memories can be imprinted in our genes. Did Beth’s mother or grandmother experienced rape and abortion, and this was imprinted in Beth’s genes? The scientific term for this area of study is “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.”

Cinematic. In the film Blade Runner, androids are implanted with false memories of childhoods. One android carried polaroid photos of a life they never lived. Zooming in on one photo there is an image of a child near a tree playing with a dinosaur. Rizwan Virk who authored the book The Simulation Hypothesis poses a question with a follow-up: “If our memories of the past can be modified, does this also mean the past can effectively be modified? Is there a meaningful distinction between these two?”

I am reminded of Joe Dispenza speaking about an emotional becoming a personality trait in the documentary The Science of Changing Your Mind.

“And if you do not know how to control your emotional reaction and you allow that emotion to linger for hours or days, you know what that is called? That’s called a mood. What’s wrong with you? Oh, I’m in a mood. Why are you in a mood? Well this thing happened to me six days ago and I am memorizing my emotional reaction. And now if you allow that emotional reaction to continue for weeks or months, that’s called a temperament. What’s wrong with him? Oh he just has an angry temperament. Why are you so angry? Well this thing happened to me nine months ago and I’m memorizing my emotional reaction. And now if we keep that same refractory period that’s connected to a past experience running for years on end that’s called a personality trait. So would you agree then, by very definition, people memorize emotions that are connected to their past that they begin to wear as their personality.”

I am struck by how not only can we have false memories – but also we can inherit memories and even practice memories until they become a defining part of our personality. The malleability of memory may make me question what is true. Yet, does this extend to reality being a simulation?

Humans are malleable. 

The Baby Thing

“You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.” – Terence McKenna

November 2019 I went to Prana Del Mar in Mexico for a week-long retreat with people I knew from a local yoga studio. It was lovely to feel such warm weather and to be right on the beach. One sunny late afternoon we gathered in a large room named the Sun Studio to practice  conscious connected circular breathing. We placed our yoga mats and blankets in a large circle. Shades of woven fiber were let down at the windows but the sun still snuck into the room.

Lying down on the floor we covered ourselves with blankets. We inhaled actively and exhaled passively. Over and over like the turning of a water wheel. There was no pause at the end of the exhale or inhale. It was intense, short of hyperventilating. The facilitator began playing loud rhythmic music over the sound system and guiding our journey.

My mind was busy. I was working to pay attention to my exhale and inhale. And then suddenly “I was being breathed” as practitioners put it. 

Sometimes one experiences an altered state of consciousness.

I sat up, looking around the room. With no shirt on, I was holding a baby. Surprise! I looked down at this baby in my arms. I felt the baby’s skin and warm body against my own. Amazing. I knew this was not real, and yet it was. To me, this was real. I could even smell the baby. Who is this baby? My son – I wondered? (Granted, my son was 25 years old at the time.) No! The baby is not my son. It dawned on me. I was holding my father. I was flooded with emotion. The rush of love. And forgiveness.

A week later I told my wife about this experience. She looked at me puzzled. We now jokingly call this my experience of the Baby Thing. I can tell the story without mentioning the baby at all. I can say I was circular breathing in Mexico and realized  how much I love my father and forgave him for some childhood memories.

I hallucinated with all my sense that I was holding a baby while lying down on the ground. Oh yes. I never sat up or looked around the room. I was wearing a shirt the whole time. I imagined all of that. 

This is what I remember.

Entering With Your Left Foot

“In this world, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers” – Kobayashi Issa

One of my teachers told a story of her teacher telling her to always enter the zendo, the meditation hall, with your left foot. Is the foot you enter a room with that important? No, it turns out. But paying attention is deceptively deep. Paying attention is important.

Rewind. Out walking in the woods, a plastic dinosaur left behind by a child causes me to reflect on my childhood, as if seeing an old photograph. An elder woman provides a beautiful reflection on the miracle of snow falling from a blue sky. An attempt to rescue a stuffed animal cat from a simulation which can simultaneously be viewed from a monitor leads into a reflection of a German television audience watching a movie about reality being a simulation which the actors are able to view via a bank of television monitors. An experience in a float tank with sensory deprivation led to reflecting on how our visual sense can override our hearing. Next up, a brief reflection on false memories and practicing memories. Finally the mind does not even need a stuffed cat to conjure up a baby in the present moment.

Life is a beautiful gift. This life is a beautiful gift. Our life is a beautiful gift. There are rational arguments for the simulation theory, but the wonder and love evoked by this gift makes my heart say, “We are not living in a simulation. Humans are malleable.”

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