The Digital Dematerializing of Physical Reality

Everyday life is rapidly going virtual. In the mid-2000s, I suggested to a class of undergraduates that we would soon live in the internet. This claim elicited puzzled stares then, but now it’s a truism not worthy of a yawn because that future is closing in on us as we rapidly move our lives online. As fast as Moore’s Law allows, we are experiencing the digital dematerializing of physical reality. Crude single-player video games have morphed into massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Apps are displacing shopping malls. Kindle books are displacing physical books. Music streaming has displaced downloads, which displaced CDs, which displaced tapes, and which displaced records. Now our cars are on the verge of driving themselves and the Internet of Things controls our homes and facilitates remote surgeries. It no longer seems like a surrealistic fantasy to think that we will soon move past the powerful consoles, VR headsets, and 3-D haptic touch devices of video gaming into a world that mimics the book and film Ready Player One

This rapid virtualization of physical reality leads MIT computer scientist Rizwan Virk to suggest in his recent book, The Simulation Hypothesis, that we are living in a vast, immersive hyper-realistic 3D video game without knowing it. What Virk calls the “simulation point”1 is fast approaching when we slip over from virtual reality and augmented reality into simulated reality, at which point we will no longer be able to say what is real and what is virtual.

Powering the current fascination with virtual reality and augmented reality, which are distinguishable from everyday experience, is the drive toward computer simulation, which is a hyper-realistic Internet of Things and alternate worlds masking themselves as familiar common-sense reality. Driving this relentless expansion of simulated realities is the utopian hope that advancing technology will give humanity tools to generate hyper-realistic alternate universes where we can play out our noblest hopes—or perhaps our worst impulses. The progress of social media over the last two decades shows the potential of virtualizing technology to go either way. We human beings have always created virtual representations of reality from the earliest cave paintings, through poetry, and the many deities of our countless religions. But now we stand at a crossroads where our representational capacity is catapulting us into a transhuman or posthuman future. Will that future fulfill our deeper intuitions of what is good and wholesome or will it negate them?

Many religious and philosophical traditions, such as those of India and of ancient Greece, have explored and put to spiritual use humanity’s capacity for mirroring and reshaping reality. In the Upaniṣads and in Neoplatonism, we encounter the divine reality as Brahman and the One (to hen), which dynamically and creatively pour out from their innermost depths multiple levels of increasingly denser consciousness reaching from the subtlest realm of first principles down to the atoms of matter. It is as if being, or the divine reality, seeks to display—or represent—its innermost self to itself through this cosmic act of self-representation. Just as being exudes mind, time, space, and matter through this magical process of self-creation, so we human beings exude fully formed dreamworlds composed of the same elements in infinite variety each night when we sleep. And we do this constantly when we are awake as well. From taking and giving style advice on Instagram through the creative power of language and the discoveries of the arts and sciences to the creation and redemption stories and human-like deities of the world’s many and varied religions, we are engaged in a never-ending series of simulations. As in our dreams, our simulations are often so realistic that we forget—or never realize—that they are creative fabrications.

This power is double-edged, as exemplified in the Hindu doctrine of māyā, which is both the world-creating power of the divine and the spell of illusion weaving the appearances that are taken as ultimate reality in the common-sense view of things. Māyā simultaneously displays the infinite attributes of the divine for our benefit while also veiling the fullness of the divine from our sight. So it is also with our own simulations, which we can develop as models of being that can help us navigate in and beyond māyā or that we can take as reality itself, thereby closing ourselves off to our own divine depths.

The Simulation Hypothesis

This twofold power of simulation, the creative and the veiling, turns up in a novel form in MIT computer scientist Rizwan Virk’s recent book, The Simulation Hypothesis, where he challenges our sense of everyday reality by asking if we live without knowing it in a hyper-realistic video game. Is our apparent physical reality, he asks, actually a 3D MMORPG—a massively multiplayer online role-playing game like Ultima Online or World of Warcraft, but fully immersive as in the world portrayed in the book and film Ready Player One?2 This is Virk’s way of addressing the trilemma posed in the famous Simulation Argument by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.3 This argument presents three propositions or possibilities (only the third of which is the well-known Simulation Hypothesis). I would state this argument as follows:

  • Humanity becomes extinct before reaching capacity for simulation.
  • Advanced humanity collectively decides against simulations.
  • We live in a simulation.

This clever argument presents three decision points or alternatives on the road to the view that we live without knowing it in a massive video game. The Simulation Argument would be shown to be false if humanity (and, I would add, any other species or society) becomes extinct before becoming so technologically sophisticated that it could create a Ready Player One type simulation. (This is not the claim that no societies like this exist, but the claim that if there are none, then we do not now live in a simulation. We can’t really know if this alternative is true or false because we could be living right now in a simulation—what Bostrom calls an ancestor simulation—created by a some future posthuman—or nonhuman—society. The Simulation Argument would also be shown to be false if all advanced societies decide against creating simulated worlds where they can vary the possibilities experienced by their ancestors. But if neither of these first two propositions is the case, then we do live in a simulation because at least one society that reaches the technological level of creating convincing simulations doesn’t decide against doing so, with the result that we live in a simulation without knowing it.4

Hasn’t Reality Always Been Simulated?

If we consider this possibility only in terms of current gaming and AI technology, it will seem unlikely and to the common-sense mentality, which follows closely the reports of the senses, it will seem absurd. However, the idea that we are living in a simulation so well-fabricated that it is almost impossible to detect is actually an ancient idea and it is a common teaching of the ancient religions of India, as well as of many classical philosophies, which hold that reality is not what appears to our senses and mind. One of the best-known examples comes from Plato’s Republic,where he describes the sad situation of prisoners chained inside a cave facing a wall displaying the shadows of figures walking in front of  a fire that is behind them. Not knowing anything else than their experience of these shadows, they take them as realities until one of them escapes and reports back on the realities the shadows mimic. As we might expect, no one believes the reports of the liberated one.5

This allegory is just one way of getting at one of the oldest and most central insights of philosophy: the difference between appearance and reality. The philosophical insight that reality is not identical with what appears is suggested by multiple natural events such as the illusion of the sun revolving around the earth or the illusion of the earth ending at the horizon. Perhaps most telling is the experience of dreaming, which generally seems completely real—except for lucid dreamers—while we are in the dream, and yet most dreams vanish without a trace within minutes of waking. The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi used a dream to suggest the problem that dreaming poses to common-sense thinking, which takes the world of the senses just as it (seems) to appear as real. After awakening from a dream in which he had been a butterfly utterly unaware of Zhuangzi’s existence, he wondered if he is the Zhuangzi who had dreamed that he was a butterfly or if he is a butterfly dreaming that he is Zhuangzi.

The insight that what appears isn’t necessarily real inspires other ingenious thought-experiments and theories of knowledge. Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophers crafted the two-truths doctrine to relate the apparent realities of everyday experience to the surpassing realm of śūnyatā, while Yogācāra Buddhist and Advaita Vedāntist philosophers discerned three levels of truth to account for the fact that reality is not as it appears to our senses and mind. 

In the West, Descartes imagined—and rejected—the possibility that “some malicious spirit” has tricked us into thinking that we are earthbound beings with arms and legs when we actually are something else entirely.6 In the early 1980’s, the philosopher Hilary Putnam gave this idea a contemporary turn who. Long before The Matrix, Putnam imagined—and rejected—the possibility that we are brains in a large vat filled with nourishing nutrients linked by evil scientists running supercomputers who are tricking us into believing that we have bodies and live in the world of ordinary experience.7 

The veil of appearances has also been pulled away in the last century by the dissolution of old-fashioned “matter” in quantum physics, the discovery of the power of the Unconscious in shaping conscious experience by Freud and Jung, and through the application of critical theories to deconstruct socially constructed identities in light of veiled interests. Virk’s claim that we may have reached the simulation point is thus the latest in a long line of countless ways of stating the ancient insight that because things are not as they appear, we must leave the cave or the vat, take the Red Pill, and see through māyā.

Mesmerizing Simulation

We may think it unlikely that we live in a computer simulation because of the almost inconceivable amount of computing power and energy needed to render our world—although Bostrom gives a compelling case in the article mentioned earlier for how this might be done. Yet it remains a strong possibility that we live in a mesmerizing simulation controlled by beings greater than us but unknown by us—whether they be from an advanced civilization or are a higher mental or spiritual entity like the divinities of the world’s religions. 

A more immediately intriguing possibility is the creation in the near future of our own simulations as powerful as the simulation in Ready Player One. Then we could create simulations where we abandon our physical brains and bodies and upload our karma-streams to new bodies in novel worlds of our creation. We could move at will between various machine-generated spiritual heavens in a virtual and unending afterlife. We could render the enlightened state of the great mystics and yogis and abide for millennia in a kind of simulated yogic bliss. Or we could simulate breaking out of the simulation altogether. Then we wouldn’t need any more spiritual practice than just strapping on VR headsets and 3-D touch devices!

Isn’t Artificial Enlightenment (AE) Just Another Form of Bondage?

The most glaring disadvantage of these simulated realms is that they are physical extensions of our bodies requiring maintenance, power sources, payment for service, and vast corporations manufacturing equipment, developing software, and delivering products. As forms of what I call artificial enlightenment (AE), they would make us dependent upon machinery and corporations to awaken. It’s a bit like always needing a meditation app to meditate, with the result that artificial enlightenment turns out to be just another form of bondage. Despite the illusion rendered by technology that we dwell in worlds of great beauty, freedom, and enlightenment, we would remain deeply embedded in the physical world. In this way, we would remain finite, bounded beings utterly dependent upon internet-service providers and technology manufacturers to keep our simulated life going. Even though we may experience ourselves as transcendent entities gliding through heavenly realms, we would still require physical housing for our bodies, electricity to run our simulation-generating machinery, food and water, and medical care. I can imagine no more dreadful scenario than to be a vegetating body kept alive for simulated experiences like the people in The Matrix or in Putnam’s brains in a vat. We would be as unfortunate as the people in Plato’s cave.

The Sixth Kośa

It is entertaining to enter simulated worlds, and they are useful tools for modeling different experiential states, but we don’t actually need technology to do this because, as humanity’s mystical traditions teach, we already are master simulators of our own experience. We already possess the power of generating or discovering enlightenment. In the refined spiritual practices that humanity has developed over many long millennia, we already possess the soft technology we need to wake up from the illusion that we are identical with our bodies and minds. These treasured traditions have long taught that enlightenment is already in our hands and that it is always our own choice whether we go on sleeping or whether we choose to wake up. 

Ancient India, to take just one example, preserved in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad a subtle teaching about the five persons (puruṣa), selves (ātman), bodies, or coverings (kośa) that make up each individual human being. Old as it is, this inspiring teaching is a knowledge-based program of ontological exploration and awakening that is as relevant today as when it was first composed. Best of all, it requires no more tools than our innate capacities for introspection and concentration. According to this vidyā, or knowledge-based practice template, we are endowed with five bodies, and the direction of enlightenment is from the physical body through four ever subtler and more spiritual bodies. It teaches that the way of return to our infinite Self from suffocating identification with our physical and mental states is to ascend meditatively through these five bodies to the infinite, blissful consciousness, Brahman or ātman, which lies beyond the series of five bodies.This is a classic path toward enlightenment, but artificial enlightenment runs in the opposite direction to an even grosser level of materiality, one that is alienated through technology from our physical experiences unenhanced by technology. 

It turns out that artificial, simulated enlightenment is another form of illusion veiling ātman, our true Self, from our view. Instead of providing actual spiritual freedom, artificial enlightenment creates a sixth level of māyā, which I call the Sixth Kośa, or theyantramayakośa,the “machine-body” or the “body made of machines” (one meaning of yantra is “machine,” as in Bhagavad-Gītā 18.61). Artificial enlightenment pushes us out to a sixth level away from ātman instead of bringing us closer to it, which is accomplished by yoga, contemplation, and meditation. (I don’t rule out that the sixth kośa can serve as a useful exploratory tool, just as haṭha-yoga emerged as an aid to rāja-yoga.)

The Five Bodies (Pañca-Kośa) in the Upaniṣads 

I want to give a quick sketch here of the visionary practice of the five sheaths (pañca-kośa), whichsuggests, contrary to our everyday consciousness, that our true liberated Self is enveloped in five layers of decreasingly subtle consciousness.8 One way of making sense of this vidyā, or teaching, is to think that you have received a gift covered with five wrappers. First, is a cardboard mailing box. Second, is the packing paper inside the mailing box. Third, is a gift box inside the packing paper. Fourth, is a small velvet pouch inside the gift box. Fifth, is a tiny jewel box inside the velvet pouch. If we imagine ourselves similarly as five-dimensional beings existing simultaneously on five different levels with five different bodies or selves, then the vidyā reveals a vision of human existence that counters our common-sense view of ourselves as bodies with minds more or less reducible to our brains. (At best, the common-sense view allows, at least for religious persons, that we might have a soul separate from the body, although its character remains nebulous.)

By following the progression of bodies described in the vidyā, we learn how our multidimensional existence emanates from Brahman and how to collapse it back into Brahman. First, we appear to be physical beings caught up in a world of interacting objects and bodies. This, the vidyā teaches, is the Body Made of the Essence of Food (puruṣa-anna-rasa-maya), which is the outermost level or dimension of our being. If we identify ourselves only with this body, we experience ourselves as egocentric individual bodies in constant need of nourishment and subject to physical ailments and bodily death. 

Second, we experience ourselves as subtle, nonphysical entities composed of subtle energy and illumined by an inner sense of connectedness to other beings. This, the vidyā teaches, is the Body Made of Immaterial Energy or Prāṇa (ātman-prāṇamaya-kośa), which infuses the physical body with a subtle energy that expresses itself as the senses, the energy of physiological processes, and the subtle body irradiated with nāḍīs (“subtle channels”) and cakras (“subtle energy vortices”). Since all beings are inwardly connected through the subtle body, from the highest devas, or divine beings, down to the most minute life and energy forms, we become sensitive to this realm in dreams and through psychic phenomena. We also encounter it as sensations of luminous energy, colors, and other visionary phenomena in deep meditation, as we fall into sleep, and at the approach of death. 

Third, virtually everyone excluding a few physicalists agrees that we have a mind, although the more scientifically oriented may assume that it is reducible to the brain. This, the vidyā teaches, is the Body Made of Mind (ātman-manomaya-kośa), which, like prāṇa, is shared in common with all other minds (matter is as well, but that only becomes apparent when contemplating the sublimity or oneness of the physical world). Mind includes the will, memory, and thought. In its most general sense, mind is the matrix within which all experience arises, and the stilling of the mind leads to resumption of our natural identity with Brahman.

Fourth, knowledge—or when it is devoted to higher purposes—wisdom, is the inner essence of the mind. This, the vidyā teaches, is the Body Made of Knowledge (ātman-vijñānamaya-kośa), which projects and traces the underlying metaphysical structure of reality and our place in it. As wisdom, it stands at the apex of the mind and serves as the doorway into the outer courts of Brahman. Like the other bodies, this body is common to all, and when we approach it contemplatively, the sense of differentiation caused by the ego fully dissipates.

Fifth, the encounter with unitive wisdom in lower levels of samādhi generates ecstatic sensations of bliss before giving way to contemplative calmness. This, the vidyā teaches, is the Body Made of Bliss (ātman-ānandamaya-kośa). This subtlest of the five bodies is pervaded by a supreme sense of bliss or happiness that fulfills all desires. Beyond the last body is Brahman, or ātman, which ultimately transcends mind-generated experience altogether, although it is the ground of experience. The last sensation of the mind as the sheaths collapse back into Brahman is a supreme sense of bliss encompassing all forms of happiness and pleasure. This is the portal to enlightenment, beyond which no words can travel and from which none can return.

Wisdom Is Always Available

Comprehensive knowledge-based wisdom teachings such as the pañca-kośa-vidyā can guide us through all of the levels of experience—including at least three that are virtually invisible to current science—to the standpoint of enlightenment without calling upon any other tool than our own capacity for introspection. This simplicity will always remain the strength of the ancient wisdom traditions. Furthermore, because the basic structure of reality as revealed by the ancient wisdom traditions is essentially identical, whether recounted by Plato, Proclus, or the Upaniṣads, we need not rely on “old” teachings, since the same mystical philosophical knowledge emerges in more recent attempts at formulating the path to awakening. We always have the capacity to simulate multiple realities and to break free into the highest region of being. We can verify this claim by studying the modern wisdom teachings of the New Thought movement, the Perennialism of René Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Aldous Huxley, and Huston Smith, and the modern spin-offs of ancient wisdom encountered among neo-Vedantists and eclectic followers of “Eastern religions. This claim remains true whether we are surrounded by the latest technology or whether we are sitting in a cave watching the shadows of hidden flames dancing on the dark walls enclosing us in forgetfulness of our true, unbounded Self.

  1. Rizwan Virk’s The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In a Video Game. Kindle edition, location 503.
  2. Virk, The Simulation Hypothesis, locations 257, 272, 930-1014.
  3. Nick Bostrom, “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?” Philosophical Quarterly 53no.211 (2003: 243-255).
  4. Bostrom thinks that it is less than 50% likely that the third possibility, the Simulation Hypothesis, is true. See “Nick Bostrom – Simulation Argument & Hypothesis—The Biggest Misconception”: and
  5. Plato, Republic, Book VII 514 a—520 e,, accessed January 4, 2020.
  6. “Malicious spirit” is my translation of “genium aliquem malignum” in René Descartes, Meditationum de Prima Philosophie, Oeuvres de Descartes, 7:15 
  7. Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1981: 1-21), doi:10.1017/CBO9780511625398.003, accessed January 3, 2020.
  8.  I go into greater detail on this in the conference talk that is part of the Virtual Empowerment conference: Because the teaching as given in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad is concise and not filled out with experiential details, the following presentation has been filled in with details from my own experience in working with these bodies in meditation. Besides my own experience, I draw in my interpretation of the pañca-kośa-vidyā upon the commentaries on the Taittirīya Upaniṣad by Śaṅkarācārya in Swāmī Gambhīrānanda, Eight Upaniṣads, with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, Vol. I, Second Revised Edition. Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama (1989, 1957: 301-342), and Klaus G. Witz, The Supreme Wisdom of the Upanisads: An Introduction, First Edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (1998: 317-421).