Sage Markandeya was a virtuous devotee of Vishnu, the Supreme Deity of the Hindus. He had practised relentless abstinence and self-control, lived only by begging alms, and never failed to recite the Vedas and to offer morning and evening prayers. So pleased was Vishnu with his penance, that he appeared before the sage and asked what boon was he seeking for. Since Markandeya knew all the right hymns of praise that pleased the Lord, he first sang them, and when the Lord’s lotus face radiated more than its usual divine brilliance with pleasure, Sage Markandeya said: Just seeing you in person in all your divine splendour is boon enough for me. Yet, if you insist, there is just one boon I would plead for: Show me one of your yogamaya – divine illusions that make this world look real.
Vishnu was a little surprised. Being omniscient, he should have known what was coming, but he didn’t. He was also pleased; here was one sage who was clever; seemingly without asking nothing for himself, but actually asking for the greatest of his secrets – Maya, the divine simulation of a non-existent world. Being a merciful Supreme Godhead, Vishnu nonetheless relented. “Go home, my beloved devotee; you will shortly have what your heart desires.”
Not sure how long that ‘shortly’ meant, Markandeya went back to his hut and sat down. Leaves rustled in the trees, cuckoos sang their shrill monotone, a spotted female deer flitted by, followed by a male one, his desire shamelessly unsheathed. A lion roared from afar, but that was a routine affair- cuckoos cooed, deer couples mated, lions did roar in the jungle. They were no illusions – at least not to his mind. Bored with disappointment, the sage went into his customary trance.
He was woken up by a huge roar of an approaching tsunami that swirled up like mountains. He couldn’t believe his eyes, for the ocean was several miles away. The little stream that swerved around his hut on its way to the divine Ganges River vanished in the deluge. Soon his cottage was submerged; he went under and gasped for breath, but with some efforts, managed to surface. The flood kept rising; soon the Himalaya Mountains, below which he had built his cottage, were submerged. Not much later the Milky Way, stars, the sun and the moon were drowned. Human and animal carcasses floated on the surface; it seemed as though Markandeya alone was alive, just about managing to keep his face above the rising waves that touched the dome of the sky.
Thirsty and hungry, the sage floated about aimlessly in the heaving waves till he sighted a banyan tree towering above the submerged mountain peaks. When he swam closer to it, he saw a radiant little blue baby sitting on a broad leaf, one of his legs raised and its big toe in his mouth, a peacock feather crowning his head. He instantly recognized Baby Krishna, the infantile incarnation of Vishnu himself. When he got closer, the Baby Krishna took a deep breath and sucked him in. As he fell through the gullet of the Little One, he saw his own hut, dry and surrounded with flowering trees and plants, the clearing in the forest, the hunters and the hunted, the lovelorn deer couple still in the act of love-making, birds flitting about in the sky, the huge Himalayas, the sun and the stars, the galaxy – the whole universe. When he had taken in the amazing sight, he was pushed out with a strong exhalation. Markandeya found himself sitting at the same doorway of his hut, in the same posture – as if not a moment had passed.
I took this wonderful story from Bhagavata Purana. Something similar had once happened in my life. I spent a whole day with my late mother, trying to make up for neglecting her in the last years of her life, taking her to a movie, then walking with her on our favourite beach of my childhood, but then losing sight of her in the evening twilight just before I could take her for the dinner I planned. When I woke up, I discovered that all this had happened between the time that my wife with a cup of tea in her hand tapped my shoulder to wake me up and then placed the cup on the side-table. Some illusions, I suppose, have a different scale for time. Yet I could have sworn that I wasn’t dreaming. I could still feel the soft pressure of my Mother’s fingers on the back of my hand from the way she had pressed it in a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Some illusions are dangerous. Like the time when my wife had a morning delusion that I kissed the maid. After creating a storm and practicing discuss-throw with plates and dishes, she continues to believe that it happened. The trouble was that she does not believe in illusions the way I do.
17th century philosopher –mathematician René Descartes (1596- 1650), known as the Guru of modern philosophy, wrote that what we believe to be perceiving through our senses could be an elaborate hoax, it could be a demon who created and controlled all that we saw and heard. Descartes (who posited Cartesian Geometry) was a Catholic, presumably he had in mind people who were supposed to be possessed and saw things which others could not see; whose speech and thoughts appeared to be coming from some other beings.
Ruth Montgomery (1912-2001), the New-age writer and spiritual Medium, in her book “Strangers Among Us” wrote that highly enlightened beings, who had gone through several reincarnations, no longer desiring to be born again and go through a life-long process, walked in on willing host bodies of people who no longer wanted to live as what they were. She listed Mohandas K. Gandhi, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, (Adi) Shankara and many others who had done their good work because it was not they, but the great enlightened spirits that were controlling their action. Mrs. Montgomery, whose books were in great demand, said that they were the work of a group of such enlightened souls. This group promised a new weapon-less and peaceful world in the twenty-first century, but forgot to tell her that she would not live to see how that prophesy turned out starting 2001, the year in which she died. I knew an elderly Zoroastrian lady who was not supposed to be very familiar with English (she spoke to me only in Hindi under normal circumstances) but spoke fluent English with an Irish accent when she was supposed to be under the control of 18th-19th century Irish nun Mother Catherine, when in a trance. She told me things about myself and my departed son which, as far as I knew, she had no means to know. She accepted no fees for late Mother Catherine speaking through her – so she had no reason for putting on an elaborate pretense.
Space scientist and science fiction writer David Brin (born 1950) recalls a Chinese parable about an emperor who believed that he was a butterfly dreaming that he was an emperor. According to Brin, says Space.com, “it may be the year 2050 and people are living in a computer simulation of what life was like in the early 21st century — or it may be billions of years from now, and people are in a simulation of what primitive planets and people were once like.”
In 2003, Nick Bostrom (born 1973), the young faculty of philosophy in Oxford University published a paper titled “Are you living in a Computer Simulation?” in Philosophical Quarterly first proposed the Simulation Hypothesis as a scientific concept. The kernel of his argument was based on the assumption that “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.” Thought process, ran his argument, could be substrate-independent. He foresaw that humankind could attain a stage where it could use planets and other celestial objects into powerful computers. Inconceivable as it might seem to a layman, the paper aroused considerable interest in the scientific community. When you have a massive computer like the universe itself, creating universes could be child’s play. Who knows there is none out there who has the power of a whole universe compressed into a laptop capable of simulating one or more parallel or discrete universes, or that someone out there somewhere is not doing it already ?
Ray Kurzweil (born 1948), director of artificial intelligence in Google and inventor of several digital devices, agrees with what modern physicists call a Simulation hypothesis. We might not be really real, but being simulated on a powerful computer by an alien – though not necessarily a God of any religion – who even could be a five-year old in an advanced universe somewhere out there. How do we know we are not? .
Who else supports this insanely fantastic suggestion? To name just a few famous scientists, Thomas Warren Campbell (born 1944) , the author of the book, “Theory of Everything,” (My Big TOE : Awakening) which deals with a unified theory that combines all the physical theories that explain the working of this universe we occupy –Such other eminent scientists as Hans Moravec (born 1948), faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, and an expert on artificial intelligence, but also a futurist, and author of much acclaimed Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind suggests that if someone is simulating us just as we simulate a machine, or write a book, or simulate the emotions of a character in a movie, that could be ominous. At the top of his thought-provoking paper, Simulation, Consciousness, Existence, he wrote: “Like organisms evolved in gentle tide pools, who migrate to freezing oceans or steaming jungles by developing metabolisms, mechanisms, and behaviors workable in those harsher and vaster environments, our descendants, able to change their representations at will, may develop means to venture far from the comfortable realms we consider reality into arbitrarily strange worlds.
Ominous it really is, because whoever is simulating air crashes, murders in wedding banquets and little children burning or drowning, obviously does not react to the pain and grief of the simulated beings any more than an author of a novel or a movie script who describes such pain and misery feels any sympathy for his characters. Those who ask if there is a God, why is so much pain present in this world would get their answer that, for God (or the child-alien) who is toying with you on her computer feels no such pain or sympathy for the characters she creates. Do you weep for the characters in a video game that get shot, stabbed or blown to smithereens? You, as an audience, might shed tears for a tragedy that happens on the movie screen, but the producer wouldn’t; he would hope to make more money from those tears.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (born 1958), the seriously jovial director of Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, and the anchor –presenter of the popular television show Cosmos hosted the Isaac Asimov debate in April 2016 on the subject whether we live in a universe of artificial simulation.
Professor Sylvester James Gates ( born1950) , theoretical physicists for work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory or Lysa Randall (born 1962), faculty of Harvard University on particle physics and Cosmology, did not think it likely that we could be living in a simulated universe. Young Iranian Zoreh Davoudi , Post-doctoral research associate at the Center for Theoretical Physics – MIT, has been working on a project to simulate a universe with her guide and associates, but is constrained by limitations of computing power and other technological factors. The most powerful computers available today can simulate a universe no larger than an atom. That gives you an idea of the computing power required to create (simulate) a real universe.
Philosopher David Chalmers (born 1966) believes that there is 42% probability that we could be living in a simulated universe while Max Erik Tegmark, Professor of Cosmology at MIT discounts that probability to 17%. Chalmers considers consciousness as an undercurrent narrative of a 3-D movie we are watching all the time, (a holographic projection) that not only shows images and sound, but also smell, feel, emotions and memory.
Professor Brian Randolph Greene, (born 1963) of Columbia University, who teaches Physics undergraduates on theoretical physics and String Theory, devotes a chapter in his book, “The Hidden Reality – Parallel Universes and The Deep Laws of The Cosmos” expends a chapter lending conviction to the possibility that we could indeed be the creation of someone in another universe playing a game with us by Metrix simulation. Greene speaks of parallel universes where there could be several you’s residing in several universes at the same time. If all of you were exactly identical, you could only be simulations. How would you know who is the copy of whom?
Think of this. Moore’s Law is by no means a rigid mathematical theory, but only an observational suggestion. Moore once said off-the-cuff that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years. The observation proved to be so accurate that it came to be honoured as a theory. Transistors are the switching devices that create zeroes and ones (0,1) used to store data, create data, type words, read words, do calculations, draw graphics, take and store photographs, record music and video and generally do all the cerebral-like processing that a computer does. The brain of your computer – microprocessor – is a network of millions of such transistors. In effect, the law means that the computing power, speed and storage capacity could be more than doubling every couple of years far beyond the ten-year limit predicted by Gordon Moore (born 1929), co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. This fantastic rate of growth has not abated; it has, if anything, been accelerating its expansion process like the expanding universe itself . In 1978, the first desktop computer I bought had a capacity of 2 MB and a memory of 620 KB which everyone thought was fast enough. The server in the office had a 120 MB storage which I thought was incredibly large. Today the 8 GB memory and two TB (Two million MB) hard disk on my laptop often appears to crawl. All the videos of scientific, and religious debates, audible books, Kindle books and music videos that I have on board this laptop would have needed a hundred several eight-inch tapes a generation ago. Alibaba.com answers more orders for books, appliances, beauty products, music and grocery than any God of any religion could be listening to (but not necessarily answering ) prayers in any given moment. God, are these humans powerful!
Now imagine the computing power that a paleontologist in 2050 could be using while researching a thousand skeletons of the victims of religion-based wars that is raging in the Middle East during the past decade of our time. Using these skeletons, and many of the window-dressed journalistic materials available in the archives, he could build an exact simulated life for the dead and gone decade of 2010-2020. Like a forensic scientist who could drop a dummy of the right weight and size on the ground from a twenty-floor balcony to investigate a murder case, he could use this simulation to build a true history of what happened in our foregone times. It is more than possible that the programmers would have designed adequate artificial intelligence to create self-awareness and free thoughts in their simulations. (Are we, by the way self-aware free thinkers? Don’t our thoughts come ‘inspired’ from an unknown black hole in our mind – but who inspires those thoughts in the black hole of our mind?). If that happens, – there is no reason why it couldn’t – that paleontologist three decades from now could be re-creating you, me, George Bush, the victims of drowning in the Mediterranean sea, the head-cutters of Islamic State, their leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi , President Donald Trump and many more in a simulated matrix; we wouldn’t even know that we are only simulations just as we are not sure if we are or are not right this moment.
Even that April 2016 discussion on a fact of life that is important to humanity filled with spirited laughter and pointed jokes at the Isaac Asimov debate in April 2016 could be a simulation; their virtual conclusion that the Matrix Hypothesis is nonsense could be engineered by an alien lest the simulations become Frankensteins in the long run, just as the Abrahamic God tried futilely to prevent Adam from acquiring knowledge and becoming equal to himself.
Simulation hypothesis is nothing new, only the terminology is. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to stand up and fight, assuring him that the foes – his cousins, preceptors, uncles , grandfather and thousands of their warriors are already dead; he (Arjuna) was only required to simulate the action. Christian Reformist John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote that whatever is to happen – who would go to hell and who to heaven was all pre-determined by God, the world is merely going through the motion. Humans have no active role to play in his life. Prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said in a Hadith that when a human embryo is forty or forty-two days old in the womb, an angel would descend near it and call out to Allah and ask, “What sex?”, upon receiving an answer and fitting up the appropriate sex equipment, the next important question: “Sinner or Saint?”. God decides, the angel codes the little one’s fate according to Allah’s pre-determined instructions.
All religions claim that their God is omniscient and omnipotent because the world is a simulation of their creation; he is supposed to know the sequence of things to come because he programmed it.
We could be living computer simulations of a superior intelligence living in some other universe or dimension, or we could be the holographic characters of our own thirtieth, hundredth or thousandth descendants who are creating us in their past to see for themselves how their ancestors lived loved and died. Are we kidding ourselves? Is this a mad-hatter’s dream?
Not at all. That Vishnu – not necessarily a God, but a whizkid with a toe in his mouth and hands on a computer keyboard of weird sorts – who could be playing this maya or illusion on us, had been playing it with our ancestors (or making us believe and ‘remember’ that we had parents and ancestors), feel that we are driving a car to office or keying in this blog on a computer keyboard, planning to cheat the spouse or filing for a divorce, could all be an alien playing us on a Matrix game board. Your vivid memory of loving parents who struggled to bring you up and educate you might not be real; it could be planted in your simulated brain. Our sense of time could be a fleeting microsecond in her computer program. We are made to believe that our clock is designed to delude us about the time; the soft feel of your girlfriend’s breasts could be no carbon fat and protein, but a computer code. Your belief that you are thinking independently inside your brains, your proud claim that you have self-perception and consciousness that your computer lacks, might all be previously programmed into a complex computer program of unimaginable power and speed.
I am not betting on it. My great-great granddaughter might find the truth.
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