The simulation hypothesis (also known as the simulation argument or simulation theory) proposes that reality as we know it is a simulation – and most likely a computer simulation. If this argument is true, it means that everything – ourselves, everyone on the planet, and the universe at large – is not what we think it is. There is an ultimate reality upon which our perceived reality depends. Behind the solidity and viscerality of the world we inhabit, as well as every thought, perception, and experience we have, are advanced computations developed by an advanced civilisation.
For many, the simulation hypothesis is a pointless thought experiment – undoubtedly fun and imaginative to consider, but not something that deserves serious attention. Besides, if everything were fundamentally artificial, would knowledge of this fact change anything about how we live? Moreover, how could we even grasp this insight into the nature of our reality?
We might imagine we could break free from the shackles of the illusory world, as Neo does in The Matrix (1999), a classic film based on the premise that people live in a simulated reality (known as the Matrix), created by malicious, intelligent machines. In the midst of a war between humans and these machines, people blocked the machines’ access to solar energy, essential for their continued survival. In response, the machines began to harvest bioelectric energy from humans. They kept their pacified bodies in vats, feeding them a model of pre-war reality by means of a computer program, delivered by a cable attached to their brains, as well as wires linked up to the rest of the body.
Humanity, therefore, was oblivious to its subjugation and exploitation. That is, except, for a select few who managed to escape the Matrix and who try to help others (such as Neo) who are deemed ready to face ultimate reality. The Matrix is based on a long lineage of philosophical influences, with many serious thinkers postulating that reality may, indeed, be completely illusory. However, it is questionable whether we could wake up from this illusion, as Neo does in The Matrix – and even if some people were, somehow, able to lift this grand veil of deception and see beyond the simulation, how could we judge the veracity of such an occurrence? Do we not normally single out people who make these claims as delusional?
Despite these possible holes in the theory, the simulation argument has received careful attention by various modern-day philosophers; most notably Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford, whose formulation of the hypothesis deserves analysis. Furthermore, high-profile physicists and philosophers have suggested that there may be certain signs and clues that we are living in a computer simulation, including computer code underlying physical reality, as well as certain ‘glitches’ in the simulation.
Another fascinating proposal is that mind-altering substances can offer people glimpses into ultimate reality and gain that titanic realisation that Neo has, that everything is not what it seems to be. DMT is a substance that is closely tied to the simulation hypothesis since this powerful psychedelic can make users feel that they’ve entered a reality that is ‘more real than real’. This starkly earth-shattering experience raises important questions. For example, is it possible that intense, breakthrough experiences with DMT are, in fact, glitches in the simulated reality in which we live? And how could a substance interacting with our brains achieve this kind of reality switch? Here, we will examine this interplay between DMT and philosophy in more depth, remaining open to deep speculative questions, while also adopting a critical perspective. After all, contemplating these matters can, a lot of the time, cross into the territory of the fanciful. The popularisation of – and connotations attached to – the idea of a simulated reality have meant that the notion is often seen as trivial, as some sort of wild, fantastical theory that doesn’t deserve serious consideration. And certainly, some discussions of simulated realities do take place on this level. Nevertheless, the simulation hypothesis has garnered deliberate examination from academic philosophers and physicists.
Before discussing the relationship between DMT and the simulation hypothesis, it’s worth outlining key arguments in favour of and against this hypothesis. Understanding the reasoning behind both the proposals and critiques of this hypothesis is the necessary first step, prior to considerations about whether a chemical like DMT is a way of justifying such a view of reality. If some variation of the simulation hypothesis does not seem plausible, then the idea of stepping outside of the simulation via a chemical will be meaningless (although, notions of accessing some kind of ‘ultimate reality’ by means of DMT may be personally viewed as more meaningful, as this sort of hypothesis does not have to presume a simulated reality but rather, for example, differences in how we gain knowledge of the single, non-simulated reality we live in).
The Simulation Hypothesis is a Perennial Idea
Various philosophers throughout history have put forward the main crux behind the simulation hypothesis, in some form or another. It essentially boils down to the question of how we can distinguish between reality and an illusory reality, such as a dream or a computer simulation. Zhuangzi’s eponymous collection of anecdotes and fables – and one of the foundational texts of Taoism – contains a notable passage known as “The Butterfly Dream”. Appearing at the end of the second chapter “On the Equality of Things”, the passage reads:
Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
Here, the philosopher Zhuang Zhou (also commonly referred to as Zhuangzi) ponders how we can distinguish between reality and a dream or alternatively – in relation to the simulation argument – how might one come to know that one’s perceived reality is real or simulated. The French philosopher Rene Descartes proposed a similar scenario in his work Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). His dream argument is as follows: there is no certainty in the belief that I am, in actual fact, sitting by a fire since I have had dreams in which I have been convinced I am sitting by a fire, completely unaware that I am dreaming. According to Descartes’ reasoning, the experience of a dream can be indistinguishable from waking reality, in spite of any subjective differences between waking life and dreaming since these differences do not allow one to confidently assert that one is awake or dreaming.
The dream argument is similar to Descartes’ evil demon hypothesis, which appears later in the work. The latter argument posits that an evil demon is responsible for the grand deception, which we presumptuously refer to as reality – this demon has used its powers to engender a total illusion of the external world. This cunning demon induces all of the sensory experiences and beliefs that we have.
Are We Brains in Vats?
In contemporary philosophy, we find the counterpart of the demon hypothesis in Hilary Putnam’s brain in a vat thought experiment. In his book Reason, Truth and History (1981), Putnam first presents the thought experiment, asking us to imagine an evil scientist placing brains in vats and feeding them a virtual reality, indistinguishable from what we presume is reality, by means of a highly sophisticated computer program. In Putnam’s thought experiment, the evil scientist replaces the evil demon, but the scientist (an observer outside of the vats is not essential to the argument). He writes:
Instead of having just one brain in a vat, we could imagine that all human beings (perhaps all sentient beings) are brains in a vat (or nervous systems in a vat in case some beings with just a minimal nervous system already count as ‘sentient’). Of course, the evil scientist would have to be outside — or would he? Perhaps there is no evil scientist, perhaps (though this is absurd) the universe just happens to consist of automatic machinery tending a vat full of brains and nervous systems.
This time let us suppose that the automatic machinery is programmed to give us all a collective hallucination, rather than a number of separate unrelated hallucinations. Thus, when I seem to myself to be talking to you, you seem to yourself to be hearing my words. Of course, it is not the case that my words actually reach your ears — for you don’t have (real) ears, nor do I have a real mouth and tongue. Rather, when I produce my words, what happens is that the efferent impulses travel from my brain to the computer, which both causes me to ‘hear’ my own voice uttering those words and ‘feel’ my tongue moving, etc., and causes you to ‘hear’ my words, ‘see’ me speaking, etc. In this case, we are, in a sense, actually in communication. I am not mistaken about your real existence (only about the existence of your body and the ‘external world’, apart from brains). From a certain point of view, it doesn’t even matter that ‘the whole world’ is a collective hallucination; for you do, after all, really hear my words when I speak to you, even if the mechanism isn’t what we suppose it to be. (Of course, if we were two lovers making love, rather than just two people carrying on a conversation, then the suggestion that it was just two brains in a vat might be disturbing.)
But however formulated, Putnam doesn’t buy the notion that we’re brains in a vat. Although these various scenarios do not violate any physical laws (they are possible and consistent with every single thing that we experience), he maintains that this state of affairs cannot be the case because it is self-refuting. Just as the statement ‘all general statements are false’ is self-refuting because it is itself a general statement, ‘we are brains in vats’ is self-refuting for linguistic reasons. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s current Minister of Energy, who interestingly used to lecture on philosophy and has several books on philosophy published, writes in his paper Brains in a Vat: Different Perspectives (1994):
His argument is as follows: in order for this proposition to acquire its presumed realistic meaning, the terms ‘brain’ and ‘vat’ must refer to real brains and vats. However, according to causal semantics, a word can refer to an object only if that object is somehow causally connected with the utterance or thought of the word. Thus in order for the word ‘vat’ to refer to an actual vat, and not to refer to a ‘vat in the image’ (p. 15), or be a mere cluster of random, meaningless markings, there must be some causal connection between the perception of some actual vat and the fact that the word ‘vat’ was written, said or conceived. Returning now to the BIV [brain in a vat] proposition: if the speaker is a genuine BIV, then it is impossible that he should ever have observed the vat he is in, or any vat, brain or computer whatsoever. Thus the word ‘vat’ in his usage does not refer to real vats, but only to ‘vats in the image’, and the entire proposition fails to refer. If, on the other hand, the speaker is not a BIV, then his proposition has reference, but is obviously false. Hence the proposition ‘I am a BIV’ either fails to refer or is false.
Putnam’s argument rests on the notion that one cannot coherently state that one is a brain in a vat. This is based on semantic externalism, a philosophical position which states that the meaning of a term is based on factors external to the speaker. Furthermore, Putnam’s target in his argument was never Cartesian scepticism (a method of doubting any proposed knowledge) or global scepticism (scepticism about the possibility of any knowledge at all); rather, he was attempting to refute metaphysical realism (the view that there is a mind-independent reality with objects that have properties and relations independently of how we conceive them). In supposedly showing the self-refuting nature of the brain in the vats thought experiment, Putnam was trying to underscore that it’s absurd to posit a gap between what the world is like and our conception of it, which metaphysical realism assumes. Putnam believes we cannot have this “God’s eye view” of reality since we are always limited by conceptual schemes. We can never step outside, as it were.
Various criticisms have been levelled against Putnam’s argument. One of them is from the philosopher Daniel Dennett who argued, contrary to Putnam’s assumptions, that it is physically impossible for a brain in a vat to replicate all the experiences, thoughts, beliefs – and so on – that would arise in a non-envatted human. This is due to the fact that our experience of reality is fundamentally an embodied experience. We have bodies and evolved with bodies and this affects the qualitative nature of our experiences. If our mind were disembodied, our experience of reality would be distinguishable from the one we are so accustomed to. Future technology, though, may eventually show this to be otherwise. In any case, if you don’t subscribe to Putnam’s falsification of the brain in a vat thought experiment (which many philosophers don’t), then you may deem it within the realm of truth that we are brains in a vat. What is debatable is whether there is any legitimate way to know this – or whether other versions of the simulation hypothesis can also leave open the possibility of such knowledge. Before assessing the question of whether such access to knowledge is possible via chemical means, specifically, via DMT, it is worth turning to one final, highly popular version of a ‘simulation argument’, outlined by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his paper Are You Living in a Computer Simulation (2003), as this version of the argument can tie into the DMT experience in some intriguing ways.
Reality as a Computer Simulation
Bostom’s argument begins with the assumption of the computational theory of mind (the view that the mind operates like a computer), as well as substrate-independence theory (the view that mental states can arise from all sorts of physical substrates, such as silicon-based processors, so long as the right sorts of computations and processes are going on. It is necessary to assume substrate-independence theory in order for the computational theory of the mind to be true). Based on these assumptions, he believes that a computer can generate all of the subjective experiences we have, that “a computer running a suitable program would be conscious.” Already in this formulation, we can see that Bostrom’s simulation argument depends on some very significant assumptions, which many critics argue are reasons to reject his reasoning. After all, you may challenge the notion that the mind is like a computer or that mental states can supervene on a non-biological physical substrate. In his argument, Bostrom secondly assumes that a civilisation sufficiently advanced in its technology and powers of computation could theoretically create simulations of reality as we know it. He then presents a trilemma, consisting of three apparently unlikely-seeming scenarios, one of which he argues is indubitably true. They are as follows:
- The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a “post-human” stage (at which point we could create “ancestor simulations”, that is, simulations of a previous stage in human civilisation that are indistinguishable from reality from the point of view of the simulated ancestor).
- A post-human civilisation is extremely unlikely to run simulations of their evolutionary history or variations of it.
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
Bostrom’s argument is not an argument in favour of the proposition that we are living in a simulation (which would be a simulation hypothesis). He merely thinks one of the above propositions is true and is not convinced that we are living in a computer simulation. He states:
Personally, I assign less than 50 percent probability to the simulation hypothesis — rather something like in 20 percent-region, perhaps, maybe. However, this estimate is a subjective personal opinion and is not part of the simulation argument. My reason is that I believe that we lack strong evidence for or against any of the three disjuncts (1) – (3), so it makes sense to assign each of them a significant probability.
Bostrom’s argument is also distinct from the sceptical hypotheses we saw advanced by Descartes and Putnam. Instead of being a sceptical hypothesis, he stresses that the argument is a metaphysical hypothesis (a hypothesis about the fundamental nature of reality), which means that there might be empirical reasons to believe in the proposition that we are living in a computer simulation. The philosopher of mind David Chalmers is in agreement with this view about the simulation hypothesis, although he also regards Putnam’s brain in vats thought experiment as a metaphysical hypothesis, not a sceptical one. In making the distinction between his simulation argument and sceptical hypotheses, Bostrom notes:
…the simulation argument is fundamentally different from these traditional philosophical arguments… The purpose of the simulation argument is different: not to set up a skeptical problem as a challenge to epistemological theories and common sense, but rather to argue that we have interesting empirical reasons to believe that a certain disjunctive claim about the world is true.
While it may be impossible to confidently assign any specific value of probability to each statement in Bostrom’s trilemma, we can at least offer some explanations as to why each of these three scenarios could actualise. Starting with the first statement, there are various reasons that the human species may go extinct before reaching a “post-human” stage. Bostrom has also written extensively on the topic of existential risk, which as defined in his paper Existential Risks: Analysing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards, refers to a risk “where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”. Bostrom catalogues and outlines various existential risks, which include the deliberate or accidental misuse of nanotechnology (e.g. destructive nanobots), nuclear war (destroying us directly or over time through subsequent climate change and crumbling of civilisation), a “badly programmed super-intelligence”, a “genetically engineered biological agent” (or doomsday virus), physics experiments gone wrong, or runaway climate change.
This is not an exhaustive list of existential risks. Moreover, these examples only include human-influenced existential risks (natural ones would include disease or a catastrophic asteroid or comet impact). The reason for focusing on human-caused extinction is help elucidate the myriad ways in which we prevent ourselves from reaching a post-human stage. If human nature and the inexorable advancement of technology means we inevitably die out, then this would mean we never get to the point of having the technology necessary to create ancestor simulations.
With respect to the second statement, we may presuppose a multitude of situations in which we do reach a stage of post-human civilisation yet decide not to run ancestor simulations. For instance, a post-human people may unanimously agree that to run such computer simulations would be unethical because this would involve creating billions of sentient beings, entities who will suffer in all sorts of ways in their simulated lives. Furthermore, if we presuppose that we currently live in a computer simulation and that other sentient beings are independent from us, which means we do not have a solipsistic, simulated existence, then we can assume that the post-human civilisation is morally culpable for the plethora of suffering that billions of simulated beings are subject to: all of the physical agony and mental anguish which it is possible to experience.
Even if a post-human civilisation started the simulation and left it to run its course (similar to deism: the view that God created the universe then left the scene), this still raises questions about the morality of the simulators. And if the simulators kept adjusting the ancestor simulation over time or even just surveyed it without interference (but have the ability to alter or halt the simulation), this may imply an even greater degree of moral responsibility and, in turn, moral reprehensibility.
When viewing the annals of historical time, we may justifiably state that humans have progressed, morally, in our treatment of all sentient beings (human and non-human). From a sentientist point of view, we respect sentience (the ability to suffer and experience positive feelings) more than we ever have done, so can we safely assume that this trend would continue up until the point where it is possible to simulate our reality? Would a post-human civilisation respect simulated sentience as much as human, non-human, and artificial sentience (robots that can feel)? It may look that way; however, we cannot say for certain that a post-human civilisation would categorically rule out running a computer simulation of our reality, just because suffering will result. After all, if a post-human civilisation continues to produce children, then this will also produce suffering, but like the creation of a simulation, it may not appear morally problematic to them. Only a true antinatalist post-human civilisation (i.e. one that views creating sentient life as immoral) would want to avoid having children and running ancestor simulations; although, we could imagine a post-human civilisation that was pronatalist with respect to human and non-human sentient beings and antinatalist in regards to simulated sentient beings (which we can call ‘digital antinatalism’).
We might assume that a pronatalist yet compassionate post-human civilisation might refrain from running an ancestor simulation for good moral reasons. For example, creating an ancestor simulation, arguably, would entail much more suffering than would result from post-humans having children, not just due to the relative numbers of sentient beings created, but also in light of the assumption that newly created post-humans would suffer less than humans in an ancestor simulation. Post-humans would enjoy, for example, a level of medical and technological development – as well as perhaps improved moral treatment – that would make life significantly better than that experienced by the simulated ancestor humans.
There are other reasons that a post-human civilisation would avoid running ancestor simulations. For example, it may turn out that even though it’s possible to create a simulated reality, including all of the laws of nature and everything in the observable universe, doing so would be too costly and time-consuming to warrant the enterprise. So while the curiosity and desire to run an ancestor simulation may be present and widespread, a post-human civilisation may decide that these motives are outweighed by practical considerations and the need to focus on other priorities. Nevertheless, we can also imagine that a post-human civilisation could possess such enormous computing power that it would be safe to assume that at least some scientists in that civilisation would make the effort to run an ancestor simulation or a multiplicity of them (in which case our reality may be just one in a simulated multiverse, separate from the actual multiverse – if it exists). In this way, there could be many more simulated ancestors than actual ancestors. This could also happen if the original programmers simulate other simulators, who themselves programme further simulations, featuring simulators, and so on, perhaps ad infinitum. The total picture of reality, then, would be like Russian dolls (i.e. simulations within simulations). Beings in the various simulations, nevertheless, might never be able to ascertain the existence of the other simulations or reach the original programmers, just as one actual universe in an actual multiverse may be cut off from other universes (although many scientists do believe it’s possible to find evidence of parallel universes).
It is worth underscoring here that it may be impossible for technology and computational power to ever be advanced enough to simulate every single fact about our universe, down to the level of atoms. Yet this doesn’t necessarily rebut the simulation argument. One way a post-human race could circumvent computational limits would be to create the simulated world so that it behaves like many MMORPGs today, whereby objects and spaces in the game’s environment only load when they are being seen. Thus, the simulators wouldn’t have to simulate each and every atom, only what is being observed and at the level of complexity it is being observed. It is not necessary to simulate an entire universe. The programmers just need to provide sufficient sensory input to the simulated beings so that they believe they live in a complete, independently existing universe. Technical issues aside, the reasons for running such simulations could be manifold; a post-human civilisation might run them out of curiosity, to showcase technological ability, for entertainment, or to better understand human nature.
One common criticism of the simulation argument is that it runs counter to Occam’s razor, a philosophical principle which states that the explanation with the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct. This rule-of-thumb derives from William of Ockham, a 14th-century logician and Franciscan friar, who himself summarised this principle – also known as the principle of parsimony – in the following manner: “entities must not be multiplied unnecessarily.” In philosophy and science, when you have competing hypotheses or theories that produce the predictions (i.e. reality as non-simulated and reality as simulated), Occam’s razor should apply, which means preferring the simplest explanation (the one that makes the fewest assumptions) over the more complicated explanation. In the case of accepting the simulation hypothesis and believing that DMT provides a way of leaving the simulation or seeing through it, this makes many more assumptions than accepting that we exist in a non-simulated reality. These extra assumptions, for example, would include the unfathomable advancement of a post-human race and the motives of the simulators. Now, Occam’s razor doesn’t flat out discredit the simulation hypothesis. It merely states that simpler theories are more likely to be right and – from the scientific point of view – they are more easily testable. It could very well be the case that the simpler theory becomes falsified by new evidence. When this happens, Occam’s razor can no longer tell us to choose the simpler explanation over the more complex one since the new data means that the simpler theory does not predict results equally as well as the competing, more complex theory.
Another potential problem with the simulation hypothesis is that it is, on some accounts, unfalsifiable, meaning that it is impossible to devise an experiment to test it and prove it to be false. Even if an experiment in the future did somehow show that the world is not simulated, the proponent of the simulation hypothesis may refute the result, asserting that this is what the simulators want us to think and that the evidence against the simulation hypothesis is itself simulated. If that’s the case, then the simulation argument – presented in this way – is also a self-sealing argument, which means no evidence can be brought against it. A self-sealing argument is a type of logical fallacy. Conspiracy theorists will often make self-sealing arguments when they dismiss any counter-evidence as something manufactured by the conspirator (i.e. the government) to dupe the public into believing the mainstream narrative, or when they accuse the debunkers of being government agents and part of the conspiracy themselves. The philosopher of science Karl Popper stated that falsifiability – the capacity for a theory to be disprovable – is an essential component of the scientific method. So, if we want to consider the simulation hypothesis as legitimate in the realm of science, then we would either have to consider it falsifiable (which is contentious) or decide that it lies outside the purview of science.
How Physicists View the Simulation Hypothesis
In his book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, the physicist Max Tegmark puts forward his mathematical universe hypothesis, which posits that the universe isn’t just described by mathematics, the universe is mathematics. Reality itself is a mathematical structure. During the 17th annual Isaac Asimov Debate in 2017, on whether the universe is simulated, Tegmark said:
The more I learned about [reality] later on, as a physicist, the more struck I was that, when you get deep down into how nature works, down into looking at all of you as a bunch of quarks and electrons […] if you look at how these quarks move around, the rules are entirely mathematical, as far as we can say.
If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.
James Gates, a theoretical physicist from the University of Maryland who was also present at the Isaac Asimov Debate, believes he has made a striking discovery that may possibly support the simulation hypothesis. While working on superstring theory (which aims to describe all of the universe’s forces and particles by modelling them as tiny, vibrating strings), he discovered theoretical equations that looked a lot like computations. Gates says the equations resemble error-correcting codes, the kind that are used to check for and resolve errors involved in computing processes. In his view, discovering such codes in a non-simulated universe is “extremely unlikely”. Speaking at the debate, he added: “Error-correcting codes are what make browsers work, so why were they in the equations that I was studying about quarks, and leptons, and supersymmetry? That’s what brought me to this very stark realization that I could no longer say that people like Max [Tegmark] are crazy.”
Other physicists, however, are not so convinced that our universe could plausibly be simulated. Offering a refutation of the simulation hypothesis, Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist from Goethe University Frankfurt, argues:
Proclaiming that ‘the programmer did it’ doesn’t only not explain anything — it teleports us back to the age of mythology. The simulation hypothesis annoys me because it intrudes on the terrain of physicists. It’s a bold claim about the laws of nature that however doesn’t pay any attention to what we know about the laws of nature.
Hossenfender adds that it is nonsensical to believe that you could build a universe using the classical bits of a computer yet still be able to create quantum effects in that universe. Moreover, even if a post-human simulator used qubits (basic units of quantum information, involved in quantum computing, that can be in two states simultaneously), Hossenfender says this would not make it possible to recover general relativity and the standard model of particle physics. Thus, whether a post-human simulator uses classic or quantum computing, it would not account for all of the data we observe that follows from the laws of physics. Hossenfender maintains that there is no conceivable way to consistently simulate all the data we observe in the universe through a means other than general relativity and the standard model. However, might it not be possible that post-human scientists could figure out how to develop hybrid quantum-classical computing that, with suitable computing power, could account for everything we observe in the universe?
Can We Gain Knowledge of the Simulation Through the DMT Experience?
While speaking at the Isaac Asimov Debate, the renowned philosopher of mind David Chalmers said that if our simulated reality were perfect, we would have no way of accessing any information outside the simulation and, thus, would have no way of knowing that we are, in fact, living in a computer simulation. “We’re not going to get conclusive proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any proof would be simulated,” he added. The exception Chalmers makes to this point is if the simulation were imperfect, if it had bugs, or if the simulation were interactive with the ultimate reality of the simulators. By picking up on glitches in the simulation, for instance, we might be able to gain cognizance of how we’ve been duped by the grandest illusions of them all. Following these points, we can consider whether the DMT experience could plausibly be a glitch in the simulation or by a means of accessing knowledge of our simulated existence.
Firstly, if DMT were a method for accessing information outside the simulation, then the simulation would be imperfect, at least in the sense that it is not fool-proof in its power to convince us that the simulation is the ultimate reality. However, if DMT provides such a gateway, then what is the relationship between DMT and the simulators? You might assume that any being capable of simulating our reality – its details and intricacies – would be aware that certain (simulated) substances can perturb our minds and allow us to see things differently, including reality itself. This raises a host of interesting questions: If we are in the video game of the simulators, did they place DMT in the simulation as a way for us to ‘win’ the game; that is, becoming aware of the simulation? Is the DMT gateway a glitch in the simulation, which the simulators have not cared to correct? Or, from a deistic perspective, did the simulators set things running, leave the scene, and then allow the course of evolution to take its course, with the brain chemistry of certain organisms becoming susceptible to some groups of substances found in nature?
As Chalmers points out, nonetheless, if we do live in a simulated reality, then any evidence or proof of the simulation must itself be simulated, which would include DMT and the experience it induces. So when people experience or have the sense of exiting the simulation and witnessing the underlying nature of reality, then the experience and its contents must be simulated too; assuming the ancestor simulation is perfect, of course. In a perfect simulation, any experience of ‘waking up’ from the simulation, such as via DMT, would be illusory. But if the simulation is imperfect, then we might suggest that the DMT experience is a glitch in the simulation. Consider, for a moment, the phenomenology of the DMT experience such as perceived impossibility and the breakdown of the laws of nature. Such experiences are subjective, but their subjective nature doesn’t exclude them from being a veridical perception of a glitch in the simulation. If this is the case, the sheer astonishment arising from the DMT experience would relate to the observation that the laws of causality and physics taken for granted are coded rules and that ultimate reality operates under physical laws that are far more perplexing and impossible-to-comprehend.
On the other hand, DMT, as a simulated substance, could induce simulated experiences that have the character of impossibility and incomprehensibility. Such phenomenology can equally manifest assuming that we live at a base level of reality and aren’t simulated. Having the sense of objects and entities moving in ‘impossible’ ways doesn’t mean that such phenomena can’t be explained by other forms of analysis that don’t rely on assumptions of different laws of physics existing. On the subject of so-called ‘glitches in the Matrix’, Bostrom believes that anything we consider a genuine glitch could just as easily be accounted for by hallucinations, which would include those caused by DMT. Bostrom adds that the simulators, if they so desired, would prevent genuine glitches or anomalies in the simulation from occurring or at least stop us from noticing them. He said the simulators could deal with glitches by:
…having the ability to prevent these simulated creatures from noticing anomalies in the simulation. This could be done by avoiding anomalies altogether, or preventing them from having noticeable macroscopic ramification, or by retrospectively editing the brain states of observers who had happened to witness something suspicious. If the simulators don’t want us to know that we are simulated, they could easily prevent us from finding out.
It’s not so hard to imagine that the simulators would have these abilities, especially when we consider the fact that, as we dream, and assuming we aren’t lucid dreaming (aware that we’re dreaming), we do not know that we are dreaming. Our brain, unaided by technology, can already make our dreams seem as real as waking reality. On the other hand, the aforementioned caveat about lucid dreaming is, perhaps, quite salient. If we can lucid dream and realise we’re dreaming, might entering the DMT state involve a further gain in awareness, of becoming aware of the simulation (which we take to be waking reality)?
As highlighted earlier, Chalmers states that it isn’t just bugs that can hint towards the simulated nature of reality, if the simulators have an interactive relationship with us, then this could also show up in certain ways. Some might posit that the perception of and interaction with discarnate entities in the DMT experience, which is an extremely common and defining characteristic of the substance, involves an encounter with the simulators. Firstly, if we assume that the entities are the simulators as they are and not a representation of them, then post-humans are, indeed, a peculiar kind of organism. They seem to have shapeshifting, telepathic, and telempathic abilities and are, generally, keenly interested in us and filled with care and love for us, although other times, they can take a more sinister and hostile attitude towards us. A lot of the times, the simulators appear to have vital messages to communicate – and perhaps all of this interaction is intended to help us excel in some way or another in the simulation. Conversely, it may be the case that the entities are not actually the simulators but a representation of them, like an avatar. It might be easier to imagine that post-humans could computerise these zany avatars and their confounding behaviour, rather than themselves be such entities (such as being made out of geometry and light, with godly and magical powers).
If the simulators present themselves to us as avatars, then they could interact with us, via DMT, within the simulation, without us ever leaving the simulation. Again, their intention may be helpful, but regardless of the character of the intention, the idea that the simulators choose to interact with us in the DMT experience does raise some pertinent questions. Do they solely visit us through DMT or do they do so by means of other substances? After all, entity contact is also sometimes present in the psilocybin and mescaline experience. Also, if the entities truly had the intention of wanting to interact with us for our own benefit, why would they decide, seemingly in an arbitrary and unreliable fashion, to only offer such contact to a small minority who decide to take sufficiently high doses of specific mind-altering substances? You may be inclined to think of DMT in this way as a sort of ‘cheat code’ in the simulation, that not everyone who plays the video game of human incarnation will discover but once found out can profoundly change the game and also be disseminated. The entities may have planted this chemical cheat code in nature in order to see who was innovative enough to extract DMT and brave enough to experiment with it.
Of course, the notion that the DMT entities are simulators, post-human entities, or another transcendent entity is not the only – or most reasonable – explanation as to why these entities appear so frequently and in the manner that they do. For instance, as elaborated in my discussion on jester-like and trickster-type entities, theories of the unconscious mind can at least go some way in explaining the appearance of seemingly discarnate entities. But we can additionally apply evolutionary psychology to help explain how and why entities greet and interact appear during a DMT experience and why bemused individuals become convinced that such entities are transcendent in nature (i.e. they have an independent, separate, or self-contained existence). Michael James Winkelman, a researcher of altered states of consciousness, posits such an explanation in his paper An ontology of psychedelic entity experiences in evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology (2018), published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies.
Winkelman notes, for example, that entities encountered during experiences with ayahuasca and DMT share many similarities with conceptions of spirit guides, mythological beings, divinities, extraterrestrials, angels, celestial beings, demons, gnomes, dwarfs, elves, and others. Common features among such entities include anthropomorphism and human qualities. Based on this comparative analysis, Winkelman reasons that the features of DMT entities reflect innate human functions (i.e. agency detection, social role inferences, and ‘theory of mind’ or attributing mental states to others), functions that “have central roles in the explanation of the genesis of spirit experiences and beliefs”. Additionally, our diverse forms of self and the phantasy mode of consciousness can also provide mechanisms for explaining experiences with DMT entities. Winkelman underlines that DMT’s extensive interaction with the brain’s receptors can account for the release of these inherent mental capacities, as well as the tendency of users to report such a strong sense of ontological certainty about the transcendent quality of the DMT entities. While this is by no means an adequate and complete description of Winkelman’s argument, this should hopefully show that naturalistic explanations of DMT entities are plausible. It is not necessary to invoke the simulation hypothesis to explain why the DMT realm and entities inhabited there feel real. We must remain cognizant of the possibility that you can have a profound, subjective experience of ‘leaving the simulation’, which can take place within the context of either a baseline, non-simulated reality or a simulated reality. Such an experience in and of itself – regardless of its intersubjective consistency – isn’t sufficient enough evidence to confirm the simulation hypothesis.
The question remains, however, whether DMT experience could provide any useful evidence of our simulated existence. Moving away from the specific example of Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, we can consider other versions of the simulation hypothesis, as similar issues arise. Let’s turn to Putnam’s thought experiment of brains in a vat, for a start. If we assume that an envatted, disembodied brain can sufficiently produce reality as we know it, we must ask: is it plausible that the use of DMT could either provide us knowledge of this state of affairs or allow us to perceive the ultimate reality that lies outside our envatted brain? Addressing the former part of the question, it seems it would be difficult to verify any belief – influenced by DMT – that we are merely brains being fed a simulated reality by a mad scientist, post-human race, or artificial intelligence (like in The Matrix). While the definition of knowledge is a matter of intense debate within philosophy, most philosophers and scientists would agree that evidence is relevant to any justified belief, with justified belief being necessary for knowledge, even if it isn’t sufficient for knowledge. But what counts as evidence may be disputed.
For example, in science, evidence is empirical data (information received by the senses) and interpretation that aligns with the scientific method – so, in this way, scientific evidence would include anecdotal reports (an individual’s own personal experience), physical evidence, various kinds of experimental and observational studies, and systematic reviews. In philosophy, evidence can include experiences, observation-reports, mental states, states of affairs, propositions, and even intuition, although philosophers may disagree about whether all of these count as evidence. From the point of view of the scientist, anecdotal evidence is the weakest form of evidence, given its unreliability. An anecdotal report may also not necessarily be representative of people’s typical experiences. Anecdotal reports of exiting-the-simulation-type experiences, we would have to say, are not enough to justify a belief in the notion that our reality is simulated by a computer, whether that computer simulation involves brains fed data or the type of simulation outlined by Bostrom. Moreover, simulation-type experiences might not be representative of most people’s breakthrough experiences with DMT.
However, it is also true that if we assume Putnam’s brain-in-a-vat scenario, then any form of evidence is part of the simulation (including scientific studies), so what we believe to be justifying our beliefs about reality are, in fact, only justifying our beliefs about the simulation we live in. Thus, even if we accept that the DMT experience provides some evidence in support of the simulation hypothesis, in the form of anecdotal reports and mental states, say, such evidence may be convincing to the individual, but it may only be evidence that is based on experiences of the simulation, rather than empirical data from outside the simulation. You could, therefore, have a true belief about the nature of reality following a DMT experience, but not a justified true belief (with evidence justifying the belief), which many (but not all) philosophers deem as necessary or sufficient for true knowledge. As envatted brains, it is not clear how we could distinguish between simulated empirical data and non-simulated empirical data, which may nullify DMT as a candidate for accessing knowledge of the simulation.
Putnam, as you will recall, stated that we cannot have a “God’s eye view” of reality because nothing exists for us outside of our conceptual schemes. Now, we might suppose that DMT dissolves conceptual schemes – either in part or wholly – enough to allow us to leave the simulation. But again, how could we ever verify this? Even if DMT did somehow cause all conceptual frameworks to collapse during the experience, such frameworks inevitably fall back into place following the experience, so there is the chance of having a “God’s eye view” during the experience but this can never be known for certain after the experience. This fits in with many users’ experiences of gaining monumental insight when immersed in the DMT experience but losing the exact meaning of that insight when returning. This doesn’t mean DMT fails to offer a “God’s eye view” but it may mean such a perspective will always, eventually, be lost.
While we cannot imagine an envatted brain directly seeing non-simulated reality, since it has no sense organs with which to perceive it, we can, nonetheless, envisage the simulator giving us a peek into ultimate reality while under the influence of DMT. Perhaps this includes images of the underlying fabric and structure of reality and how objects actually appear and behave. The strong intuition that users have during the experience of reality being simulated may also be a message sent directly from the simulator. Yet this still doesn’t avoid the issue of such experiences being simulated or dependent on conceptual frameworks or an envatted existence. As Putnam emphasises, it is impossible to take a “God’s eye view”, and this applies not only to the dichotomy between the simulation and reality but in a broader sense to the dichotomy between Kantian phenomenon and noumena (this refers to Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal world which is available to our senses and knowable and the noumenal world of ‘things-in-themselves’ which is not available to our senses and unknowable). DMT’s relation to Kant’s metaphysics – and metaphysics in general – deserves lengthier consideration, and this will be attempted in a separate discussion. Even with these epistemological concerns, it’s vital to keep the following maxim in mind from cosmologist Martin Rees: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Despite a lack of evidence for reality as a simulation and the unlikelihood – or even impossibility – of ever acquiring such evidence, we may still live in a simulation.
Returning now to Zhuangzi and Descartes’ conundrum of how to establish (what we believe is) waking reality, distinct from the dream state, we cannot resolve the problem by claiming that the DMT experience is the actual ‘awake’ state. For if we can ask whether waking reality is, in fact, a kind of dream, we can equally ask whether the DMT experience is a dream. In the same way that we can awake with surprise after a dream to find it wasn’t real and just a simulation running in our minds, it may be possible that beyond the DMT experience there is an experience that contains an even deeper sense of realness, so that we would ‘wake up’ from the DMT experience with even more profound surprise. How do we know that the DMT experience is not a simulation, within which the simulation of both waking and dreaming life are contained? This is undoubtedly speculation pushed to its extreme limits, but the point is that there is no substantial reason to prefer the explanation that the DMT experience is ultimate reality and waking reality is a simulation. We can, of course, assess the merits and pitfalls of the simulation argument – however formulated – in its own right. It may also be reasonable to discuss how probable it is that we’re living in a simulation. Yet when we throw in something like DMT as the evidence that somehow proves the simulation hypothesis to be true, it turns out that it’s not really a watertight answer.
It actually may be more reasonable and testable to believe that the DMT experience is a unique and profound type of simulation that it is possible for the brain to run if appropriately stimulated, even if we can only get partial answers as to how the brain achieves this phenomenological feat. It is true that understanding the brain states of someone ‘breaking through the simulation’ on DMT would not show why certain brain states are correlated with certain experiences, but this is the hard problem of consciousness that applies to all experiences, including the dream state, which most of us accept as a type of simulated reality generated by the brain. Despite how subjectively more real the DMT experience feels relative to waking, sober reality, the experiential quality of more intense realness does not prove the DMT realm is any more real – this realm could alternatively be a simulated experience that provides the feeling of leaving a simulated reality, taking place within the context of either a simulated reality or a non-simulated reality.
When the DMT experience fosters a strong belief in the simulation hypothesis, there is a potential danger in this whole process that is worth drawing attention to. If the DMT experience provides one with the overwhelming sense that waking reality is a simulation and this turns into an obsessive, unhealthy way of thinking, this could result in – or be connected to – some quite disturbing, disruptive mental phenomena. For instance, given DMT’s potency and its capacity to speedily dissolve the reality we normally inhabit (leaving the user face-to-face with a supposed deeper reality), DMT carries a risk – albeit uncommon – of both derealisation and depersonalisation. Derealisation is a dissociative symptom, which can accompany several mental disorders (e.g. borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and dissociative identity disorder) but it can also be a standalone symptom that occurs following drug use and has been reported by some following particularly intense psychedelic experiences, including those occasioned by DMT. Derealisation, in a nutshell, is marked by the experience of the external world seeming unreal. Depersonalisation, on the other hand, refers to the subjective feeling of unreality in one’s sense of self. From a personal, abstract, or intellectual point of view, it is certainly possible – and in no way concerning – to believe in the unreality of the external world and one’s personal identity. Philosophers and mystics have been engaged in this sort of exercise for millennia. However, such musing is not pathological, in that, it is not a cause of significant distress and dysfunction, which is what both derealisation and depersonalisation are typically characterised by.
Regardless of whether DMT can provide genuine insight into the simulated nature of reality, it is important to also be aware that a simulation-related experience has the potential to leads to – or result from – derealisation and depersonalisation. It’s one thing to ponder the possibility that the external world and we as people are a simulation run by the supercomputer of a future generation. It’s another thing to become overwhelmed and disturbed by this thought and to become detached from reality and one’s sense of self. A DMT-induced belief in the simulation hypothesis may also take on a kind of paranoid quality, where one feels suspicious about reality, that it is a twisted game orchestrated by devious simulators. I don’t personally think that many DMT users go away with conspiratorial beliefs like this about reality, but psychedelics – especially a powerful substance like DMT – do carry the potential to bring out paranoia and a loss of connection with reality. And such negative qualities can become enmeshed with reality-as-a-simulation type of thinking. This is something that any DMT user should be mindful of, especially in the context of a pre-existing mental disorder that features or could feature phenomena such as delusion, paranoia, derealisation, and depersonalisation, as a particularly destabilising experience may trigger or exacerbate these symptoms.
My concluding remark in this discussion on DMT and the simulation hypothesis would be that on a pragmatic level, it doesn’t matter whether the simulation argument is correct, nor whether DMT can provide knowledge of the simulation or access out of it. This is because the game of life will carry on as usual; the game will stay the same whether it is a computer simulation or not. Life still contains the same array of experience. There is still suffering. There is still joy. Whether we are simulated or not, life does not alter in its experiential quality of deepness, importance, and meaning. Following a DMT experience, one might view life with more ease in the belief that it is a simulation, but this kind of lighter attitude towards life is also possible in the absence of a belief in the simulation hypothesis. When we ‘see through the simulation’ under the influence of DMT, this may be hinting to us that we would alleviate much of our suffering by viewing reality, not as an actual simulation, but as if it were a simulation, a natural unfolding of ‘programmed’ laws, as a game with ‘rules’ to play by. By accepting the programme of reality and the human condition (which we might interpret as the development of psychological or spiritual maturity) as the game of all games, life – in a very profound sense – becomes a lot more playful.