Escaping the Holographic Maze
Part I: The Physical World
structure: holograms
The concept of the universe being a hologram is something I had read about before, and has come up recently in much of my recent reading. I found the subject interesting, but had a limited understanding of how holograms themselves worked; particularly, the concept that "every part of the hologram contains the whole image". After reading a number of explanations and looking at diagrams, I still didn't quite understand it – until I started thinking about pinhole cameras, and beams of lights.
Imagine a room with a red, yellow, and blue bulb. Each bulb casts its light in all directions, but only a specific section of light from each bulb can go through the pinhole. This process gives us the image that becomes the photograph. (And, this is why the image inside the camera, as well as the light that hits the back of our eye, is flipped both horizontally and vertically.)
The hologram is similar – but instead of casting out beams of light, you can think of it as projecting a range of angles. Just as the pinhole only captures a single beam of light, the viewer sees only a single angle of the hologram. This is why the image on a hologram's surface appears angled to match the viewer's line of sight, and how it can be cut up over and over without loss of information, just as cutting a blue sheet of paper in half does not make either half less blue. Every part of the hologram contains every angle.
structure: polarity, gradation, and diffusion
Polarity exists in the comparison of two things. It is seen when contrasting black and white, or the numbers 1 and 2. Gradation, meanwhile, exists in the potential points of difference between them; it is seen in the shades of the greyscale spectrum, and in the range of decimal numbers between 1 and 2.
Gradation shares overlap with another concept, diffusion – if we were to compress the grayscale spectrum down to a two-color halftone image, we would be able to see the black dots as more or less diffuse at different points on the image – but we would not find any point that was a shade of grey.
Diffusion and gradation also overlap with entropy. A living creature's body breaks down as it moves from one pole of its lifespan to the opposite, just as a bouncing ball's arcs get smaller as it loses energy.
structure: separation
Separation takes place within the space of gradation, and creates the divisions between states. A chair is separate from the air around it, just as we see light as split into the distinct sensations of red, green, and blue. A butcher differentiates a cow by dividing the different cuts of meat – and diffusion is what happens to the cow when the meat is sold to different customers, made into different meals, and broken down inside the human gut.
Separation plays a valuable role in our lives. It seems instinctual to divide a twenty-four hour span into segments of day and night. It's useful to know where a chair ends, and the air begins. It's helpful for people to have a generally accepted idea of what constitutes lunch and dinner hours. And, each species has internal separations that help it interact with the world. When escaping from a predator, a squirrel in the forest might first see the network of trunks and branches that will lead it to safety, whereas the deer might first see the gaps between trees through which it can bolt.
The squirrel and squirrel's differing points of view represent two such angles of the hologram beneath. Though the squirrel and the deer perceive the forest in different ways, its structure remains the same. Even something as superficially binary as "heads or tails" of a coin toss, refers only to the position the coin lands on – or, its polarity. We do not account for the spinning state of the coin in air, or give names to the points on the curve where the face meets the edge. We wait until the coin lands, and we re-do the flip when the coin lands on its edge. This separation is something that we have created – the coin tosses that land on their edge still occur, even if we do not factor them into our results.
There are many ways in which our perception can create these false divisions – shifting these separations from the walls of a room, to the mirrors of a funhouse maze.
premise: everything has an echo
On August 6th, 1945, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing over 70,000 civilians, and injuring another 70,000. Since then, a quarter of a century has passed. The explosion has dissipated, and the city no longer lies in ruin. A general consensus could be that the explosion of the atom bomb is a historical event; something that is now over.
Thoughts and memories are stored within the physical structures of the brain. Your brain has been shaped, in some way, by knowledge of this event. We are still talking about the atom bomb to this day; the explosion never ended.
premise: there is no structure that does not recur
There is no structure that does not recur in some other place. Zebra stripes and stretch marks share the same shape as one another, for example, as do a giraffe's spots and the cracks of a dried lake bed. These structures can overlap in many ways; a potted bamboo plant shares the same structure as a cup of water, just as it shares the shape of a garden enclosed by walls.
Part II: The Internal World
premise: we can never step outside of the simulation
We are always simulating our own reality. We do not perceive the light itself – we perceive our brain's reconstruction of the signals that hit the structures within the eye. And just as the squirrel and the deer see different angles of the same hologram, each of our internal simulations show a different segment of the world. A person who is born without their vision has an internal model of reality that does not include sight. This does not mean that light does not exist, or that their internal model has less depth than that of a sighted person, or that they cannot understand the concepts of light and color.
This is only a difference caused by physical deviations – let alone the ways our point of view is altered by more complex, and often shifting differences, such as sexual identity, degree of neurodivergency, or how we have been shaped by our individual life experiences. Though none of us see the whole, it is in these differing but overlapping angles that we each see different shapes of the hologram beneath.
structure: the in- and out- groups
It is by evolutionary necessity that empathy is not expressed omnidirectionally. A wolf benefits from feeling some level of innate emotional attachment to their cub; the same empathy, if felt towards a deer fawn, would prove an impediment. The wolf and its cub are a part of the same in-group, while the fawn is not. We observe in- and out-groups within species, as well, such as during an animal's mating season, when in- and out-groups are divided by sex, and further divided by the degree of success in finding a mate.
Though we are more capable of diplomacy than other primates, we still operate within the physical confines of this animal mind. This kind of splitting, pooling, and overlapping of groups occurs in innumerable facets of human society, and is further complicated by our own awareness of our identities, and their levels of abstraction. If a group forms and unifies based on opposition to the idea that "X is all-Y", the group identity becomes "people who think X is all-Y.". If any one individual were to experience a shift in views - to, say, "X is only half-Y", they would no longer be a "person who thinks X is all-Y". The division that defines the group's nature would either have to shift, or a new division would need to take place.
Not all divisions are aggressive acts – identities and groups are created and shifted when a family on vacation picks who shares which room, and who gets each bed, or side. The groups of "family members sleeping in the downstairs bedroom" and "family members sleeping in the upstairs bedroom" are still part of the larger group of "family", with its innumerable other overlaps and subdivisions, all of which appear heavily linked to the empathy we feel for one another. In this manner, two groups whose polar identities are "Han shot first" versus "Greedo shot first" are less likely to lose sight of each other's fundamental humanity than two groups of opposing religious or political fanatics.
In the modern world, these divisions are further exaggerated by the anonymization of the online space, and the reduction of human beings into less nuanced representations of themselves.
premise: we only know others through reflections and echoes
Just as external groups and identities shift, so too do we experience internal shifts and splits in our own self-identity. We think of our "childhood self" and our "awkward teenage self", or divide our personalities between shades of professional and informal. This in- and out-group structure is even more fundamentally mirrored in the sense of self that divides our internal experience with the world around us. Although our simulations of reality only exist within our minds, we tend to identify with the part of us that is looking at and interpreting the world, and not the simulated world that we are looking at and interpreting.
Just as we cannot truly know the outside world, we can never truly know each other's internal experience. In short, we're both in boats drifting down a river. We never touch, but sometimes we can each feel the waves as those around us bob and rock.
Every time you interact with someone, they leave an imprint on you, and your model of them becomes more complex. There are friends, family members, historical figures, or fictional characters that we can imagine with what feels like great clarity – and yet, there are other people who we cannot visualize at all. This brings us to the structure of the kaleidoscope.
structure: the kaleidoscope
Imagine a kaleidoscope with a panel of beads at the bottom that can be turned independently of the mirrors. When you rotate the kaleidoscope, you alter which beads fall between the mirrors, and this section becomes repeated to fill the entirety of the space. With each turn, some of the beads will also be removed from view – but it doesn't mean that they do not exist. Much like the hologram, though the image has changed, the beads have not been fundamentally altered. This mirrors how our perspective can change when shifts between in- and out-groups take place.
When a dog is frightened, it may bite its owner, though it would not under any other circumstance. The dog's in- and out-groups are split between "self" and "enemy" – and just as beads fall into the gaps and reflections, the owner becomes lost beneath the "enemy" that is kaleidoscopically mirrored all around.
We subconsciously use these kaleidoscopic patterns to fill in gaps with reflections all the time. Perhaps you have heard someone's voice for the first time, and thought, "they don't sound like how I imagined in my head". Or you have rewatched a movie, and thought, "that was different from how I remembered it". Some details were lost – and this is where the kaleidoscope filled in the rest.
Part III: Out of the Kaleidoscope
thought toy: the simulation game
Imagine a virtual reality game that is so lifelike that it cannot be distinguished from the real world. Imagine that when you played the game, you lost all memory of the world outside the game for the duration of the playthrough. Each time you start the game, you start from a random point in the life of a random person, and play out their life from there, inheriting their knowledge and memories.
If such a game existed, there would be no way of knowing. If any moment could be this starting point, any choice could be the first.
premise: the human and the animal minds
Between two poles, there are a range of possible outcomes. We can find an infinite range of numbers between one and two, but none of them are three. Likewise, so do choices seem to play out within the confines of our physical brain structure. Someone cannot decide to say a sentence in a language they do not know, or decide to use telekinesis to lift a mug (though they can decide to pretend to do so). Though there are an infinite range of possible choices, this range does not include every possible choice.
This is the paradox – despite the apparent sensation of free will, we are nonetheless shaped by our physical state, which is constantly changing. And, so often, we do act as if on autopilot. In small ways, we zone out. We write down a different word than we intended. We make careless mistakes. In large ways, we say things that feel bad the second they leave our mouths. We destroy things in anger. We hurt those we care about.
Afterwards, the wave of loss and regret is felt in the same way; "I wasn't thinking." or, "I lost control." or, "I don't know what came over me." We blame ourselves, though it seems like our "selves" were never present at all, and the sensation of remorse is like waking up from a bad dream. Our regret grounds our attachment of "self" to the past, and pain finds a new place to settle, and influence the future course of our actions.
We all have our instinctual, animal side – the side that operates between the realm of immediacy and abstraction. The side that "acts without thinking". The animal side is tied to the side that feels, but not the side that observes and uses abstraction. It is connected to the simulated image that we see at all times, not the part of us that watches this world, and acts as navigator to our choices.
This animal side continues to serve us well. We continue to enjoy the same positive sensations that have led our ancestors to seek out food, comfortable shelter, or perpetuate their species. Many of these automatic reactions are useful in both mundane and extraordinary situations. Anger, for example, is related to frustration and adrenaline – it is the sudden bit of energy that enables us to open up a jar lid, or the rush of strength that allows a parent to lift a car off their pinned child.
Aggression is a secondary echo of fear, which is a secondary echo of pain. Just as our minds compare the present to our memories, and can recall a seemingly endless range of thoughts apparently at will, so too do we create a simulation of pain within our minds in order to avoid a negative thing in the future. The wincing cringe of an awkward memory is part of the same echo felt as a jolt of fear when our mouse-sized ancestors saw the shadow of a hawk.
The animal mind operates in closer proximity to the simulation than the higher, observer self seems to. And so, when someone is trapped in this animal state of pain, boundaries between the self become destroyed, and the kaleidoscope, again, sets in.
trapped inside the maze
Just as the bomb never ended, the pain that you take in and the pain you cast out are part of the same wave that also shook the first organisms to show an adverse reaction. The collective pain goes back billions of years, and is now part of a structure that is unthinkable in its magnitude and horror. In the way that the cow cannot conceive of the slaughterhouse, the divisions of the hologram and the walls of the in- and out-groups now overlap and encompass one another to create a machine that we cannot escape from, a funhouse mirror maze with no end. We're all inside the slaughterhouse right now.
the nature of repetition
The way you treat yourself normalizes your behavior. Regardless of whether or not we say that we are only intending to hurt ourselves, and not those that we care about, there is no pattern that does not recur, and what goes around, comes around. Whether in "you reap what you sow" of the Bible, the Buddhist idiom of 自業自得/"your conduct brings your reward", or Tupac Shakur's "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody", we see this idea of cyclicality and interconnectedness. The world shapes you, just as you shape the world around you, and we are the same simulation of the world that we experience. Changing the shape of the vessel changes the shape of the water inside.
Every person has within them the capacity to harm. When you are trapped in pain, you will not seek out cruel people – you will find and see the cruel side within everyone and everything around you, and so enable others cruelty, and make cruelty a more automatic action. And living in the world of pain and trauma is like falling into a nightmare, again and again and again.
But, pain is a wave – it is not a solid. It shapes us, but it is not something we can be. We are more than what we have done, and what has been done to us.
thought toy: stepping away of a dream
Imagine a maze on a piece of paper, with a location in the center that says "start here", and one on the outside that says "exit". You can escape the maze by moving the tip of your pencil through its corridors, or you can escape the maze by crumpling up the page. The maze only has power because you believe that it does – but this does not mean you are to blame when your animal mind takes what it sees at face value. When one is dreaming, one does not realize they are in a dream. And yet, when we awake, we cannot convince ourselves that the dream is real once more – and our lives are spent forever shifting in and out of these states of mesmerization and awakening.
stepping on the hand that pets the cat
All actions echo and reflect. If you have a negative encounter while en route to your destination, when you do arrive, you will be more on-edge towards those around you. These waves and echoes are happening all the time. Our pets, for example, appear to pick up on a person's emotions in ways that we, ourselves, cannot see with such innate clarity. We may have heard anecdotes about a dog growling at a stranger who later turned out to have harmful intentions, or heard the story of Clever Hans, the horse who appeared to be solving math problems, and was instead responding to subtle emotional and physical cues that the people around it displayed.
In seeing the range of these echoes, and the many ways they subtly influence the animal world around us, it would seem that a calm person can be a comforting presence to their pet cat, whereas an anxious owner may give off an energy that signals to their cat that something in the environment is not safe.
Within each person, there exists a part of them with the capacity to care for a pet, or tend to a plot of nature, or offer support to their community. Stepping on the hand that pets the cat does not help the cat.
Thank you for reading these words.