Philosophy & Physics

Freedom from the Illusion of Reality


This blog is about freedom: From governments, bullies, taxation, oppressive relationships – even one’s fears and self-doubts.  The quest for freedom always depends on a willingness to seek truth.  For example, a woman will remain in an abusive relationship only for as long as she falsely believes that she “deserves” the abuse or is unworthy of being loved and respected.  Discovering the truth about herself – that she is a victim and that she is lovable – is a necessary first step before she can reclaim her freedom.

I am fascinated by human-imposed constraints – and breaking free.  Taking a step deeper, I recently posted about freedom from nature-imposed constraints: specifically, whether we have free will to spite the laws of nature.  Now I take this another step deeper: are we constrained by reality?  Or is reality just an illusion, the veracity of which can set us free?

This is not merely a metaphysical question for cloudy dorm rooms and Philosophy 101 classes.  Popular movies like The Matrix and Inception introduced the lay public to issues surrounding, respectively, computer-generated virtual reality (the famous “brain-in-a-vat” thought experiment) and dream-state virtual reality.  And while your average viewer quickly snaps out of a movie-induced philosophical haze, others spend sleepless nights trying to discover the flaw in these arguments.

Here’s the problem: there isn’t one.

Yes, you could be dreaming right now, and you would have absolutely no way of knowing until after you wake up.

Yes, you could be a brain in a vat experiencing the sensations and reality generated by a software program – or, worse, you could literally be a software program.

In fact, Paul Davies in The Goldilocks Enigma suggests that because virtual universes (like the SimCity™ games) require so few resources compared to actual universes that for every actual universe there are likely to be billions of virtual universes.  Think of it this way: the “cost” to make a real universe is trillions of trillions of trillions of atoms, while the “cost” to make a simulated universe involves nothing more than copying software onto a thumb drive.  He then concludes that if consciousness can arise in software-generated virtual “creatures” – a dubious but nonetheless interesting assumption – then it must be true that the vast majority of conscious beings do not actually live in a physical reality, even if they mistakenly believe they do.  That logic seems to apply to us, too.  We are probably just software embodiments or virtual people, according to the “multiverse” idea, because real people would be too expensive.

What the fuck?!


John Lund/Blend Images/Getty Images

Even if Davies is wrong – even if our reality is physically real – it is still possible to escape into a dream world in which reality truly is perception.  Lucid dreaming, a concept lent scientific credibility by Stanford researcher Dr. Stephen LaBerge, describes a state of conscious wakefulness within the confines of a dream.  Most people have experienced it at least once: when you’re dreaming and know you’re dreaming.  In this state, laws no longer apply; one can fly, talk to dead relatives, indulge sexual fantasies, throw lightning bolts like Zeus, etc.  Dr. LaBerge has taught many people how to identify when they’re in dreams and to consciously wake up within them to achieve a variety of goals, not least simple pleasure.

The guy who introduced me to lucid dreaming warned me: it’s like a drug.  The dream world can be engineered to be so much better than the real world; it’s easy to sleep one’s life away.

I have two questions.  First, if you discovered that reality truly was an illusion, that everything you thought you knew about the physical world was a mirage, would you live your life any differently?

Second, would you prefer to live in a Matrix-esque virtual reality or lucid dream world that you can control, or to live in an actual reality that you cannot?

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