Appearance and Reality


Sam Woolfe gives us a brief history of the idea that reality is unreal.

Anyone who has seen The Matrix (1999) will know that the basic premise of the film is that our ‘reality’ is simulated in our minds by a computer intelligence. However, the idea that reality is a simulation is not new. The essence of the idea can actually be traced back at least to around 300 BC in China, where, in a reverie, the influential Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi famously asked, “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?”

Zhuangzi was struggling with the question of whether reality as he experienced it was merely the product of a dream. (Whether or not reality is a dream, dreams are in any case only a simulation of reality, since a dream is a product of the mind alone, cut off from the outside world.) In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes would ask a similar question, not only through similarly doubting that we can know whether we are awake rather than dreaming, but also in his infamous ‘Evil Demon’ hypothesis.

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