Albert Einstein once said: “Reality is an illusion — albeit a very persistent one”. Over the years, there have been a growing number of people who have suggested that we are inhabiting an illusion or virtual reality. Elon Musk has said that the chances we’re living in base-reality are “a billion to one” and has suggested that at the rapid rate at which video-game graphics’ sophistication and verisimilitude is increasing it won’t be long before games become “indistinguishable from reality”. In which case, the argument goes, how do we know we aren’t already in a computer simulation now created by more advanced beings? Philip Dick once said: “We are living in a computer-programmed reality and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed and some alteration in our reality occurs”. This is more than whimsical thinking and science-fiction. While exploring the mathematics of String Theory, physicist James Gates discovered literal “computer code” buried deep within the equations, with Gates saying: “I’m left with the trouble of trying to figure out if I live in The Matrix”.
A common argument that we could be in a virtual reality or computerized simulation comes from the discovery of Quantum Entanglement (otherwise known as Nonlocality) which describes the ability of objects to instantaneously correspond with one another, even when separated by large distances (supposedly even across the known universe). In a simulation or video-game, distance doesn’t limit instant correspondence because all points in the game are equidistant with respect to the source of the simulation. In which case, Nonlocality would make sense if the world were a simulation. The implications of the Double Slit experiment also suggest that we could be living in a simulation due to the fact that the particles which behave like waves are in a superstate. They are neither there nor are they not there. In other words, what you don’t see isn’t actually present. This is how performance optimization works in video-games and how we are able to represent massive open worlds. What is not visible to the observer simply does not exist and doesn’t have to be rendered (see the book The Simulation Hypothesis).
The idea that ordinary humanity is trapped or imprisoned in a virtual reality is a very old one of course. Plato once allegorized our perception of existence to that of shadows on a cave that had been watched by a group of prisoners since they were born. The prisoners in the cave (being representative of unenlightened humanity) believed that the shadows represented true reality because that is all they ever knew. In Buddhism, there is also the concept of Maya which tells us the world is an illusion. But it doesn’t just refer to any illusion. Maya is used to represent the fact that we take the world around us to be real when it’s only a temporary illusion. Meanwhile, according to Gnosticism, our souls have been trapped in materialism. Gnostics believed the world had been created by a malevolent being called the Demiurge and that our souls have descended from above and are capable of reascending through “gnosis”. They identified the Demiurge with Yahweh. According to Gnostic researcher John Lash, Gnostic “cosmological text explains that the [realm] of the Demiurge is a virtual reality”.
It’s my belief that we are not only trapped in a virtual reality, but also a time-loop (similar to Samsara). The symbol of Saturn’s Ouroboros is perhaps the most well-known symbol that expresses the notion of looped time. The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol and represents something continually resurrecting itself, or the cyclical nature of time. According to Egyptologist Jan Assman, the Ouroboros “refers to the nature of cyclical time that flows back onto itself (in ancient Egypt)”. In Gnosticism, the Ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world and in alchemy it represents a cycle of death and rebirth, from which one seeks liberation. Many cultures subscribe to the idea of a cycle of death and rebirth and there are various working scientific theories regarding cyclical time. Saturn’s Ouroboros could be interpreted in somewhat of a malign way. The Ouroboros may signify a time-loop that unenlightened humanity has been trapped within; a cycle of death and rebirth. This could be why Satan (an arcane analog of Saturn) in some old art-work is portrayed as recycling or looping us.
Assuming we are trapped in a virtual reality time-loop, how do we escape? Some say that to escape the material world and ascend, we must unite the macrocosm with the microcosm through the Tree of Life, thus accomplishing the Great Work) (a term used in Hermeticism to describe enlightenment and the rescue of the human soul from the forces that bind it). Part of the Great Work is to “become one with our soul and our loved ones and make the world a better place“. According to Gnosticism, there’s only one way to escape the material world and it’s through “gnosis” which entails “demonstrating love and compassion and striving to escape from materialism”. Meanwhile, in the book The Simulation Hypothesis, Rizwan explains that to break the spell of Maya (and Samsara) and escape the material world and ascend, we must transcend our Karma and achieve Moksha (a Buddhism term). The law of Karma is said to be the fundamental law of the universe underlying all the laws of nature. Rizwan describes Karma as the natural process whereby “every being evolves towards its own perfection”.
The idea of escaping Samsara and breaking the spell of Maya through Karma can be seen in various movies and TV shows. Most notably, Groundhog Day, where the protagonist is trapped in a loop. The movie is jovial, but profound. The protagonist, Phil, finds himself repeating the same day over and over again, with no escape. He starts off as being unkind to others and self-absorbed and floats along without comprehension of how his actions affect those around him. Only when he learns to be more caring does he escape. As someone else says: “Groundhog Day is the message of Buddhism where the hero escapes the suffering of life by being good and doing good for others. Students of Buddhism believe that we are destined to relive events based on Karma and only the most enlightened among us get to “awake” and will escape”. The movie Christmas Every Day also touches upon the same themes. The protagonist, Billy, starts off ungrateful and self-absorbed, and finds himself trapped in a loop, with Christmas repeating every day, until he learns to be more caring, which breaks the loop.
Another movie with a comparable storyline is Before I fall. Similar to Groundhog Day and Christmas Every Day, in this movie the protagonist is also condemned to live the same day over and over again, until she figures out how to escape the loop. Initially, she possesses all the selfish whims of teenage desire, but like Groundhog Day, eventually, she learns to be a better person. After repeating the same day many times, she learns a lot about herself and how she has hurt those around her. Her shift from selfishness and absorption in her boyfriend (who she only cares about because of his looks) to emotional maturity and genuine love for her friends and family, is what breaks the loop. The Endless is another loop movie that “examines Karma and confronts the characters with variations of the same challenges over and over again”. The take-home message is: Good Karma (and love) will release you from Samsara. In the movie Interstellar, love also plays a role in Cooper escaping the loop and hypercube, which he sums up by saying: “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”.
“Love and Karma go hand in hand” — PSM
Similar to Groundhog Day, The Matrix also has Buddhist elements. The virtual reality that Neo inhabits in The Matrix is periodically reset. In this sense, the Matrix is akin to Samsara, and Neo represents the ancient Buddha who set the example of breaking free. How does Neo break free and overcome Smith? He tries everything to overcome Smith. But in the end, dies, and has to be brought back to life by Trinity. It was the love Trinity had for Neo that brought him back from the dead. “You can’t die, because I love you” she says, as she kisses and resurrects him, echoing the story of Isis and Osiris: The two soul mates who were reunited through love, and the resurrection of Osiris by Isis, who “breathed life” back into his body, leading to the vanquish of Set (Smith). It was self-belief powered by love that unlocked Neo’s true power. His journey could be seen as a representation of us once we’ve been surrounded by people that we love. The Matrix, in my opinion, is another story that sends the message that love is the key to setting oneself free from the clutches of the Demiurge’s virtual reality.