My mother once told me a few years ago that when she was first hospitalized and I was taken in by my grandparents, my grandfather tried selling me off to another family for a million dollars. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ramifications of that possibility over the past year, because it touches upon another question I’ve been thinking about for a while: Knowing everything I now do, having experienced everything that I have over the past four years, and having learned everything that I learned, would I, given the opportunity, go back and make sure that the sale actually happened, thus changing the course of my life, or would I stick with my life as it is despite all the stuff I’ve lived through. Many important historical figures, from great kings, warriors, and royalty, to civil rights activists, innovators, and our greatest thinkers experienced extreme hardship which shaped and molded them into the people they were. Some people, when faced with challenges, fold rather than rise, but those who do overcome are tempered by the flames of their own personal baptismal fires.
Pondering this question always brings me back to The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice of red or blue pill. The blue pill offers Neo the status quo—remaining in the virtual illusion known as the Matrix where ignorance is bliss and perception is the only reality. The red pill, as Morpheus so eloquently put it, “you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” The movie casts the question as a no-brainer: Neo must destroy the system imprisoning the minds of humanity and lead the charge against the machines who are farming people for their energy. But upon further examination one may realize that the question isn’t that simple.
Simulism professes the belief in the distinct possibility that we are all living, not in an actual physical world as is conventionally believed, but in a virtual universe simulated by a higher civilization. According to the Simulation Hypothesis, which, according to people who ascribe to its premise, is becoming ever more plausible as our technology becomes increasingly more advanced, we may very well be the simulations of a higher, more technologically advanced civilization. As an idea it may almost seem credible especially given our forays into the field of artificial intelligence. Just spend a day or two playing The Sims. But once one grants the possibility that we may be simulated, what’s to say that the civilization simulating us isn’t itself simulated. In fact, if true, Simulism changes everything we believe to be true. Who’s to say that there is in fact a God who created the world. And why should a man not kill his fellow man if all we are is a stream of binary data floating somewhere in the ether, and can be restored with the click of a button. Does free will even exist? Is there such a thing as original though?
While there are numerous quacks, crackpots, and pop-philosophers that actually spend time pondering this grand “what if” conspiracy theory, the truth is that the answer isn’t really relevant. My usual response to people who broach this subject with me is something along the lines of “Run into a wall. Did it hurt? Shut up.” In other words, my perception is my reality and therefore, if there is indeed a race of machines imprisoning my mind in a pleasant illusion of reality to distract me from the fact that they are only keeping me alive to harvest my energy, it’s completely irrelevant because to me, perception is reality. But then again—what if it isn’t…And that is what the question of “What if” means to me.
There used to be a show on TV called Lie To Me which told the story of a psychologist and deception expert, Dr. Cal Lightman, who specialized in the study and interpretation of micro-expressions, or tiny, fleeting facial twitches which bespeak a person’s true emotions despite his best efforts to hide them. His interest in the discipline started after his mother’s suicide. To quote Wikipedia, “Dr. Lightman was driven to study micro-expressions as a result of guilt over his mother’s suicide. She claimed to have been fine in order to obtain a weekend pass from a psychiatric ward, when she was actually experiencing agony.” A short while after her suicide he acquired a video of the interview where she was evaluated by a psychiatrist who then declared her eligible for her furlough. After watching the video countless times, he began to notice that although she seemed to be smiling, her eyes betrayed the tiniest hint of pain, and had that been noticed before she left, his mother would never have died. Lightman then went on to open The Lightman Group which used the science of micro-expression to help law enforcement capture and prosecute criminals.
In one episode, to demonstrate his ability to a stranger, he warns his co-worker against ordering a hot dog from a local vendor. When the vendor gets annoyed at him for ruining the sale, Lightman asks him if he had been to the bathroom that day. The vendor reached up to scratch his neck, which Lightman then informed him meant “yes” despite the vendors assertions otherwise. Imagine possessing such an ability, to be as close to omniscient as humanly possible! It seems at once tantalizing and terrifying; however there is no question that it is an astounding ability. While the show was fiction, it was based on actual science and data. But while Lightman was possessed of this ability due to circumstance, assuming he were a real person and not a fictional TV character unavailable for question, would he choose his mother over his ability, or would he leave the past for the past and live his future as he was?
I know that I see the world differently as a result of my life and hardships. To be honest, I enjoy seeing it as I do, but it’s not always easy. I sense pain more acutely, I empathize more strongly with others who are in pain and at times it overcomes me. I’m more sensitive to others’ emotions, and it is both blessing and curse. I worry about things that no one else ever sees. I feel guilty about things over which I have no possible control because I know that aside from me, there are not many who see what I see as problematic. It’s a burden. So would I choose to bear it again given a choice, knowing all that I do now—would I take the red pill or the blue pill—I honestly have no idea.