One of the most fundamental questions we as a species have had since the first flickers of consciousness and self-awareness sparked awake and fluttered within our minds is that of what our reality is. What is the nature of our world, our universe, our consciousness? What is our place in this universe and why we are here? What is the nature of our reality? Is it even real at all? These are things that have captivated us and driven us to explore our world, and which have captured the tireless pondering of scientists and philosophers throughout the ages. Yet there are no easy answers, and as we have reached out in our unrelenting journey to understand our world and universe, even with our increasing technology these are profound questions which continue to evade us. In our efforts to try and make sense of reality there have been various ideas, theories, and philosophies that have sprung up in our attempts to comprehend it, and some of these have turned out to be rather surreal indeed. Here are some of the stranger attempts and ideas to try and describe our reality and answer the questions that may haunt us until the end of time.
One very pervasive theory of reality that has taken many different forms throughout the centuries is the core idea that none of that which we see or touch or experience is real in any sense, that we are basically living in a dream of some sort. The concept of this varies quite a lot between different hypotheses and philosophies, but the end result is that we are experiencing a dream reality, and that nothing is what we think it is. One of the earlier ideas pertaining to this is a philosophical concept referred to as “Solipsism,” which in essence states that nothing in our reality can be absolutely confirmed to exist except our own mind, with the reality of the material world we see all around us and interact with impossible to be reliably verified as real beyond our own experience of it. In this sense, all other minds besides your own and everything you experience externally could very well be a dream or illusion, with the only real, absolute certainty being that you are you, you are thinking, and indeed the very universe itself may not even exist outside of your own mind. In short, all of reality as you know it and everything and everyone in it, the whole universe, is potentially a projection of your own mind, an elaborate dream which you have created and which only you perceive and experience.
This basic idea was first contemplated by Greek philosopher Gorgias (c. 483–375 BC), who came to the conclusion that any objective knowledge outside of our own personal experience was effectively impossible. He is recorded as having stated “Nothing exists. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it. Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.” This egocentric concept would be picked up on by other philosophers over the centuries in one variant or another, including Descartes and George Berkeley, and it has become intertwined with many different areas of philosophy and hypotheses on reality. It is of course all a lot more complex than this, but in the interest of simplicity in essence the idea is that our reality cannot be verified independently as being anything other than existing in our own consciousness and perceptions, and therefore we cannot be certain of anything other than the existence of our own mind. In this case, not only is reality not what you think it is, but there is no reality at all outside of yourself.
Of course there have been many arguments against this line of thinking. For instance, if we were creating reality ourselves, then would it not be more likely that we would make one that was more comforting for us, one in which there is no sickness or punishment, or death? Why should these things happen if it is only us? Would it not be in one’s best interest to view these things as the product of an independent world outside of ourselves? Also, are we to believe that everything in all of human history and all culture, music, and art as we know it was entirely conjured up by our own mind? In response, proponents of this philosophy argue that our dreams can often be indistinguishable from reality when we are having them. They can be extremely deep, persuasive, realistic, and complex, and are not always good dreams, so could reality not be one giant dream projected by us? Likewise, powerful hallucinogenic drugs can produce visions and experiences that are perceived as very real by the individual undergoing them, yet they are only in that person’s mind, so the argument is that perhaps we are making up an equally realistic reality. In the end, how would we really know the difference?
Related to all of this is a philosophical thought experiment referred to simply as “the brain in the vat.” In this case there is a reality outside of you, but you are not a part of it. The idea is to consider a scenario in which, for whatever reason, you actually exist as merely a brain hovering about in a vat and hooked up to machines that feed you everything you experience through your senses, perfectly simulating the outside world as a real body would. It could be aliens, a mad scientist, or sentient computers doing it, it doesn’t matter, with the point being you do not have a physical body or eyes or ears, and you are closed off from the outside world without your knowledge. The question proposed is this: How would you know that you are nothing more than a disembodied brain floating in a vat of liquid?
If everything you experience through the world is through your five senses and a sophisticated computer is manipulating your brain through your neural pathways to have all of these sensations, then how could you reliably know that nothing as you know it is real? After all, what is "real" other than what you perceive? Your brain would be receiving the same signals and feedback as it normally would if you actually had a body, and so you would have normal conscious experiences, only you would not be in the “real world.” One common argument put forward to illustrate this is:
1. If I know that P, then I know that I am not a brain in a vat
2. I do not know that I am not a brain in a vat
3. Thus, I do not know that P.
In this argument “P” would stand for any belief or claim about the external world or reality as we see it. This thought experiment was most famously used by the popular Matrix series of science fiction films, in which human beings are floating in pods as they live out their lives in an elaborate shared virtual reality created and controlled by our machine overlords. This is related to another idea that not only could we be just hooked up to machines that generate our reality, but that we might actually do this on purpose. This hypothesis supposes that we are actually living in the far future or are even aliens, and that we have jacked in to this system in order to live our life in this time period and experience living in this form through a simulated avatar within an interactive virtual world, after which we wake up into our real bodies in the future or aboard some spaceship when it is over. It has even been suggested that time could pass much more slowly within the simulation, so a full 80-year life could pass from birth to death in the simulation, yet our real bodies will have only been hooked in for a few minutes.
Speaking of computer simulated realities, another theory of reality is that all of us and everything we see is nothing more than a very advanced computer generated reality and that we are all programs living within it, which it is a topic I have covered here before. Called “Simulation Theory,” the idea was first popularized by British philosopher Nick Bostrom, who speculated that considering the astronomical advancement of our computer technology and ability to craft ever more believable simulated worlds, such as in VR or video games, there will come a point when we are able to create realistic digital simulations indistinguishable from reality, along with sophisticated AI to inhabit it. According to Bostrom, there will come a day when we have the technology to create a fully functional digital world, which would then progress to the point when it could feasibly create a simulation of its own within the simulation and so on ad infinitum.
Since it is almost a certainty that we will one day create this virtual reality, that it could increase in sophistication to build its own computer realities, and considering it could potentially go on and on infinitely, the idea is that statistically speaking we are far more likely to be one of the simulations rather than the original biological originators. Indeed, the original creators could even be long extinct. In this case, we are just programs living in a computer generated world and don’t even know it. It is even proposed that our simulation may be being watched and studied by either the original creators, another simulation that created us, or even aliens. There have even been those who point to anomalous experiences, ghosts, and supernatural phenomena as pointing to the reality of this simulation, as these could be caused by mistakes in the system, “glitches in the matrix” so to speak.
As far-fetched as this may all sound the idea has caught on, and many philosophers, scientists, physicists, and technologists have at least entertained this weird possibility, with some of them having even gone about trying to scientifically investigate whether the hypothesis could have any truth to it. One way of possibly testing the Simulation Theory is the idea that if we are indeed living in a computer simulation, then we could expect that there would be a limit to the resolution of the program. It is proposed that if we looked carefully enough at the fabric of the universe then we could find out whether there was a finite limit to how small something could be, the “resolution” of the universe, which could be compared to the pixels in a computer image. Some teams of scientists suggest that this resolution could feasibly be detected by scientific means, and have made efforts towards this, with various degrees of success so far.
In addition to the idea that everything might be a computer simulation is the idea that the universe itself is the computer. This is the rather sensational claim made by Vlatko Vedral, who is a professor of quantum information theory at Oxford. According to Vedral, everything in the universe, including planets, stars, galaxies, and everything else, all comprises the circuitry of some vast, inscrutable motherboard, with the information of the universe consisting of “bits,” the tiniest unit of information in computers, or the smallest pieces of matter when applied to the universe. In a computer, these bits represent simple yes-or-no questions, in computers being expressed as ones and zeros. In Vedral’s theory, the smallest subatomic particles in the universe perform the same function but on a much vaster scale, making the universe essentially one gigantic quantum computer, although what exactly it is computing is anyone’s guess.
Some ideas about the nature of reality and the universe don’t point to anything as being a dream or a simulated state, but rather something very different from what we believe it to be. One very odd theory is that the universe that we see is in fact all an intricate hologram. The idea was put forth by physicist Leonard Susskind in the 1990s, who realized that many of our laws of physics seem to be mathematically described in two dimensions rather than three. Although it is very complex and difficult to explain in simple terms, the main thrust of this idea is that our 3D reality is all contained upon a 2-dimensional outer surface, which is then projected through various processes to create our perception of reality, creating a massive and highly complex hologram. It is in its most basic terms actually very similar to how a 3D screen would work, with a 2D image manipulated to give it the illusion of having the dimension of depth. The complicated concept was explained by mathematics professor Kostas Skenderis, of the University of Southampton thus:
Imagine that everything you see, feel and hear in three dimensions (and your perception of time) in fact emanates from a flat two-dimensional field. The idea is similar to that of ordinary holograms where a three-dimensional image is encoded in a two-dimensional surface, such as in the hologram on a credit card. However, this time, the entire universe is encoded!
Holography is a huge leap forward in the way we think about the structure and creation of the universe. Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains almost everything large scale in the universe very well, but starts to unravel when examining its origins and mechanisms at quantum level. Scientists have been working for decades to combine Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum theory. Some believe the concept of a holographic universe has the potential to reconcile the two.
The idea is attractive in that it could explain some discrepancies seen between quantum physics and general relativity, as well as the unusual behavior of the universe in its early days after the Big Bang. It just makes some calculations and theories of the universe easier, and some researchers have even claimed to have captured possible evidence that the Hologram Theory is real. One study published in the journal Physical Review Letters in 2017 claimed that observational evidence of the universe being a hologram was found in the cosmic microwave background, which is a sort of white noise and glow left over from the Big Bang. The study claimed:
A UK, Canadian and Italian study has provided what researchers believe is the first observational evidence that our universe could be a vast and complex hologram. Theoretical physicists and astrophysicists, investigating irregularities in the cosmic microwave background (the 'afterglow' of the Big Bang), have found there is substantial evidence supporting a holographic explanation of the universe -- in fact, as much as there is for the traditional explanation of these irregularities using the theory of cosmic inflation.
Nevertheless, the idea that the universe is a hologram is still seen as very hypothetical and is far from proven. Although alluring in some ways and certainly intriguing, the experimental observations from this study do not really prove that the universe is a hologram, merely that it is not a possibility that can be ruled out. One physicist at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Vienna University of Technology named Daniel Grumiller gave his thoughts on the experiment when talking to Gizmodo thus:
The result is inconclusive in that it does not allow you to rule out their holographic model, but neither does it allow to make a statement that the data would prefer their holographic model over standard cosmology.
Dreams, computer generated realities, and holograms might all already seem strange enough already, but perhaps the most outlandish theory of reality as we know it is that we are not on a planet looking out at the universe, but rather on the inside of a sphere looking in. The idea is a sort of off-shoot of the Hollow Earth Hypothesis, which basically says that we live on the outside of a hollow planet, only in this instance it is reversed. Called the “Concave Hollow Earth hypothesis,” or also “skycentrism,” the idea was originally concocted by an American physician named Cyrus Reed Teed in 1869, who after a bad electric shock during an experiment came to an epiphany that all life on Earth existed within an inverted sphere and that the universe was spread out into the interior. He also believed after the accident that he was the world’s new messiah, and stated that he wanted to bring together the worlds of science and religion, so there’s that as well.
Teed called his own hypothesis “Cellular Cosmogony,” and it is just as bizarre as you might expect. According to Teed, who outlined this all in his 1898 book, The Cellular Cosmogony, the universe lies within the hollow of a massive rock measuring 8,000 miles in diameter. Within this vast hollow we live our lives on the inner surface of the cavern, so when we look “up” we are actually looking deeper within the cavity rather than out. Around us are apparently three layers of atmosphere, comprised of air, hydrogen, and aboron, and at the center of this massive sphere is our sun, which we don’t see directly but rather perceive through its refraction and focalization at the top of our atmosphere. To account for the obvious movement of the sun across the sky, Teed claimed that in this universe light could dramatically bend in curved trajectories to reach us. To explain night and day, he explained that half of the sun was dark and the other half light, and that its rotation between these two sides create night, day, and the seasons.
Indeed, Teed had everything pretty much worked out to fit into his theory, and had a ready explanation for most earthly and celestial phenomena. He claimed that the dark side of the sun refracted pinpoints of light that focalized and gave the illusion of the stars we see. Comets were the result of refractions of light glittering off of tiny crystals that hovered within the inner sphere near the sun. Nebulae were the result of blurriness or imperfections within the focalizations of the sun’s light. Planets and the Moon were explained as optical illusions generated by projections of discs floating within the different layers of crust beneath our feet, which is apparently 100 miles thick and possesses 17 strata. Wind, rainbows, lightning, and even gravity itself, Teed had an answer for everything, and it is all very complex and meticulously explained with so much made-up jargon and pseudo-science that it is honestly practically incomprehensible.
Teed was so convinced of his outlandish theory that he started a cult-like group in Florida called the Koreshan Unity, which had the expressed purpose of trying to prove these ideas as correct. To this end they developed a “scientific” instrument they called the “rectilineator,” which they used to carry out experiments on a beach over the course of 5 months and according to them prove their theory. It is unclear how exactly they proved anything other than that they are perhaps delusional, and every basic thing we know about our planet disagrees with the idea of us living within a hollowed out rock, but unbelievably the idea of a concave hollow earth has managed to stick around, and is still believed by a surprising number of people today.
There are certainly other notions, hypotheses, and theories on the nature of our reality, and I have only looked at a selection here. In nearly every case we lack the means to either verify or discount these often wild ideas, leaving them to be nothing more than thought experiments in a sense, doomed to swirl about in the limbo of debate, daydreaming, and speculation. Perhaps at some point in the future we will be able to tell for sure whether any of these musings on reality are true or not, but as long as they remain at least possible they will fire the imagination, and they illustrate just how powerful our age-old insatiable drive is in our quest to understand the nature of reality and our place within it.