It makes sense: In a far more mundane way, we really are all trapped in a computer. You could argue that tech billionaires who built their lives out of lines of code would only ever see the things that surround them as digital artifice. But there’s always been the lingering suspicion that our reality is somehow unreal—it’s just that what we once thought about in terms of dreams and magic, cosmic minds or whispering devils, is now expressed through boring old computers, that piece of clunky hardware that waits predatory on your desk every morning to code the finest details of your life.
Kabbalist mysticists, Descartes with his deceiving demon, and Zhuangzi in his butterfly dream have all questioned the reality of their sense-experiences, but this isn’t a private, solipsistic hallucination; in the simulation hypothesis, reality is a prison for all of us. Its real antecedents are the Gnostics, an early Christian sect who believed that the physical universe was the creation of the demiurge, Samael or Ialdaboath, sometimes figured as a snake with the head of a lion, a blind and stupid god who creates his false world in imperfect imitation of the real Creator. This world is a distorted mirror, an image; in other words, a kind of software.
The Gnostics were often accused by other early Christians of Satanism, and they might have had a point: Many identified the jealous, petty, prurient God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge, while sects such as the Ophites revered the serpent in the Garden of Eden as the first to offer knowledge to humanity, freeing them from their first cage. And something Luciferian persists in the techno-Gnostics of San Francisco. They have decided that our universe is the conscious creation of a higher power, and now they’re massing their armies to storm the gates of heaven and go to war with God. And like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, their doctrine is omnicidal. ‘All that exists deserves to perish.’
Just a little tweak to the formula: All that appears to exist must be destroyed. There’s something admirable in this blasphemous ambition, but it’s based on some very shaky ideas. It helps to look at an influence on simulation theory that’s a little better known that the Nag Hammadi codices: 1999’s The Matrix, in which a gang of heroic freedom-fighters try to wake humanity from a false computer-generated universe and return them to the real world. The film has plenty of knowing references to those older traditions, and to some newer ones: In one scene, Neo is shown hiding his cash in a hollowed out copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (appropriately, a black hardback edition that doesn’t seem to have ever actually been printed.) The philosopher himself wasn’t particularly pleased, insisting in an interview that the film fundamentally misunderstood his work, that ‘The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.’ In The Matrix, there’s a real world behind the simulation. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth. In his book, Baudrillard also talks about virtual realities and deceptive images, but his point isn’t that they have clouded our perception of the reality beyond. The present system of social images is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s produced a total reality for itself; it only lies when it has us thinking that there’s something else behind the façade. Baudrillard, always something of an overgrown child, loved to refer to Disneyland: As he pointed out, it’s in no way a fake—when you leave its gates, you return to an America that’s just one giant Disneyland, a copy without an original, from coast to coast. ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.’ Digital and cinematic media actively construct our experience of reality. The world of film stars and theme parks, social media and supermarket shelves designed to look like something out of an old-time grocery—this is the one we live in. Our Silicon Valley Satanists have made a very questionable assumption: What if there’s nowhere to break out into?