Are We Living in a Virtual Reality?

by Greg Mackie

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The idea that we are living in some sort of artificial world has long fascinated human beings. This fascination is reflected in the numerous science fiction works on this topic, and in the popularity of movies like the Matrix trilogy and The Truman Show. Most of us, of course, dismiss it as an intriguing fantasy, not to be taken seriously as a real possibility. However, with the advent of more and more powerful computers, some are beginning to wonder if this possibility is more likely than we have suspected. A philosopher at Oxford University named Nick Bostrom presents an argument that suggests there is a good chance—"a 20 percent chance" according to his "gut feeling"—that our world is a computer simulation run by someone in a "posthuman" civilization. Is this true? Who knows? But our continued fascination with possibilities like this makes me wonder if something in us suspects that what A Course in Miracles says is true: Life as we know it is taking place in what could be called a virtual reality.

Bostrom's simulation argument contends that at least one of the following three statements must be true:

1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage.
2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Bostrom contends that if #1 and #2 are not true, #3 is true. Why? In his view, if we manage to survive, and if we will indeed be interested in running computer simulations of our ancestors—a possibility he considers likely, given the appeal of computer simulations today—then the third statement naturally follows. Posthumans would have access to massive computer power sufficient to create entire simulated worlds; some computer experts say we could have computers adequate for the task by midcentury. These posthumans would almost certainly be running many simulations, perhaps millions of them. As millions of people run simulations, each simulation containing billions of simulated individuals, the result would be that trillions and trillions of simulated individuals would exist, all of them believing that they are real.

Now we simply need to do the math: If there are six billion real people living in the real world of today, and in the future there will be trillions of simulated people living in a simulation of the world of today, most of the people who think they are real actually aren't. And what reason does any of us have to believe that we are among the very few who are right?

Whether or not Bostrom's logic actually works (and it is certainly arguable), what intrigues me most as a student of A Course in Miracles is our very fascination with this issue. Why are we so taken with stories of living in a virtual reality? Why does everyone I know who watched The Matrix speculate that maybe we're living in the Matrix right now? Could it be that something within us suspects that the world we live in really isn't real? Could it be that somehow we realize that our lives as we know them are illusions, and reality resides somewhere else entirely?

The Course claims that yes, we really do suspect that this world and our lives within it are unreal. It speaks of us losing "the awareness of being" and feeling beset by "feelings of unreality" here (T-7.VI.2:4). It speaks of "your strange uneasiness, your sense of being disconnected, and your haunting fear of lack of meaning in yourself" (T-22.I.1:6). It speaks of "the strange, haunting thought that you might be something beyond this little pile of dust" (W-pI.136.8:4). It speaks of confusion about our origins that engenders "such uncertainty in your mind that it may even doubt whether you really exist at all" (T-3.VI.8:10). Can you relate to all this? I sure can.

Most poignantly, the Course speaks to the universal human feeling that we are strangers in a strange land, exiles from a home that has receded into the mists of memory, yet continues to haunt us:

This world you seem to live in is not home to you. And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true. A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what it is the voice reminds you of. Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown. Nothing so definite that you could say with certainty you are an exile here. Just a persistent feeling, sometimes not more than a tiny throb, at other times hardly remembered, actively dismissed, but surely to return to mind again.

No one but knows whereof we speak. Yet some try to put by their suffering in games they play to occupy their time, and keep their sadness from them. Others will deny that they are sad, and do not recognize their tears at all. Still others will maintain that what we speak of is illusion, not to be considered more than but a dream. Yet who, in simple honesty, without defensiveness and self-deception, would deny he understands the words we speak?

We speak today for everyone who walks this world, for he is not at home. He goes uncertainly about in endless search, seeking in darkness what he cannot find; not recognizing what it is he seeks. A thousand homes he makes, yet none contents his restless mind. He does not understand he builds in vain. The home he seeks can not be made by him. There is no substitute for Heaven. All he ever made was hell. (W-pI.182.1:1-3:7)

These paragraphs give us an achingly sad picture of life as we know it. We tell ourselves that this world is our home. We celebrate the physical universe as God's creation, or the body of the Goddess, or the wondrous display of natural forces. Yet underneath this is the nagging thought that this is not our home. Something about this place just doesn't feel right. We don't fit in. Yet we're constantly pushing this thought away. We distract ourselves with constant activity. We tell ourselves things aren't as bad as they seem. Sure, life here may be painful at times, but it is still a wonderful thing. After all, the earth is the only home we have; to suggest otherwise is nothing but a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. And so we work very hard to carve out a happy home in this vale of tears. None of our attempts at this really satisfy us, but we doggedly keep at it because we see no other choice. Yes, our last attempt at finding a true home here failed, but surely the next one will succeed.

Yet in the Course's view, all of this is in vain, for the fact is that the nagging thought we keep pushing away is right: This world we seem to live in is not home to us. It is an illusory hell we made out of our mad wish to separate from God; a nightmare we are dreaming; an incredibly vivid, detailed, and all-encompassing virtual "reality" generated by limitless minds with infinite power; an artificial world far more realistic than any imaginable computer simulation made by "posthumans" could be. There's a reason we speculate about whether we're living in the Matrix: The world we see around us is a kind of Matrix, made not by rebellious machines but by the rebellious ego in all of us.

Fortunately, though, there is good news. Unlike the poor virtual people in Bostrom's theoretical simulations, we are not really illusions. We seem to be these illusory bodies with illusory personalities futily trying to make a home for ourselves in this illusory world, but the Course assures us, "You are not there and that is not you" (T-7.VII.3:5). Illusions of ourselves may live here, but we are not living in a virtual reality. We are in Heaven right now, basking in our Father's Love. Realizing this is the ultimate goal of A Course in Miracles. It is a goal that will take time and effort to reach, but it comes closer each time we affirm that no virtual reality will ever satisfy us, nor will it ever change the eternal fact that we have never left our heavenly home:

Father, the truth belongs to me. My home is set in Heaven by Your Will and mine. Can dreams content me? Can illusions bring me happiness? What but Your memory can satisfy Your Son? I will accept no less than You have given me. I am surrounded by Your Love, forever still, forever gentle and forever safe. God's Son must be as You created him. (W-pII.272.1:1-8)