In a strange case of life imitating art, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick completed a novel in 1970 containing incidents that unfolded almost immediately thereafter in his own experience. The novel had a 19-year-old character named Kathy, married to a man named Jack. She appeared to be part of a criminal enterprise; however, it later turned out she was working for the authorities and had a relationship with a police inspector. Shortly after the novel was written, Dick met a 19-year-old woman named Kathy with a boyfriend named Jack, and it turned out she was dealing in drugs. One evening he accompanied her to a restaurant, which she refused to enter after spotting a man Dick knew to be a police inspector. She explained she could not go in because she had a relationship with the man.
Dick was certainly not the first writer to incorporate elements of his life into his fiction, but relatively few do so before the fact. Small wonder that he was disinclined to accept reality at face value. His novels and short stories often involve protagonists who discover that the world they live in and even their own identities are illusions manipulated by powerful external forces. And yet even some of the most bizarre plot elements were based on his own experience. Dick believed that someone else was living inside his head, a first-century Christian named Thomas. He also came to believe that beneath the transitory world of everyday appearances was another, more permanent reality; to whit, that we were actually still living in the heyday of the Roman Empire. Fortunately perhaps, Dick was no more inclined to accept his visions at face value than reality, although he did take them seriously. He was fully aware that his visions sounded pretty crazy, and most likely they were. He also admittedly took a lot of drugs, especially amphetamines, which may have stoked some of his more paranoid intuitions about plots against him by the FBI and Soviet KGB.
As one who once tested boundaries himself, I know first-hand how mind-altering drugs can challenge conventional notions about reality. I began in the late 1960s with an exotic compound called STP, an hallucinogen I wrongly assumed would be a gentler alternative than LSD for my first time out. I swallowed the tablet or capsule – I no longer remember which – and waited 15 or 20 minutes for something to happen. I began to feel queasy, then vomited, but not before the drug had been absorbed into my system. I remember becoming fascinated by the Abstract Expressionist masterpiece I had deposited in the toilet bowl. The sober façade of everyday reality had dissolved into a candy-colored cartoon world in which everything bulged and heaved and breathed. There were no flat surfaces or straight edges anywhere and nothing remotely resembling an inanimate object. All of this struck me as riotously funny. Of course, I knew none of it was real, whatever that meant. The drug would eventually wear off – and then what? Was everyday reality any less the product of my immediate perception than this?
Good question – and one that has happily occupied philosophers for millennia. Perhaps most germane in this regard is the estimable Bishop Berkeley, an 18th-century Irish philosopher and cleric whose strictly empirical stance was summed up in his famous dictum, “To be is to be perceived.” For Berkeley, the issue was not whether there was an objective reality apart from our perception of it, since the question was essentially unanswerable. A tree falling in a forest when there was no one to hear therefore makes no sound and, for all practical purposes, doesn’t even exist.
All this might be dismissed as the idle speculation of philosophers – at least until quantum physicists began chiming in. Starting in the 1920s, the scientific community began taking a closer look at the building blocks of reality at the subatomic level and found they did not conform to the laws of classical physics. The planetary model of the atom we all learned in school, with electrons orbiting a sun-like nucleus, simply could not be squared with evidence that electrons behaved both like particles and waves, depending on how they were measured. It proved impossible not only to say precisely what they were but also where they were, since quantum theory held that the position and velocity of subatomic particles could not be measured simultaneously. Werner Heisenberg, one of the heavyweights of quantum theory, asserted that the path of a moving particle did not even come into existence until it was observed; in other words, to be is to be perceived.
Quantum theory has served as catnip for physicists and philosophers alike, to say nothing of science fiction writers who regularly traffic in alternative realities. Quantum physicists grumble about mystics and New Age types poaching on their turf, just as Einstein once grumbled about quantum physicists. Einstein’s famous quip that God did not “play dice” with the universe was a response to the quantum theorists’ probabilistic view of the subatomic realm. Bishop Berkeley endured his share of criticism for his assertion that reality did not exist apart from our perception of it. Ronald Knox, a fellow cleric and a bit of a literary prankster, had some fun at Berkeley’s expense with the following limerick:
There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
"Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God."
Literary prankster or not, Knox may have stumbled onto something: just think of reality as a show that God puts on for himself.
Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”