Philip K. Dick Theorizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Computer-Programmed Reality”

In 1963, Philip K. Dick won the coveted Hugo Award for his novel The Man in the High Castle, beating out such sci-fi luminaries as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Arthur C. Clarke. Of the novel, The Guardian writes, “Nothing in the book is as it seems. Most characters are not what they say they are, most objects are fake.” The plot—an alternate history in which the Axis Powers have won World War II—turns on a popular but contraband novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Written by the titular character, the book describes the world of an Allied victory, and—in the vein of his worlds-within-worlds thematic—Dick’s novel suggests that this book-within-a-book may in fact describe the “real” world of the novel, or one glimpsed through the novel’s reality as at least highly possible.

The Man in the High Castle may be Dick’s most straightforwardly compelling illustration of the experience of alternate realties, but it is only one among very many. In an interview Dick gave while at the high profile Metz science fiction conference in France in 1977, he said that like David Hume’s description of the “intuitive type of person,” he lived “in terms of possibilities rather than in terms of actualities.” Dick also tells a parable of an ancient, complicated, and temperamental automated record player called the “Capard,” which reverted to varying states of destructive chaos. “This Capard,” Dick says, “epitomized an inscrutable ultra-sophisticated universe which was in the habit of doing unexpected things.”

In the interview, Dick roams over so many of his personal theories about what these “unexpected things” signify that it’s difficult to keep track. However, at that same conference, he delivered a talk titled “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others” (in edited form above), that settles on one particular theory—that the universe is a highly-advanced computer simulation. (The talk has circulated on the internet as “Did Philip K. Dick disclose the real Matrix in 1977?”).

The subject of this speech is a topic which has been discovered recently, and which may not exist all. I may be talking about something that does not exist. Therefore I’m free to say everything and nothing. I in my stories and novels sometimes write about counterfeit worlds. Semi-real worlds as well as deranged private worlds, inhabited often by just one person…. At no time did I have a theoretical or conscious explanation for my preoccupation with these pluriform pseudo-worlds, but now I think I understand. What I was sensing was the manifold of partially actualized realities lying tangent to what evidently is the most actualized one—the one that the majority of us, by consensus gentium, agree on.

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