By Manas Madan


The world that we live in today – Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, Ambiguous – may well leave us out of breath and little time for reflection. We don’t have to go through an existential crisis in order to ask some of the deepest questions regarding the cosmos, consciousness, our mind, life and a search for meaning. These have been asked by philosophers for long and scientists of recent times. 

For example is the universe real? Are we real? Not necessarily so if one were to refer to a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy called Maya that originally denotes the magic power, with which a god can make human beings believe, in what turns out to be an illusion. It also indicates that the powerful force, which creates the cosmic illusion of the phenomenal or the material world, is real. Thus, the universal veil of Maya creates an illusion – or is it delusion - in our minds.

So does this make the universe and us real, or just an illusion – are we just the product of the imagination of a divine force or, if one were to hear theories of recent times, living in a gigantic computer simulation that makes us all virtual reality like what some computer games do and films like The Matrix popularize, and believed by the likes of the brilliant and super successful technology entrepreneur Elon Musk?       

Since long, philosophers have wrestled with such questions. Plato wondered if what we perceive as reality is like the shadows projected onto the walls of a cave – which in a way is an illusion because the projection itself is not real; the object causing it may be. Immanuel Kant asserted that, while there might be some "thing in itself" that underlies the appearances we perceive, we can never know what it might be. René Descartes believed in his famous one-liner "I think therefore I am", suggesting that the human’s capacity to think is the only meaningful criterion of existence.

In the early 1700s, the philosopher George Berkeley argued that the world is merely an illusion. There were many who dismissed the idea, including the ebullient English writer Samuel Johnson who exclaimed, "I refute it thus" – and kicked a stone to prove his point.

In recent times, scientists and researchers have also been fascinated by these questions and have propounded some quite mind boggling theories on our universe and also garnering evidence. Here are some of the key ones:

1.      Holographic Universe: Everything we see and experience is an illusion. Our 3D reality is encoded on a two-dimensional surface that we cannot see. In early 2017, scientists from the University of Southampton claimed to have found support for this theory by studying the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang.

2.      Multiverse - There are infinite universes, including the one we live in. There are various classifications and theories about the types of multiverse that might exist. Stephen Hawking is a strong exponent of the theory that there might be alternative universes, including one where Zayn Malik has not moved out of One Directions.  

3.      In the Ekpyrotic universe theory, the Big Bang was actually a transition from a previous period of contraction to the present period of expansion. The key events that shaped our universe happened before the Big Bang and the universe is in a constant cycle of expansion and contraction.

4.      White holes: If black holes exist then their opposite must exist too: white holes are thought to be constantly emitting matter and light, letting nothing enter them. There is not yet any observational evidence of white holes.

5.      Quantum entanglement: Two particles can be linked to each other even if separated by billions of light years of space and a change induced in one will affect the other. In 1930, Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and considered it to be impossible. However, most physicists today accept it to be true.

Do these theories help us examine the question if the universe is real or merely an illusion in a different way? Maybe , maybe not. The concept of "the world as simulation" links it to the latest technologies we use. But until one can show that drawing distinctions between what we experience and what is "real" leads to demonstrable differences in what we might observe or do, does it matter what our notion of reality REALLY is? For example, the weight of my favorite cup in my hand, the rich aroma of the coffee I am about the drink, the easy conversation of my parents in the other room, these offer a richness of experiences that can’t be faked or called a different reality, can it?   

Linked tightly to our current reflections is the concept of time. For centuries, time has shaped so much of our perception of our world, and ourselves. Human history and our understanding of the universe since the Big Bang is deeply rooted in time. In fact, it is almost impossible to think of our lives without time; the question is – is time as the quintessential background through which all events proceed an actual reality of the physical world or it is an artificial construct of human mentality – in other words, is it ‘all in the mind’? If time may not be what time seems, who are we then? Are we ourselves real?   

Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, claims that the three basic properties of time come not from the physical world but from our mental states: A present moment that is special; some kind of flow or passage; and an absolute direction. We sense time, he says, because our minds add a ‘subjective gradient’ to reality.

So are we being misled by our minds, or senses? We hear time is relative, like we know how ‘time flies’ when we are having a real good time, and can be a drag if one is feeling lonely and bored. In all of this, we hear from cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, that our entire Universe might be real yet still a kind of lab experiment. In April 2016, several scientists debated the issue at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, US and proposed:

“There is nothing in principle that rules out the possibility of manufacturing a universe in an artificial Big Bang “

Musk and other like-minded folk are suggesting that we are entirely simulated beings. We could be nothing more than strings of information manipulated in some gigantic computer, like the characters in a video game. Even our brains are simulated, and are responding to simulated sensory inputs.  So then, are we real? Are our senses just an illusion in our minds? Are we talking to people we see around us, friends and family – as just computer constructs created by streams of data, or are we something much more.

One could of course go on like this, however, the big question is does it really matter? Does it make a difference if we are programmed by a super simulator who could ‘switch’ off any second, or we truly engage with ourselves, our thoughts, feelings, environment, people? Are we stuck in a virtual reality box or do we go out and do interesting things with our lives – real or illusory? Whether real or imagined, humanity does have a lot of problems – several of its own doing – global warming and climate change, scarcity of resources with an alarmingly ballooning population, nuclear weapons and conflict between nations – these look real enough to me to have to do something about. So, let’s use our capacities, our faculties, ourselves – real or imagined – and resolve the universe’s problems – real or an illusory.