Integral World Forum
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Is The Universe
an App?

Exploring the Chandian Effect
and the Illusion of Certainty

David Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane

The Illusion of Certainty

“Although we experience the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just a series of outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of movies with very low data rates that arrive in parallel channels.” —Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind.
“If we accept that consciousness can be simulated, at least in principle, it is then only a small step to imagining that something like a conscious human being could be simulated.”—Paul Davies, The Cosmic Jackpot
“Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.”—Nick Bostrom, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Philosophical Quarterly
"Even though we think we see the world so fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time." —Frank S. Werblin

The idea that the world is an illusion which betrays its real origin has a long tradition and can be found in the writings of Hindu rishis, early Greek philosophers, and Christian gnostics. What is perhaps surprising is to find such a rich literature on the subject in neuroscience and quantum physics.

The latest, and perhaps most provocative, idea to gain some currency in varying scientific disciplines is the hypothesis that the universe is the result of a computational simulation and, as such, is an incredibly rich and detailed illusion which has ultimately tricked us into believing otherwise.

Nick Bostrom’s now famous 2003 essay, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” has articulated the concept very simply with three propositions, wherein he argues that at least one of which will turn out to be true.

“(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

While Bostrom’s argument has been met with resistance from a number of quarters, it is intriguing to see how it dovetails with Hugh Everett’s “Many-Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics which is gaining some traction among theoretical physicists, particularly as it has been coupled with M-theory and the far reaching notion of a multiverse.

Neuroscience has more or less established that the brain is a simulator par excellence and that what we see, hear, touch, and smell are the results of how our central nervous system processes both external and internal stimuli and then reconstructs a virtual environment in which we react accordingly. Simply put, the reality we experience is part and parcel a simulation and may or may not correlate (at differing times and differing places) with what we believe exists externally from ourselves. We already intimately know that the brain is a virtual simulator because of dreaming where everything is hallucinated by us, even without us knowing how and why we are doing it. The waking state differs from dreaming because it receives external data streams from the nine orifices of our body which allows for new material from which our brain can draw new maps about how to respond to any given situation.

But in both cases—dreaming or waking—we are living in a simulation created by a neural network that has billions of on/off nodes tied in with trillions of synaptic clefts, all of which creates worlds upon worlds within our own skulls, even as we employ such models to interact with others of similar or dissimilar modeling dispositions.

Arguably, consciousness is a virtual simulator, apparently evolved over eons of time to enable mammals with higher brain functions to “in source” varying options of how to respond to a disparate array of problems before “out sourcing” them (hence the Darwinian advantage).

The proviso in such simulations, however, is how real they feel when occurring. To the degree that such paralleling seems certain and solid we react accordingly. However, if such replicas appear imaginary we tend not to engage them seriously and interact with them in multifarious ways. The dividing line between what we take to be reality and fantasy is a contingent and moving one.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the world’s religions where one’s person’s version of transcendental truth is oftentimes viewed by others as a manufactured delusion or worse as a product of a nefarious demiurge.

Faqir Chand, the famed unknowing sage of Hoshiarpur, has revealed how religious visions though appearing miraculously real are in essence illusory projections of one’s own faith and belief. It was in Basra Bagdad (Iraq) during World War One when Faqir realized the pivotal secret in understanding transmundane phenomena and how easy it is for our consciousness to be tricked by neural mock-ups. In his autobiography, The Unknowing Sage, Faqir relates how in the middle of a battle at Hamidia the form of his guru Shiv Brat Lal manifested to him and said, "Faqir, worry not, the enemy has not come to attack but to take away their dead. Let them do that. Don't waste your ammunition." Faqir then sent for the Subedar Major and narrated the appearance and direction of his guru. He followed the same strategy and all were saved. When Faqir reached Bagdad after the fighting, however, many of Shiv Brat Lal disciples began to worship him instead. Faqir recollected:

"It was all unexpected and strange for me. I enquired of them, "Our Guru Maharaj is at Lahore. I am not your Guru. Why do you worship me?" They replied, "On the battle field, we were in danger. Death lurked in hand. You appeared before us and gave us correct directions. We were spared." I was wonder struck by this explanation. I had no knowledge of it at all. I, myself, being in trouble at that time, had not even remembered them. A mystery shrouded the whole thing, "who appeared inside them?"

When Faqir discovered that his own guru (Shiv Brat Lal) was unaware of his manifestations, he concluded that the answer to the perplexing problem of religious visions must rest in the nature of consciousness itself. Faqir elaborated:

"People say that my Form manifests to them and helps them in solving their worldly as well as mental problems, but I do not go anywhere, nor do I know anything about such miraculous instances. O' Man, your real helper, is your own Self and your own Faith, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammed, no Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, or any other Goddess or God comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind through your eyes and ears and of your Faith and Belief."

Thus, following Faqir's lucid argument, the modus operandi for religious visions is not due to outside or disconnected forces (although exterior stimuli can act as a catalyst for it), but to the internal process of concentration. A force that for approximately sixteen hours a day enables one to see the everyday, common sense, lawful world, and for another several hours at night can allow one to fly to the moon, converse with unknown people, and create incredible panoramas. Consequently, the appearance and duration of such visions is intimately related to attention and focus.

Dreaming serves as the classic and perhaps most misunderstood example.

Dreaming serves as the classic and perhaps most misunderstood example. The nature of one's attention is related directly to the perception one experiences. If our perspective alters so does what we perceive. As ancient Upanishadic speculation and current studies in consciousness have shown, we do not see the world as it "is." Rather, owing to our neurological structures, we see the universe — incoming stimuli — relatively; appearances flowing in and out depending on our own biologically defined anatomies. This "predicament" has meaning, content, and purpose within the framework of our own lived-through experiences. However, it is naive to say that our interpretation of life from science, philosophy, or religion absolutely explains the world as it really is. Instead, what we have are metaphorical models of explanation, which work respectively within the brackets of our own curtailed existence. The unseen thread, the larger gestalt, however, will go by undetected. With sharply contoured (mathematical, if you choose) operating mechanisms, we find ourselves living in a universe understood not by pure perception but by alternating analogs.

What these metaphors are (or, more precisely, which limited stream of reality we behold) depends on what I call the Chandian Effect — the experience of certainty, named after the late Faqir Chand who was the first person in the Sant Mat tradition to bring this issue to light. It is from this bedrock quality that we distinguish, acknowledge, and discriminate so-called reality from appearance or illusion. What we call the “actual” world is dependent solely upon the vibration and consistency in the persuasiveness of certainty.

Although we can see, hear, smell, and touch our reality, what determines our conviction that this world is real is not so much based upon objective datum as it is on our subjective “feeling” (even if chemically moderated) of certainty.

The experience of certainty is a propelling force behind how we make up our days, fashion our plans, articulate our hopes. If there occurs a break in the Chandian Effect (sleep too little or drink too much, for examples) our normal waking state collapses into a passing phantasm. Like our nocturnal dreams, it gets stored away and temporarily forgotten. The experience of certainty is so overwhelming that when it radiates forth the question of illusion seldom arises. Just as the chair is quite solid when we strike it with our hand, so too does the world appear concrete and vivid when the Chandian Effect pervades.

But dreams can on occasion seem as certain as anything in the waking state and sometimes in lucid dreams or near-death events even more luminous than anything we have experienced before. If both dreaming and the waking state are the result of our brain simulating internal and external stimuli, then what makes us certain of either reality is, ironically, also a simulation and the distinction between the two is not as clear as we might suspect.

Our state of reality is determined by the movement of consciousness into various expressions of the Chandian Effect. Each level of awareness is controlled and empowered by the degree of certainty we experience, which is determined by the intensity and duration of its minimum threshold, which is precisely the point at which one state (e.g., the waking state) blurs or fuses with another state (e.g., dreaming). The single most obvious example is whenever we try to stay awake for more than two or three days at a time and being deprived of sleep our dream world intrudes upon our otherwise “sane” reality. We are predisposed to call the waking state "real" because it is longer (and hence, by extension, more vivid) than the dreaming stage. Yet, we generally say this only when we are awake but never while we are dreaming. The reason behind this is simple. At each level where attention is established (or, neurologically speaking, whenever key neural triggers are operative), a certainty boundary is in effect, which, owing to the given center of awareness, varies in strength, time, and permanence. Hence, even the waking state, although seemingly vivid, only lasts about eighteen hours normally until the Chandian Effect (or neural parameters) structured upon this level runs down below the minimum threshold and our consciousness shifts to another region. So it is with the dream stage. At the moment of sleep (itself nothing but the transition of attention) we find ourselves occupied in a world that just hours before we thought was nothing but an incredible illusion — because it was dimmed by the intensity of the certainty force inherent in the waking state — but with which we now deal quite seriously: running away in terror from death or luring attractive mates for orgasmic satisfaction. From this native pattern of awareness we can see that our lives are simply natural progressions of consciousness from various boundaries within the Chandian Effect.

All of this leads us to what appears to be an inescapable conclusion: we apparently cannot adjudicate the ultimate reality of any stage in consciousness on the basis of how certain or real it may appear since any simulation can magically seduce us into believing its superior ontology. We are, it seems, in an intractable position within any stage of awareness to gauge its ontological reality if such a reality is indeed the product of a series of simulating intersections. At best we can simply argue about the relative hierarchical features of differing simulations, with the added caveat that such a rumination is also circumscribed within a parallelism of its own.

This is perhaps why the idea of our universe itself being a computational simulation is not as far fetched as we might imagine, given the replicating features of mammals who possess a neocortex. Given enough computational power and given the ability to embed matter with unimaginable complexity, it isn’t implausible to envision a world which for all intents and purposes looks just as real (if not even more vivid) than the one we currently occupy. Indeed, as Vernon B. Mountcastle points out in The View from Within,

“Each of us lives within the universe—the prison—of his own brain. Projecting from it are millions of fragile sensory nerve fibers, in groups uniquely adapted to sample the energetic states of the world around us: heat, light, force, and chemical composition. That is all we ever know of it directly; all else is logical inference.”

We have now advanced far enough in our film technology to be able via CGI to recreate on screen the most intricate features of various animals and landscapes to such a degree that audiences worldwide can be so convinced that a fake tiger is so real that even when the illusion is explained they can still vehemently argue otherwise, as what has recently happened with the movie version of the Life of Pi.

Given this unusual state of affairs, we can also now be deceived into mistaking a CGI effect when it was in actuality a genuine phenomena. A good example of this reverse Turing effect can be seen by the comments made to a youtube video entitled Tsunami surfing where Mike Parsons (a real surfer) rides a huge (and real) wave in Maui, but which many commentators believed was created artificially. In the world of film, computer simulations have already passed the Turing test where that which is artificial is literally taken to be real. One can only imagine what cinema will look like in three decades hence.

Is this universe of ours an app similar to a game like Spore, where creatures confronting competing species evolve over time, which can be downloaded for free on an iPhone or an iPad? Before we dismiss such conjectures as silly science fiction speculations, the more viable question we should ask first is how difficult will it be in the future to computationally recreate the world we now experience, given the exponential growth of computing power and the law of accelerating returns? In addition, how difficult will it be to trick us into believing in the certainty of any given state created by artificial intelligence?

The answers may surprise us. It is probably much easier than we at first would suspect, especially in light of how manipulatable human consciousness can be.

Faqir Chand once related how when he was a young Brahmin growing up he had daily visions of Lord Krishna. One day as he was walking on his way to town Lord Krishna appeared to Faqir and told him to eat some cow dung which was on the street. Faqir did as Krishna requested, but later on when the vision had disappeared and when Faqir was in a more rational-logical state of mind, he reflected that he had never heard or read of any god or goddess asking a devotee to do such a thing. This caused Faqir to doubt the reality of the apparition and he stopped having visions of Krishna.

This incident and others similar to it suggest that the modus operandi for any reality to lose its Chandian Effect one must severely doubt its fundamental certainty, whether by chemical augmentation or by radical and systematic skepticism. Of course, some states seem more recalcitrant to questioning than others and thus give the impression of being “more” real than others. But given that every state we experience is a simulation, the hierarchical nature of more real vs less real seems bounded by the necessity of survival within any given region of awareness.

Indian philosophy, particularly some schools of Advaita Vedanta, have long argued that the universe really is a play or a game which is commonly called lila or leela (literally, “pastime or sport”), not dissimilar to applications one can download on Apple or Android devices. Darwinian natural selection would appear to be one of the key operating systems of this universal sport.

Stephen Wolfram, the architect of Mathematica and founder of Wolfram-Alpha (the computational knowledge engine), believes that a new kind of science has been born with our understanding of how incredibly complex systems can be algorithmically reconstructed by computational reducibility. If this is true, then perhaps Nick Bostrom’s propositional question isn’t merely a fanciful and sophisticated reworking of the Matrix’s underlying premise. Perhaps Faqir Chand’s skepticism of religious visions (and there eventual dissolution because of it) is an indicative pathway by which to question the certainty of any state of awareness that may arise. Science has made tremendous progress by doubting erstwhile commonsense explanations, even to the point of questioning the very reality of all that we take to be solid and permanent.

Underlying science and almost all human endeavors is the supposition that the world we experience (even if by neural trickery) is the supreme reality by which all other realities are (and should be) measured. But if Bostrom’s third supposition is true (that we are already living in a computational simulation) then it might be illuminating to question the very foundational basis of our waking state certainty. Clearly, accepting the Hindu idea of reality as an illusory sport played out by the gods allowed rishis in the past to develop deep philosophical insights into the nature of the mind long before the advent of neuroscience. Similarly, imagining that the universe is an app or a matrix like mock-up designed to deceive its participants from knowing its real causation can serve as a powerful and enlightening awakening, even if such conjectures turn out not to be wholly true or accurate.

Why? Because any idea that can jar us from complacency and force us to think anew about reality is helpful to a consciousness that evolved to virtually simulate reality and play out competing scenarios.

As Frank S. Werblin so wisely points out, “Even though we think we see the world so fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time.” In a universe with an almost infinite set of data streams, we as homo sapiens should be exceedingly cautious in believing (as we invariably do) that 10 or 12 channels in this spectrum are sufficient to inform us about the sum total of reality. We are sparse coders indeed who have been neurologically duped by evolution and natural selection into believing that our consciousness is a transparency when on closer inspection it is more akin to an elaborate labyrinth with no decipherable way of knowing where it begins and where it ends. Or, as Jorge Borges once put it, “You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless . . . .”