Ever since humans evolved into sentient beings, curious minds around the world have questioned the nature of reality. Not just who we are or how we got here, but what exactly is “here” and does “here” even exist? Throughout history, wise philosophers of all stripes and creeds have placed considerable time and deep thought into these existential queries before suggesting possible theories to explain the unanswerable.
A contraction of the Latin terms for “alone” and “self”, solipsism is a philosophical concept suggesting that reality as you know it may be nothing more than an elaborate construct in which yours is the only true consciousness. According to this theory, literally everything else in your life is an illusion including the world around you, the people you know, and even your own physical body. Since you can’t entirely prove the existence of anything except your own reality and your own thoughts, solipsism posits that the external world you experience every day is an extension and representation of yourself. Other people, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects do not exist independently and may not even exist at all. Basically, your life is like an incredibly detailed, never-ending dream from which you cannot awaken. Although this hypothesis may seem implausible, think back to your most vivid dreams and recall how realistic they felt, right down to every last detail, despite this world existing solely within your mind. Doesn’t sound so far fetched now, does it?
Heavily influential on science fiction classic The Matrix, the simulated reality theory puts forth the idea that you, along with everyone else, are living in a complex simulation. Much like the characters in the beloved computer game The Sims, you live out each day eating, sleeping, working, and going to the bathroom, blissfully unaware that your reality is an artificial construction created by an advanced civilization or someone with a severe God complex. Your simulated reality may even be the product of a previous simulation creating their own simulation to study the origins of life. In a nod to the “brain in a vat” thought experiment, you may possess a physical body kept in suspended animation with your brain wired into a central matrix as you live your simulated life. Alternatively, your consciousness may have been uploaded into an advanced quantum computer or simply created as part of the simulation. If you like the sound of that, check out Human Paragon for further reading on this fascinating topic.
The collection of metaphysical philosophies known as idealism claims that reality as you perceive it is an immaterial experience and a fundamentally mental or spiritual construction. According to this theory, consciousness existed before the physical world and serves as the origin of material existence. The world around you exists because you perceive it to exist, as reality is entirely subjective and reliant on its perception in your mind. Some idealists believe that a God-like figure is the perceiver, so reality exists because this all-powerful force perceives it to exist. Aside from your spirit or God’s perception, nothing is real without your experiences and sensations to shape it.
Wouldn’t it be cool if dinosaurs were around right now and two hundred years from now? That’s a crude approximation of eternalism, which states that all of the events throughout the course of history are happening at the same time, but what you observe depends on your point of view. The past, present, and future exist in simultaneous layers and your perception is dependent upon your frame of reference. If you subscribe to this theory, the future already exists and there is no such thing as free will because everything is happening simultaneously.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from eternalism, presentism theorizes that since time cannot be both before and after, the only reality is the present. The past and the future only exist as imagined concepts, and the present is the only thing that truly exists. Since they do not currently exist, your deceased relatives are not real, although photographs and mementos of them are real; otherwise, they exist only in your mind in the present. Likewise, if you’re expecting a baby six months from now, that child exists only as a fetus in the womb; your concepts of this future child are not real except as ideas in your head.
Many of these theories of the nature of reality overlap each other, and many have been refuted by competing schools of philosophy. Regardless of the true nature of reality, these ideas provide some delicious food for thought.