The idea that the world is an illusion has served as a plot device in several films, bringing the concept into pop culture.
Is the world actually an illusion?
Indeed, it sounds pretty far-fetched! All of our senses tell us this world is very solid and real—we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell it.
We interact with the people and objects in it from the moment we wake up until we fall sleep again at night.
How often does one stop and wonder whether the world is an illusion when there’s 12 million things to do every single day? Who has the time?
Yet, the idea has penetrated our mass consciousness thanks to Hollywood!
Warning: There are spoilers ahead but, in fairness, three of the movies below were released before our beloved Blockbuster Video went extinct (RIP, Blockbuster).
The Matrix Series
No doubt The Matrix films must have come to mind and, if not, you may have been living off the grid, far from civilization’s reach for the last couple of decades (although not the worst thing!).
Just in case you haven’t seen it in a while, the movie portrays a bleak future in which humans’ consciousness is imprisoned in an AI-created virtual reality, while their bodies (in suspended animation) serve as an energy source for the malevolent, self-aware machines.
But our hero, Neo, doesn’t know all this quite yet. He senses something is wrong with the world he appears to live in, although he can’t quite put his finger on it. . . .
Fortunately, his newfound mentor, Morpheus, saves us all a bunch of time by informing Neo that he and everyone else was born into “a prison for your mind”.
Naturally, Neo opts to journey down the rabbit hole and awaken to the truth (fondly known as getting “red-pilled”), thereby freeing himself from physical and psychological imprisonment (otherwise, what an exceedingly dull 2+ hour movie!).
This is our first introduction to Simulation Theory, which posits that the Earth and the entire universe are actually a very sophisticated computer simulation. We’ll circle back to this in another post.
But who could really say if we were actually locked inside such a system if we have no awareness beyond it? And clearly whomever/whatever created it could outsmart us at every turn?
Don’t worry. Elon Musk and Google’s Ray Kurzweil are trying to level the playing field by racing to develop nanotechnology that, once inserted into the brain, will connect us directly to the internet and data clouds.
Oh wait . . . now that actually sounds like plugging into the Matrix. . . .
So, coming way too soon (2029 to be more exact), we’ll be able to physically merge with technology and AI.
According to Kurzweil, with the implanted brain-computer interface we’ll become accustomed to living in “a highly realistic virtual and augmented reality” with which we’ll be able to physically engage.
How might this change/distort our perception of ourselves and our world?
How will we be able to distinguish between fiction and reality?
Now, for all your immortality needs, we can go full Matrix once Kurzweil realizes his vision of embedding people’s consciousness into silicon, allowing us to live inside machines until . . . well . . . the plug is pulled on the overarching computer simulation. Oops.
Even with all of the interesting possibilities, I’ll pass.
Here’s to hoping conscious AI turns out to be benevolent (oh boy, those Terminator movies don’t look so optimistic)!
There have been other mind-bending and entertaining movies, like Inception.
When does a dream end and awakened reality begin? And how do we know the difference between them?
Throughout the movie, we believe that we can tell them apart. Yet, at the end of the film, we second-guess ourselves.
Does Leonardo’s character finally reunite with his “real” children in a fully awakened state?
Or is he still viewing his mind’s projection of them while dreaming, thus only believing that he’s awake?
His totem spins with a physics-defying amount of momentum, then ever so briefly wobbles, giving us no closure. Maybe it’s irrelevant, because he’s finally able to embrace and enjoy his children. . . .
During our dreams at night, we’re also immersed in a “seeming” reality.
We go on adventures, hang out with friends and family, travel to foreign places, get chased by “bad guys”, etc. All those experiences feel very real and we emotionally react to them.
I seem to have misplaced my trusty totem to determine whether or not this currently is all just a dream (apparently totems may not be all that reliable anyway).
So, who’s to say we’re not currently in a dream within a dream—perhaps even a few levels further down, trapped in our subconscious/limbo—mentally projecting our world right now?
The movie depicts that we wouldn’t even be aware of it. Therefore, we couldn’t distinguish between reality and a dream because of the power of our mind (subconscious) projecting every single detail of our world, the beings and objects within it, and our daily lives.
Maybe we should initiate a “kick” or three just to be on the safe side. Or perhaps we’ll wake up in the Matrix. . . . Drats!
Then there’s the 1990 sci-fi classic Total Recall. Don’t you just hate when your memory implant vacation goes side-ways?
But what if it were possible to have all our memories and experiences erased and supplanted with ones fabricated? Our whole identity and lived experience replaced by another entirely manufactured.
This is what our protagonist grapples with.
Is Schwarzenegger’s character actually a highly-trained secret agent who had his mind wiped and implanted with screen memories of a low-key, ordinary existence?
Or is he actually the ordinary man simply playing out the action-packed, adventure vacation that he paid for when he “gets his ass to Mars” and frees a colony of humans and mutants from tyranny?
Both identities/lives appear so real that it’s nearly impossible for Schwarzenegger’s character to distinguish which is which.
Hmmm . . . this sounds like the “augmented/virtual reality” conundrum again.
In even more exciting news, academics (in the real world, not in movie-land) have been working on multiple ways to weaken memories—painful memories that is—to diminish their impact. So far, researchers have drugs, heart medicine, and light at their disposal.
On the flip side, scientists are using light to selectively activate neurons in the brain to teach birds to sing songs they have never heard before.
It may be a while before we can visit the colony on Mars, but who knows. Maybe we can instantly learn the biggest hits from there without ever having heard their songs before!
The Truman Show
Last but not least, we have the 1998 sci-fi dramedy, The Truman Show.
Don’t you also just hate when you find out that every single aspect of your life and world has been designed/manipulated and that you’ve played the unsuspecting star of a largely scripted reality TV show since your birth?
Thankfully, our hero, Truman, begins to suspect things are not quite as they seem, and literally finds the exit door to his artificial world (AKA expansive sound stage). Now he can reunite with his true love and build a real life together.
Haven’t you ever found yourself in an unusual or absurd situation and wondered if you were being set up on a “hidden camera” show?
Well, as Shakespeare wrote:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.
“The World as an Illusion” Has Gone Viral
Of course, there are more depictions of the illusory/dream-like nature of the world in entertainment, films like:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Vanilla Sky
- American Psycho
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (still scary after all these years!)
- Lost Highway
As we can see, this idea has become mainstream, but where did it originate? And where else has it been reflected in society?
To find out, we’ll take a tour of great thinkers throughout the ages, visiting philosophers, spiritual thought leaders, and scientists in upcoming posts.
This will lead us into why forgiveness is justified and the steps (don’t worry—I haven’t forgotten :)).
Meanwhile, do you have some other fave, mind-bending films?
Let us know!