In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream
Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of René Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream
Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes
Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?


A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation
In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

What’s Next?

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.


  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here:
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)

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