It was a few months into lockdown when my grandma started floating the idea that we might be living in an alternate dimension. She is 89. She only watches corporate TV media and Family Feud. I’m not sure which of the two offered her this new insight, but one morning last June, she stood in the living room telling me how hard it was for her to believe that the world had really become so absurd.
“It’s crazy,” she said, in the same way she does whenever she watches the news and it feeds her a daily dose of fear and hysteria. The TV used to mostly show her car fires and shark attacks, shootouts and hurricanes, local murders and break-ins. The summer of 2020, however, was all virus, agoraphobia, images of body bags, little kids wearing masks, nurses dancing in hospital hallways, political theater, and cities on fire.
Anytime we’d take a ride into town for her chemotherapy, she’d tell me that the world seemed unrecognizable. Our neighborhood looked the way it always did, but the basic functions of society had suddenly disintegrated and, somehow, we slipped into, as she put it, some type of “weird alternate dimension.” (She was a Trekkie in the 90s — so it’s possible that the best way she could make sense of 2020 was by using some vintage Star Trek narratives.)
Mind you, humanity has always been absurd. Look at what my grandma has experienced in her 89 years, for example. She is a first generation Russian immigrant – her parents barely escaped the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. When she was 12, she donated a lock of her blonde hair to the United States Army to be used as crosshairs in warplanes to shoot down Nazis. (Today, you can visit those crosshairs on display in a museum in Arizona.) She watched the atom bombs fall out of the sky and the Nuremberg Trials on TV. She watched her fiancé get shipped off to the Korean War. She raised two children in the 1960s and had to talk them through a string of assassinations — from MLK to JFK, plus Vietnam and the Manson murders. She lived in New York City throughout the 1970s when the Bowery was bankrupt and hopeless; when David Berkowitz was roaming the streets killing people because his neighbor’s demon-possessed dog told him to. Eventually, she took a job as a bookkeeper at a pet food supply chain and learned to work with this thing she’d never heard of before called a “computer.” It used up an entire floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan. At first, it seemed like an impossible piece of technology. She was one of four women who fed information through the machine. Eventually, operating it became second nature.
But it was the way 2020 played out that ultimately shattered her perception of reality.
I told her I agreed with her. I’d been feeling the same way. I mentioned the Simulation Hypothesis as another answer as to why things felt so inexplicable. I said it’s possible that everything we see and feel, all of our experiences, the love and the grief and the confusion, has been built into us with code, zeroes and ones, and that we’re being observed by people from the distant future; people from a civilization so technologically mature that they could recreate the history of our world, entire landscapes and generations, in a fraction of the billions of years we tend to think it actually took. Maybe, I said, we’re just characters in a computer-generated universe and we have no idea what’s real, or what the idea of real even means.
She considered the idea. And then she said it seemed like a lot of work to go through, just to build all of this to observe us. I said people also keep ant farms and Tomagotchis. Her only real reference point for video games though is the original Super Mario for Nintendo, and the app on her phone that allows her to play Texas Hold ‘Em. She doesn’t fully understand that in the time since she learned to play Duck Hunt with me in 1990, that virtual reality has evolved into something so real that I have a friend who spends so much time in his Oculus he wakes up screaming from nightmares where he is stuck in the virtual world.
My grandma and I talked about how it once seemed impossible to think about that giant computer she first met in the late 1970s shrinking down to something that could do even more while also fitting in our pockets. Now, I told her, imagine having to build a supercomputer that functions like the one in our pockets, but this one would be the size of the universe—it’s almost as hard to picture as it is thinking about the idea of infinity. But scientists like Nick Bostrom, who popularized the Simulation Hypothesis in 2003, theorize that in order to simulate a universe as large as ours, we would need a universe-sized computer to operate all of the variations of consciousness and landscape.
Glitches in the System
The Simulation Argument states that if we are capable of making such leaps in technology between the time of Pong and Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s clear that in another 50 to 100 years we could be on the brink of producing a simulation that defies the boundaries between what is real and what is virtual. So, if we are on track for the distinction between simulated reality and what we consider to be “base reality” to disappear, the chances, the argument states, are high that a civilization has already reached technological maturity. And if so, it’s reasonable to assume that we are in one of their simulations because the chances of being in one of the many possible simulations would be higher than being in base reality.
This can only happen, of course, if civilization doesn’t destroy itself first. It also hinges on the idea that this theoretical future civilization cares enough to even reproduce something like a simulation.
On a macro level, the Simulation Hypothesis started to make some sense to me when we all began to live through the implications of COVID. The mass confusion, the fear, the breakdown in logic, the death of industry — it seemed, to me at least, like if this is a simulation, our simulators had dropped a virus into the code to study how it might affect the world and its populations.
So where would one look to try and prove the existence of the simulation? It seems as fraught as the idea of trying to prove the existence of God. Both ideas, though, can drive people to the fringes of reality to attempt to discover the meniscus between what we perceive as reality — and whatever is beyond it.
There are people who theorize that paranormal encounters could be proof of us being in a simulation.
I’d found some articles referencing Curry Guinn, a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina:
“Glitches in the system. Deja Vu, such as in the Matrix movie when a character sees a cat crossing a doorway repeatedly, may be one glitch,” Guinn said. “Ghosts, ESP, coincidences may be others. The laws of physics in our universe seem peculiarly designed with a set of constants that make carbon-based life possible. Where are the edges?”
The thought of experiencing something like a ghost, or even a strange coincidence, resonated with me. I was reminded of something that happened soon after my grandfather’s funeral. In retrospect, the experience felt like I’d gained access to whatever was behind the curtain of reality — and I got a chance to see the levers of the simulation.
At the time, my grandparents were still in Florida. After my grandfather’s funeral, I stayed with my grandma for a few extra days to keep her company. They’d been married 60 years, and she was enveloped by grief — rightfully so. On my last day there, I woke up around 3am and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I decided to read. I sat in the chair my grandfather used to sit in at a table in the nook of the kitchen. All of a sudden, the alarm started to go off — this super loud, high-pitched beeping. My grandma takes her hearing aids out at night, so I knew she wouldn’t hear it. I jumped up and went to the control panel which said that the window in my grandparents’ garage was open — causing the alarm to go off. I put in the code and killed the noise.
In the thirty years we’d been visiting my grandparents in that house, I’d never even seen anyone open that window. You’d have to climb up onto the workbench in the garage to get to it. I climbed up onto the workbench, and the window was closed. It dawned on me as I was looking at the window where I had written my grandfather’s eulogy, sitting at that workbench just a few nights prior. My grandfather considered the workbench his sanctuary. The only sense I could make of it was that, somehow, my grandfather had been able to communicate with me through the electricity. That, perhaps, he had found a way to send me a message, as best he could, from wherever he was.
Joan Didion might refer to this grief-explanation as “magical thinking,” but I’ll be honest, it made absolute sense to me in the moment. I believed that the anomaly was my grandfather reaching across the divide, and manipulating electricity to tell me he’d keep an eye on my grandma — from wherever he was. I started to think that life and death were part of a vast circuitry that the human brain can’t perceive.
The Stone Tape Theory
I used to be a furniture mover at an auction gallery, and I’d actually speak to people who collected mirrors and gems and other objects because they believed they possessed the spirits of the dead. I wondered if I started thinking about myself and my surroundings as composed of information that it might offer some evidence of a simulation. After the experience with the alarm, I wondered if my grandfather’s ghost had somehow been absorbed into the house, the utilities of which he used to work on tirelessly.
Residual hauntings, specifically something called Stone Tape Theory, is the idea that the energy from a death can somehow be absorbed or “recorded” into biological matter. There are ghost hunters who believe places like the Gettysburg Battlefield are haunted by these such “recordings;” that rocks in the field have captured the brutal deaths that occurred there during the Civil War and then loops that energy.
I reached out to Sharon Hill, a geologist, who has studied the history and legitimacy of Stone Tape Theory. She is the founder of Spooky Geology and the author of Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers.
Hill says that she’s been asked by paranormal investigators to see if any geologic history of particular sites might have something to do with a haunting.
“My answer was always, ‘there’s just no evidence that there is anything to do with geology unless it’s a physical problem, like water entering a saturated zone. That’s reasonable. But the idea of connecting a spiritual element with rock formations just doesn’t work out.”
She says some paranormal investigators tend to invoke the Stone Tape Theory because it sounds like it’s backed up by science. She thinks it’s a fascinating idea, but it only sounds plausible if you can somehow explain how intangible things like memory and emotion can leave a human body and be absorbed by something biological, something exterior of the person.
“What could people emit as an emotional energy that could be transmitted and recorded as a physical thing? That part doesn’t make any sense,” she says.
I asked her if she believed in ghosts.
“The problem is you can’t really define a ghost. Is it the spirit of a dead person? Is it someone cutting across the dimensions? Remnant energy? Psychic connection? I believe people have serious experiences that affect them tremendously, and I don’t think there’s one explanation.”
‘The Simulation Argument Falls Apart’
After speaking with Hill, I wondered if Simulation Hypothesis might offer any credibility to the Stone Tape Theory. If you think of our surroundings as zeroes and ones rather than biological entities, it seems to make the idea more palatable. In a simulation, like in a computer, it’s possible to retrieve a deleted file. Sometimes a corrupted file might pop up onto the screen for no good reason. That, to me, made it feel like what I’d experienced with my grandfather was closer to experiencing a kind of glitch in the simulation.
I connected with Professor Curry Guinn. And, as it turns out, he doesn’t fully believe ghosts are proof of the simulation — he had actually been misquoted by several blogs.
He doesn’t believe that ghosts and ESP and other paranormal phenomena are glitches in the Matrix. However, he says that “glitches” might be noticed because of experiences of “déjà vu” — like when Neo sees the cat walk in front of him twice in a row in The Matrix.
I asked him what the chances were that we are currently in a simulation.
“If we are living in a computer simulation, quantum theory has all kinds of examples of ‘glitches’ that are challenging to reconcile,” he said. The complexities of infinity, superposition, and entanglement are examples of the cognitive dissonance we might confront when deconstructing the way the universe is threaded together.
He says that viewing the universe as a quantum computer might be a useful metaphor for making discoveries, but his current thinking is that the size of a quantum computer necessary to simulate our universe would need to be the size of the universe. That, he asserts, takes the wind out of the sails of the Simulation Hypothesis because, as far as we know, no such computer exists. Yet.
I asked if he thinks it’s possible for a civilization that isn’t technologically mature to create something that can learn to become smarter than the people who created it. (I was thinking of the way Elon Musk has been warning people about a nightmare scenario where Artificial Intelligence surpasses humans.)
“If human beings are machines and our brains are machines, then it’s conceivable we could create machines that have more ‘memory,’ more computational speed, more and better sensory devices, more and better manipulators, et cetera. So, quantitatively, those machines would be ‘better’ but would they be better qualitatively? In other words, would they make better decisions than we do? Would they discover things that we can’t discover? I have my doubts.”
Guinn says the main problem with the Simulation Hypothesis is that the complexity of this simulation, if we are living in one, is extraordinarily high. With 10^82 atoms in the universe, there’s just too much matter to simulate it all, even with a planet-sized quantum computer. So the simulation must not be trying to simulate everything. It only simulates the things we “observe” — which would be consistent with the Observer Effect in quantum physics — as in something must be observed to prove its existence.
“But even then,” he says, “the amount of stuff we observe — and it still has to simulate things that we don’t observe directly, but whose indirect effects are observed — is so large that the Simulation Argument falls apart. What this probably means is that maybe civilizations can’t build simulations at the same fidelity in which they exist.”
Regardless, Guinn says the existence of the theory is good because it makes us reflect on how the world we perceive is not the world “as it is.”
The Boundaries of Alternate Dimensions
For now, I’m considering that we are in a simulation, just not in the way that Elon Musk or Nick Bostrom propose. It aligns more with the idea of Plato’s Cave Allegory: we are being shown images that we can only perceive as reality, and, perhaps, it’s impossible for us to understand anything beyond those images. It might just be my modern human arrogance talking, but I like to think we are, at least, in the base reality, but that we’ve allowed our technology to spread a simulated reality atop the physical one.
For instance, the COVID lockdowns kept many people home, which pushed us onto the Internet for more sustained amounts of time. Our identities were uploaded into the Internet more than ever. The Internet, our computers, our phones, had become our most “reliable” windows to the world. This, I think, dragged us closer to the idea of living in a simulation. Maybe we’ve only merged with the simulation, rather than being the byproduct of one.
Right before my grandma moved in with my family, I went down to Florida to help her pack. It was early again — just before sunrise — and the ceiling fan in her living room suddenly clicked on. It started to change speeds. It went slow then fast then slow again. I immediately thought, This must be my grandfather again. Maybe he had found a way to manipulate the simulation.
I just sat there on the futon, speaking up into the fan as if he, or something, could hear me. I could hear the button beeping the way it normally would if someone were to press it. But I could see the switch — and no one was touching it. If it’s not proof of the simulation glitching, or something has gone haywire with the code, I swear to you, something or someone, was controlling the electricity from outside my perception.
I’m not entirely sold on the idea of living in a simulation, but I think of it often — especially when I happen to experience something I can’t explain such as ghost-like encounters or bizarre coincidences.
Sometimes I think if you dwell on the idea of a simulation too long, the simulation laughs at you. On January 12th of this year, 2021, on what would have been my grandfather Norman’s 92nd birthday, one of the trending topics on Twitter happened to be RIP Norman.
My grandma and I have since made a pact. Whichever one of us dies first, we will try to communicate with the other through the electricity in the house. Maybe we can reveal the simulation, or at least the boundaries of the alternate dimensions, if we work together from either side of reality.
She says, “it’s mind boggling,” but she’ll try. I tell her if she was able to learn how to operate that giant computer a lifetime ago, this is just the next level — just like in a video game.