Psychedelic Press Vol XX,
Long before my major journeys into the depths of consciousness and my wander into the Cyberworlds and creating AR or VR, I wrote an essay on the relativity of reality back in May 2015.
The essay was published in Psychedelic Press Vol XX in February 2017.
Relativity of Reality
Most of us believe that the world we live in is as we see, feel, taste, smell and hear it. If you were asked to describe this very moment you would probably say that you are sitting down, reading this essay; and you believe that you are doing this. Of course, this process does exist, for you, and can be considered as your reality. But how can we be so sure that this very moment is not the product of a deep sleeping dream state? Or to put it another way, what if this is all a simulation that is created by a high technological artificial intelligence to test human behavior? It might sound crazy but do we not create simulated spaces for testing animal behaviors? Is it not interesting to think that the observer’s reality would be different than the subject’s; and yet, both realities could be considered as real?
In this essay I will be investigating the Relativity of Reality by questioning how Simulated Space like Realities alter our minds and how they can be used to question the concept of ‘actual reality’. In order to do this I will first look at philosophical ideas on reality by Westerners. Then I will discuss the effects of virtual realities and how technology of the future will affect our perception of reality. This will be followed by some observations of tribal religious beliefs of the natives of Amazonian forests and Mexican deserts and the profound effects of psychedelic plant medicine on consciousness.
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Heisenberg, 1958).
Questioning the nature of reality has been part of human existence for thousands of years. It could be argued that one of the very first and most significant ideas recorded regarding this curiosity is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from The Republic (2012[NW1] ). This curiosity continued and formed the Evil Demon of Descartes in his book Meditation on First Philosophy. Descartes questioned, “what if an evil demon created this reality and has the ability to convince us to believe it exists”. In his book Reason, Truth and History (1981), Putnam takes this idea further and writes the ‘brain in vat theory’; what if we are brains in vat connected to a computer that can simulate the reality we live in and it creates this vision in our minds? How do we know that we are not in that vat? Back in 1981 when the book came out, this might have considered as a crazy theory. But with the development of technology in less than 20 years time since its publishing, we’ve come to a point where we started creating our own virtual realities. In fact, in 1999 when the movie the Matrix came out it blew everyone’s mind. The film summed up previous theories on nature of reality, questioned where we are heading with the rapid development of technology and presented it to the audience just before the millennium; the new age of technology (Irwin, 2002).
In his book Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), Ray Kurzweil analyzes the development of human beings since the beginning of acknowledge existence of the universe. Kurzweil closely analyzes the technology in early 21st century and predicts how it is going to change our lives a decade at a time. The book was published in 1999 and back then he believed that within the next 30 years we will have the technology to create virtual realities that will be indistinguishable from our current everyday reality. Ironically this is not far from the truth as we are all aware of these technological developments. So in the near future, how are we going to define reality?
Imagine a group of people gather in a virtual reality and have a normal conversation as if they were in the real (?) world. Would they still call this a virtual reality, as this is going to be the place where they experience the existence? What if an observer is watching their physical bodies whilst their minds are connected to the virtual reality. In this case would they exist in both the observer’s reality and theirs? So are we going to have multiple realities? In Matrix and Philosophy Erion and Smith (2002, p.32) argue this by saying that the reality is defined by the experience of the majority. For example no matter how real our dreams are, once we wake up we consider we have been dreaming. This is because the majority in this existence believes that this is the ultimate reality. However, what if we developed a simulated reality where once you enter you will never be able to go back? Or even, what if we are already living in a simulated reality? How would this affect our designation of ‘real’ reality if we happened to discover it?
Nick Bostrom, founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, argues the possibility of us living in a computer-simulated reality. In an interview at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford (Bostrom, 2013) he states that according to his simulation argument sooner or later there will be a civilization that achieves the technology to simulate a brain, down to every single individual neuron. In this case that simulation itself will be able to have or create consciousness. In his article “Are you living in a computer simulation” (2003, p.244) Bostrom emphasizes on the definition of consciousness and experience of reality:
"It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well."
This does sound like a science fiction film scenario. But if we step back for a second and think, we realize that what makes something conscious is that it implements a certain kind of computation. So if we are born in a simulation, everything we have ever seen and anything we have ever experienced would be part of the artificial simulated space creating these sort of computations in our minds. But in this case we would not be aware of the circumstances; thus the simulated reality would be the ultimate one for us as it would be the product of whatever we have seen, tasted, felt, smelt and heard. This reality would last until we are able to wake up in the one where the previous reality was being generated from. A good example for this could be the animals that are born in captivity, which are the simulated spaces similar to their natural habitats. Would they be aware of their conditions? Or their reality would be just about the space they have in the zoo? Is it not like the case of the character Truman from the film the Truman Show (Weir, 1998)?
Randal A. Koene, founder & CEO of carboncopies.org, and his team have been working on the idea of substrate independence, existence of consciousness without the need for a physical body. In his article for Issues Magazine (Koene, 2012), he argues that soon we will be able to download our experiences, knowledge and personalities into a computer program called SIM (Substrate Independence Minds). This will allow us to log in to a virtual reality which we can experience with our own minds and be conscious of, even if our physical existence ended. This also means that immortality will be able to be achieved in a virtual reality.
It is hard to prove whether we live in a simulation or not, but for a second let’s assume that we live in the ultimate reality. For example, we know that the Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) is a film, that Plato died years ago and that you are reading this essay. This is what is believed to be happening in the Western world in this very room where we assume your existence is experiencing reality. But we know that the world is not only about the Western civilization and its teachings. So how about the reality for the indigenous people of Amazons or Mexico and the altered states of mind that are achieved by the use of psychedelic plant medicine?
Lifestyles of the natives of the ew World have always been interested to the Western civilization since their discoveries. Yet so many Westerners have been studying them and some have even adapted to their cultures, especially since the 1960s psychedelic movement. Compared to the Western’s materialistic world, these cultures tend to be more familiar with spiritualism, paranormal activities and psychedelic plant medicine. All these have been considered as superstitious beliefs, or are not tolerated by the cultures we are familiar with. But they must have a reason for all their beliefs (DMT: The Spirit Molecule, 2010).
On the 11th of October 2014 at Kew Gardens in London a conference was held called Magic Mushrooms: Gods, Fairies, and Chemicals. Guest speakers discussed their research on life from indigenous people’s perspective and how they define reality. Writer Andy Letcher discussed his experiences with the natives of the Amazon Forest and his research on their culture (Letcher, 2014). This research demonstrated how these natives believe that the reality where we live in is an illusion. This experience is the projection of our higher selves/spirits from another dimension/reality. During their traditional ritual ceremony natives of the Amazon drink a plant medicine called ayahuasca, which is a psychedelic
plant medicine that contains the active ingredient DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). They believe that under the influence of this substance they go back to their native land that they call ‘home’, which is the ultimate reality for them. Psychologist Neal Goldsmiths notes how:
DMT is called the spirit molecule but it might also be called the reality molecule. Philosophically it makes sense that something that we would be so fundamental to the way we perceive reality would be imbued out there in reality." (Golsmith cited from Schultz, 2010)
For a second this could easily sound like a joke for a casual Westerner as psychedelic plant medicine is not a big part of the culture; in fact these substances are made illegal to use or possess, and are not taken seriously; instead unfortunately they are commonly used for recreational use (Hancock, 2013). But surprisingly Amazonians are not the only natives that believe in a different reality that can be experienced when the mind is altered under the influence of substances. On the 12th of May 2015 SOAS University of London held the Conference “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians”. The conference was about the life of indigenous people from Mexico, their religious beliefs and their close relationship with the cactus called peyote, which contains the active ingredient mescaline. The leader of the tribe José Luis “Urramuire” Ramirez was present at the conference along with another family member. He mentioned that according to their belief system under the influence of mescaline the soul travels to another world/reality, which is completely different than the one we perceive daily. According to their beliefs this other reality has its own landscapes and inhabitants that they get in touch with. (Ramirez, 2015)
Although it might sound like a fairytale, as ethnobotanist Kat Harrison observes in the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Shultz, 2010) there must be a reason why cultures have been consuming these plant medicines. But it is very curious to think that most indigenous cultures have this common share of using psychedelic plant medicine and experiencing different realities. In fact these beliefs could be considered as similar to some beliefs in the Western world; living in the temporary world and existence of other realities after death in religions such
as Christianity, Islam etc. or Plato’s world of illusion from his Allegory of the Cave.
One of the Westerners that has been really involved in the research of these old cultures and psychedelics could arguably be Terrence McKenna. He is known for his ideas and research on culture and society, psilocybin mushrooms1, DMT, altered states of mind and consciousness. During one of his talks McKenna (2015) discusses his views on the use and effects of DMT.
With DMT the conviction is unescapably that the user truly believes that the experience under the substance is real. In fact it seems more real than this world/reality. After a DMT experience what we call as reality seems like a shimmering hallucinations compare to DMT world.
DMT affects the user within less than 30 seconds of using it and the subject immediately finds him/herself in the DMT reality. In fact under the influence of the substance the user completely forgets about the daily life reality and believes that he or she was born and raised in this new DMT reality, which seems like it is the ultimate reality. McKenna (2015) continues his argument by saying that the experience lasts only between 10 to 15 minutes. But what if there was no going back? Then the user would be stuck in that reality. He believes that presumably beyond the confines of that room is a world on its own. In this case this is a similar situation to the virtual reality example. The user’s reality would be completely different than the observer’s reality2.
Reality has always been mysterious to humankind; since our very beginnings, we have been questioning it and coming up with ideas. Recent technological developments show that they are not going to make anything any easier for us to understand the reality. In fact the nature of reality will get even more complicated. On the other hand some of world’s oldest existing civilizations have been travelling between different realities for thousands of years. When it is compared to western beliefs system it creates another confusion on the subject. It seems like in the near future technologically developed civilizations will be doing similar things by travelling from one virtual reality to another, which could easily cause the creation of multiple realities. In order to define reality we need to consider the circumstances, experiences, cultures and the state of mind.
Therefore perhaps it could be concluded as:
“Reality is defined by the mind that is observing it.”