A prominent theme in both science fiction and advanced physics is the possibility that our lives are not truly our lives, that everything we thought was true was an elaborate lie—that this reality is not what we think it is. The most popular articulation of that theme is that we are part of a scientific experiment, a simulation.
Even before the Matrix science fiction series, the idea that humans were experiments or simulations took hold in short stories and novels (it was the twist of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But things got interesting last year, when Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrum published a paper arguing for three possible explanations of reality, one of which suggested that since advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many simulations of reality, there would be more simulated worlds than non-simulated worlds, and thus there was a good possibility we were living in a simulated one. The same year, 2019, computer scientist Rizwan Vok published a book with the provocative title The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics, and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In A Video Game.
The argument even got a creative boost from Elon Musk who, when he wasn’t freaking out about the apocalyptic potential of artificial life, was pontificating that we’ve gone from unsophisticated games like Pong to “photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.” And, he continues, given the billions of combinations of video game setups using such realistic technology, “it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” Not a precise or even cogent argument, but one that points out the reasonability of doubting our own authenticity.
The “we’re in a video game” hypothesis has one big problem: Why? This is what physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth asks regarding Bostrum’s articulation of the argument. Why would an advanced society run a simulation about a less-advanced society? Anything they could learn from doing so could be gleaned in more efficient ways. So if we’re concerned about the motives of third party actors—or simulators—then we are likely to find the hypothesis inadequate.
In fact, both Musk and Gleiser ignore an important additional possibility: That we may be in a sort of simulation, but it’s a simulation of the premodern, not the postmodern. We could be characters in a psychedelic vision: a dream-state induced by mushrooms or other psychedelics. What’s more—that collective vision could be quantum.
How do you figure? Well, psilocybin produces a brain-state like the brain-state of actual dreaming. Another naturally-occurring chemical, DMT, creates visual hallucinations that are almost universally described as trips into alternate reality or dimensions, like elaborate dreams. So call this the dream hypothesis: our lives are psychedelic dreams featuring ourselves and others as characters. Maybe we’re all having hallucinations; maybe we are the hallucinations.
Where does quantum reality come in? Quantum reality is very much like a dream, and some of the more dream-like, un-logical facets of advanced quantum theory, like form-shifting neutrinos capable of having two identities at once, a common dream phenomena. At least one thinker believes dreams may be interactions between quantum parallel worlds.
For some reason, the psychedelic quantum dream hypothesis sits better with me than the “we’re inside some alien’s PlayStation” hypothesis, and not because, as Terrance McKenna would have put it, mushrooms take us back to the premodern in order to push us forward into the postmodern. What mainly inspires me about the dream hypothesis is how easily it could descend into a (hopefully) delightful chaos, like the scene in the animated movie Rarg where, having discovered the kingdom inhabited by the characters was a sleeping man’s dream, everyone begins turning into pink flamingos.