Hi Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi!

Ever since I was a small child hooked on The Cartoon Channel, I’ve had this nagging, ominous sense that I’m no more than a figment of some nutty animator’s imagination. Then Nick Bostrom at Oxford came up with his simulation hypothesis in 2003—that the entire universe is likely just some mega-cosmic kid’s video game.

More recently, a couple of scientists at the University of Washington proposed an experiment to test if it’s true. But Preston Greene suggested that it’s better we don’t find out. Because if we find it’s true, that kid might get peeved and shut the whole thing down.

From your background in computer gaming, fiction writing and Torah teaching, how seriously do you think we should take this?

--Sam U. Laiton

Hi Mr. Laiton,

First we need to examine just how ludicrous this thought really is. Since it’s not exactly the most comfortable perspective on life, we’re better off breaking it down analytically to take an objective perspective. We need to examine the supporting evidence as well as try to construct some critical arguments against this thesis.

Let’s start here: What are the properties of imaginary characters?

1) Imaginary characters can go poof without notice.

You’re in the middle of a 64 bit color, 3D audio daydream (daydreams are video games without the hardware), when, without notice, someone places his hand on your shoulder and asks, “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, uh sure, uh just daydreamin’.”

“Tell me the dream. Maybe we can sell it to Pixar.”

“Um, well…”—and for the life of you, you can’t recall a thing.

You know there were characters in that daydream. You know there was drama. But now it’s all gone, as though they never existed. Well, in fact, they didn’t, did they?

Sure, those characters may come back some day to haunt you. But they’re not really the same characters. They are no more than the artifacts of unresolved inner turmoil, passions and boredom. The character himself only lives for the duration of the daydream, and then is gone forever. For in truth, he never really was.

So if you are a figment of someone’s imagination, that would imply that not only could you also disappear into oblivion in less than a moment—you, along with your friends, toys and dramas of life—but that you and your entire reality don’t really exist to begin with.

You still want to continue with this? Okay, let’s examine a little further:

2) Imaginary characters lack palpability.

Actually, I don’t know how true this is. You see the characters of your daydreams because the same dynamics are happening in your brain as occur when you see objects that are “out there.” You hear them the same way, as well. So, if it’s a deep dream, what’s to stop you from smelling, tasting and touching them, as well.

Touch, after all, is just another sensation, only that it has an additional haptic quality that other senses don’t have. That is, as you sense with touch, unlike with sight or hearing, you are also manipulating the object that you are touching.

Now, when you imagine something, you imagine it within space and time. Space implies that each object occupies a unique space and must be manipulated to move from that space. So, if it’s to be a hi-res daydream, there will have to be some of that haptic palpability to it.

Think too much about this and your ganglia start tingling. Yes, the world feels so real. It can be hard as rock—nothing imaginary about that hard concrete floor you’re standing on. At least, you hope so. How could imagination turn out so solid?

Think again: What’s so solid about it?What’s so solid about reality? Nothing more than a set of rules. Only the fact that you don’t slip through it. And why not? Only because the electromagnetic and nuclear forces that organize the particles of that concrete floor conflict with the parallel forces organizing the particles of your body. And what are those forces? Nothing more than a set of rules.

Basically, the reason your hand can’t enter into the space of your desk is the same reason that you can’t play baseball on a diamond where another league is already playing baseball—even though there’s plenty of space. It’s against the rules.

What are rules? Intelligence.

Turns out that all there is behind the tangibility of our universe is concentrated, very consistent intelligence. Or call it a great imagination.

So, assuming the someone who is imagining has a real powerful imagination, the fact that we are tangible is not sufficient evidence to prove that we are not his/her/its cerebral artifacts.

Nevertheless, before we conclude that we very well might be tangible figments of someone’s imagination, let’s look at some of the strong arguments to the contrary:

3) Imaginary characters are not self-aware.

Yes, it is very difficult to imagine a character who is self-aware. Even when we deal with other human beings who (appear to) live outside of our imagination, we often barely acknowledge that they are just as self-aware as ourselves. Countless philosifizers have grasped in futility for a proof that anyone is self-aware other than the one doing the philosifizations.

But let’s go back to our hypothesis that the someone imagining us has a much superior imagination than our own. The human mind, according to those who use the thing to study itself, can only imagine about six or seven discrete objects at once. The observable universe someone might be imagining that we inhabit contains around 10 to the 80th power of subatomic particles, structured within complex forms and dynamics. Yes, that takes some imagination.

I relate this to the time I was building electronic games using a graphic object model (called MOM—Metropolis Object Model. Great tool with lots of promise. Bought up by Quark in the early 90s and shelved).

With MOM, we drew objects on the screen, then dropped behaviors and properties into them, tweaked the parameters, and watched them interact. Two objects was a manageable proposition. Three objects already harried the mind. When you got to five or six, your brain was sizzling like a fried wiener. After juggling their complexity for a good 16 hours straight, all it took was for some smart aleck to walk in the room and ask, “How are you today?” and you would break down in tears, crying, “I’ve just lost the whole thing!”

That was hard. But I’ll tell you something even harder, and that is to contain within your mind the feelings and perspectives of other people you are living with. Meaning, to be able to feel both how they feel and how you feel at once.

So if this imagination imagining us can also imagine this entire universe, what’s to say it can’t get out of itself and feel things fromNone of us can jump out of our own selves enough to imbue even a single character with a sense of self. a couple of billion other perspectives as well—thereby endowing us all with self-consciousness. It takes a large mind to do that, but it’s not unimaginable.

Okay, maybe more than a large mind. Empathy is within our bounds, but I really don’t think any of us can jump out of our own selves enough to imbue even a single character with a sense of self. As soon as you begin imagining a character with a sense of self, you are being that character—so it’s not itself, it’s you.

As for an algorithm for self and self-awareness, likely all that would do is assemble something that would receive that sense of self from the self-potential of the universe—much as it receives space or time from the potential of space and time that already exists. But not from you, the coder.

Effectively, we’ve discovered a crucial distinction between a simulation and the real deal:

3) Simulated egos cannot generate more simulated egos

No one in this universe-game-thing is capable of imbuing another entity with its own ego. Because none of us really owns our own ego. Knock on an ego and there’s nobody home. Empty. Pretty much a mirage.

If you don’t believe me, try finding yourself. It’s about as futile as fishing your reflection out of a lake. Better not. Plenty of poor souls have fallen in and drowned attempting it.

“Delusion” may be a better word. I mean, how delusional is it to think I am really the only “I” and everyone else is a mere “them?” Yet that’s what our egos insist. Strong evidence that these egos are of alien origin. They don’t originate within us—they are merely reflections of something beyond us.

That’s all your ego is—along with your core Trying to find yourself is about as futile as fishing your reflection out of a lake.identity, sense of self and all those other wonderful things your high school counselor tried in futility to build up in you—a mere reflection of the true and only Self, The Origin of All Senses of Self.

The Origin of All Self can imbue another being, even a trillion, even an infinite number of beings with a sense of self—exclusive self—because It really owns Its own self. Its ego is real.

As Maimonides explains, “He is the only true reality, because He is the only one whose existence is from His own self. He and His self are one.”1 And Rabbi Schneur Zalman takes that further: “Only one whose existence comes from His own self can create something that feels it has no precedent to its existence.”2

That means us. And everything else included in Pauli’s exclusion principle: No two particles of this universe can occupy the same state. That’s the physics behind “where I am, nothing else can be.” It’s pretty much the hallmark of this absurd universe. Hear those birds tweeting so sweetly outside? They're all yelling, “This is my branch! Not your branch! You can’t sit here!”

The same with all the rest of the physical universe. Everything has this sense of ultimate exclusivity. Physicality is ego in its dumbest manifestation.

It’s everywhere and yet it’s so ridiculously elusive. Because it’s totally fake on its own. It’s only true as a reflection of a higher truth. The truth of the Simulator.

Hold on! We may have hit on a good argument that we are real! Not the absolute reality—that’s reserved for the Creator of this reality. But real with a small “r.”

We are real because we contain an ounce of Reality with a big “R.” Unlike simulations and imaginations, the Creator has invested the truth of His reality within His creation. Where? At the core of every single creation.

That “I am-ness” of every created being is both its biggest lie and its strongest truth. No, you are not an entity that just is because you is. Yes, there is a “Just Is”—and your sense of “is” is a reflection of Him within His creation.

But before we conclude this analysis, there’s something even more real about us than our own self-awareness. The ultimate, unimaginable delusion behind I am:

4) Imaginary characters are not free to choose their own script.

Now here’s a tough one. As much as we could try, how on earth could we imagine a character with agency, meaning, one who exercises his/her/its own autonomy?

I certainly can’t program one—no matter how complex a random function I use, ultimately, my character will be predictable. How could my mind create an unpredictable character?

So here a little computer science might come in useful: Predictability is the product of rational numbers. That’s because any logarithm that uses rational numbers can be resolved. A rational number is one that can be written as a ratio (1/2, 3/4, 128,398,743/3,483,473,164).

But then there are the irrational numbers. Those are numbers such as pi or the square root of two. When you try to write one of these numbers out, you get something like 1.414213562373… —meaning that you need an infinite number of placeholders to store this number. Problem is, we don’t know how to build a computer with infinite storage. Even if we wire all those 10 to the 80th power particles of the observable universe to become one enormous computer (hey, who says they aren’t already?), we still would be short of infinite.

It would be nice to just ignore these irascibles, but here’s the clincher: There are infinitely more irrational numbers than rational numbers.3 What that means is that infinitely more of our world cannot be described on a finite computer than can be.4

Which means that even the universe itself can’t compute what it’s going to do next. Because even though it’s a finite universe, it can only be measured by an infinite device. And if you can’t store those numbers, you can’t accurately predict anything.

So you’ll be a little off, right? I mean, what’s a few picoseconds or picometers here or there?

This is where chaos-complexity kicks in: When working with a system of just two factors, a little inaccuracy won’t matter too much. You’ll need to go through many, many iterations of your algorithm before it’s noticeable. Increase that to three factors, things start getting out of whack exponentially faster. When you get to real-worldIt takes an infinite mind to generate unpredictable beings. complex systems, like the weather, the ecology, and my laundry, predictability lies only within a very small range of time and a very wide range of precision. When you talk about systems as complex as the human brain, predictability is out the window.

So this could explain how we human beings could still be figments of someone’s imagination while remaining entirely unpredictable. You see, if this imagination was just very big, bigger than ours to the point that it could contain this mega-mega-big universe, it would still be limited to imagining a predictable universe. However, if it is an infinite imagination, then it could also handle irrational numbers. In which case, it could generate unpredictable beings.

Unpredictable + Self-Conscious = Free Choice.

Bingo, we have a formula for free-choice figments.

Okay, just a thought. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not rushing to patent it. I really have no idea how to generate free choice. But then, neither does anyone else. Other than the One who gave it to us. Because, as above, He’s the only one who is truly free.


The Mark of Reality

In sum, just because you feel you really exist independent of any mind or simulation that is causing you to exist, doesn’t mean you are. In fact, it makes much more sense to understand your very sense of self and agency as a reflection and extension of a much greater, original Self. An Authentic Self.

But does that render us total fictions? Absolutely not. Because figments (and simulations) are empty. Their authors are utterly incapable of investing the very core of their own selves within their fictions. Our reality contains that essence-core—in every particle of its fabric.

Those researchers at the University of Washington claimed that if the universe is a simulation, we would be able to find markers of such in its fabric. Well, we have an embedded marker to just the opposite—in the first three words of Genesis:

בראשית ברא אלקים

Those are the Hebrew words for “In the beginning, G‑d created…” Take the last letter of each word, rearrange them a little, and you have אמת. That’s the word for “true” or “real.”

Right there, in the first lines of the code for creating a universe.

Ask a Friendly Kabbalist

All the above may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable about your status in reality. You may be asking, “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before in the history of the world?”

Well, despite what you may read in Wikipedia, they have. They’re called Kabbalists. Here are the words of one of the foremost Kabbalists, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, in his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim (The Pomegranate Orchard)5:

The prophet says, “For His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.”6

Meaning that a person’s thoughts have no real effect. He can imagine conjuring something into existence, but his thoughts accomplish nothing. He can fantasize and visualize the form of this thing he wishes to materialize, but his thoughts are futile. He must actually do something to make his thoughts real.

We see that for us, nothing is complete until an event occurs. Potentialities are not real—nothing is real until it has actually happened. The actual is everything. It is reality and without it there is nothing.

This is not the case with the “King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He,” who causes being and generates existence. As soon as it has arisen in His will to isify7 and to emanate the holy and pure emanation, immediately it is emanated and formed within Himself without any change in Him, heaven forbid. It is nothing more than an entity that unites with Him to the degree that there is no distinction between the emanation and the Emanator at all. They are entirely one.

What Rabbi Cordovero is saying is that with a single thought, G‑d calls all into being. A real being—not an imaginary one, as our thoughts generate. His thoughts have the power of reality.

Yet if He would cease to think about us for a moment? Here’s another quote from our same sagacious Kabbalist:

This is why we say, “And You vivify all of them.” Our teachers of blessed memory interpreted this as, “And you is-ify all of them.”8 But they also stood by the simple meaning of “You vivify all of them.”—because it is all one idea: Since He is-ified them and brought them into existence out of nothing, the current must continue flowing and all of them continue drawing their vitality from Him. And since He is continually vivifying them, it turns out that He is is-ifying them at all times and at every moment and in every event. So you see that vivifying and is-ifying is really one thing.

Along the same lines, we can understand the words from the daily prayers, "And in His goodness He renews each day, continuously, the first act of Creation." This is talking about the current that flows to vivify them, to sustain them and to set all their properties. So that if, heaven forbid, you could imagine the withdrawal of His current from them—they would terminate immediately. This is all they are: projections of the mystery of His light. It is the current of a stream that is never interrupted but renews itself constantly, like the waters of a river that renew every moment.9

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, citing a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:

If the letters of the ten utterances by which the earth was created during the six days of creation were to depart from it for just an instant, G‑d forbid, it would revert to void and absolute nothingness— exactly like before the six days of creation.10

Poof! We never were. In fact, as far as we can tell, it may have just occurred just now. Maybe He forgot about us for a moment and we ceased existing. Then He started up the daydream again, and here we are again. Prove me wrong.

Yet there’s the flip side. When R. Schneur Zalman first presents that teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, there’s a vital nuance. Read carefully:

…the Baal Shem Tov explained that the words that You spoke when You said, “Let there be a supporting atmosphere in the midst of the waters…”—those words and those letters stand firmly forever within the atmosphere of heaven and are invested within every strata of the atmosphere forever, to vitalize them…”

That one word, that investment, that changes everything. The creation is not simply a projection of light onto a screen. Within the creation breathes the Creator. Your sense of ego and self may be an illusion, but Truth, Reality, lies within.

Breaking Out Of The Game

Okay, one last step. We’ve left for last the most pertinent question, perhaps the only truly relevant question: So what? So I’m not as real as I thought I was. But within my limited little world, as I see it, I am real. So who cares what some Supermind is thinking out there? How does it affect the price of coffee and the Netflix menu?

Actually, there wouldn’t be much use for this whole exercise if it weren’t for one more detail: You see, this Infinite Mind that is imagining you right now is not satisfied with a one-way daydream. Daydreams can sweep you away for a moment or two, but they fail to engage the all of you. This Infinite Mind is into interactive play. Interactivity is where you get all of the person into the show.

So He stoops down into His own grand daydream and says to us little critters, “Hey, guys, what do you think of this universe I imagined up? Look at those sub-atomic particles whizzing around within every piece of matter, those bio-factory cells that power every diverse form of life, those universal patterns that resonate throughout the entire cosmos. Awesome stuff, right? So, hey, you want a piece of the action?”

Now who wouldn’t want a piece of the action? So He goes on:

“Well, guess what? You may have noticed that there’s some unfinished business around this place. A few details kind of out of synch. Some of it can look real messy, too. But there’s potential there. Well, that’s what I left over for you guys. And just to make sure you get it right, I’m sending you a Torah with some enlightened teachers, like Moses and his buddies, so you can get into my way of thinking about things.”

“And if you have any problems, I’ve got an open door—just talk to Me and almost anything can be solved.”

So are we figments of Someone’s imagination?Until the point at which we leave fantasy and unite with the Ultimate Reality. Both yes and no.

Yes, because the reality that we imagine ourselves to be—autonomous stuff that’s not about anything in particular and just is because it is—is an utter lie. We are more dependent on the Mind that imagines us than a joey on its mommy kangaroo. We are dependent for our very existence.

But no, we aren’t an imaginary figment—we are a reality. Because that capital R reality is invested within us and within each creation—something no mortal imagination or simulation could achieve.

And it’s that lower-case reality within us that is the key to our liberation from a fantasy-world, allowing us to enter into a relationship with the Infinite Mind that imagines us. We exercise that divine free choice within us and choose to connect with our Creator in His grand plan for His creation.

At that point, we leave our half-baked sort-of-reality and unite with the Ultimate Reality. We, too, become Real—with a big "R."


Originally written 2007. Revised somewhat 2020.