The movie Total Recall 1990 was inspired by the book "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" written by Philip K. Dick whose leading role was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The storyline is about a trip into a virtual world in order to fulfil an emotional need which is the need a man has to be a hero.

In this film the protagonist pays for an "ego trip" as a secret agent. This virtual world is created by AI machine whose result is sensory undistinguishable from real life (mind the blue sky on Mars) and as the story unfolds the main character is led to believe that he is not a real person but a just fabrication whose real identity has been erased. As technology to remove memories is available and new fake ones can be imprinted and the simulated virtual world is totally realistic the main character can never really know if his memories are real or whether he is a spy for "the agency" who volunteered to have his memories removed nor if he is just an ordinary construction worker experiencing a computer simulation. He cannot even be certain about the idea he has of himself (ego) because it could have been created by the AI machine.

Concepts such us the illusory nature of reality (Veil of Maya) and how ego, perception and mind blind you from who you really are(consciousness) has been debated in Hinduism and Buddhism for millennia. eg "Pususha or spirit in Samkhya". ref here

Some religions and new age sects talk about pre-birth soul contracts or even you having chosen your experiences and fate in your present life as a writer or god of your of own life for hidden spiritual purposes, then again if an entity (yourself, god, demon, archon, alien, AI, etc.) can create illusory realities and might remove your memories reincarnation after reincarnation just like in the movie you cannot really know because you have to trust what that entity or your forgotten ego says which could be deceitful too. If you could voluntarily and permanently ignore and a decision you made (eg. reincarnate as a serial killer) and memories and reality could be rigged how can you trust that you made that decision in the fist place? (paradox)

According to some Buddhist traditions when Buddha attained enlightenment he was able to remember his past lives and capable of knowing his own and other people's karma and its consequences in the present time, however it's not clear why he was so sure all those previous lives were real and so was karma because they could be potentially illusory, artificial and deceitful in nature as well.

Philip K. Dick was no amateur to these philosophies besides he was among the first few people to pose the simulation hypothesis (1977) as real ref here. He was not only interested in eastern philosophies but in shamanism, psychedelic drugs and experiences under hypnosis. He understood that if all perception can be rigged so can all systems of believes therefore all religions and ultimately all knowledge.

Was he inspired by any other religion or philosopher or it was just his imagination and personal experiences? Any references to this would be appreciated.

"You're nothing! You're nobody! You're a stupid dream." Cohaagen

"A man is defined by his actions, not his memories." Kuato

  • 4
    His published letters and Exegesis feature references to Plato, Jesus, Kabbalah, Spinoza and Heidegger. In the volume Philip K. Dick and Philosophy, ch.11 is on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. See also his interview on philosophy.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 12:20
  • I sense Solipsism is hidden in your post, come on you can't believe that I am the only one who is truly real, can you? :-D Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:21
  • @MathematicalPhysicist It's quite the opposite to solipsism. It's going beyond the Vedanta's "we are all one" and perhaps exceeding the boundaries of Buddhism.
    – user22051
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 21:09

4 Answers 4


In this piece which talks about similar questions about the nature of reality and his own quasi-mystical experiences, he mentions a number of pre-socratic philosophers (Heraclitus, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Anaxagoras) along with Plato, Hume and Spinoza:

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides taught that the only things that are real are things which never change... and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that everything changes. If you superimpose their two views, you get this result: Nothing is real. There is a fascinating next step to this line of thinking: Parmenides could never have existed because he grew old and died and disappeared, so, according to his own philosophy, he did not exist. And Heraclitus may have been right — let’s not forget that; so if Heraclitus was right, then Parmenides did exist, and therefore, according to Heraclitus’ philosophy, perhaps Parmenides was right, since Parmenides fulfilled the conditions, the criteria, by which Heraclitus judged things real.

I offer this merely to show that as soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talk nonsense. Zeno proved that motion was impossible (actually he only imagined that he had proved this; what he lacked was what technically is called the “theory of limits”). David Hume, the greatest skeptic of them all, once remarked that after a gathering of skeptics met to proclaim the veracity of skepticism as a philosophy, all of the members of the gathering nonetheless left by the door rather than the window. I see Hume’s point. It was all just talk. The solemn philosophers weren’t taking what they said seriously.


In Plato’s Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?


To quote Xenophanes another pre-Socratic: "Even if a man should chance to speak the most complete truth, yet he himself does not know it; all things are wrapped in appearances" (Fragment 34). And Heraclitus added to this: "The nature of things is in the habit of concealing itself" (Fragment 54).


Little of what Heraclitus wrote has survived, and what we do have is obscure, but Fragment 54 is lucid and important: "latent structure is master of obvious structure." This means that Heraclitus believed that a veil lay over the true landscape. He also may have suspected that time was somehow not what it seemed, because in Fragment 52 he said: "Time is a child at play, playing draughts; a child’s is the kingdom." This is indeed cryptic. But he also said, in Fragment 18: "If one does not expect it, one will not find out the unexpected; it is not to be tracked down and no path leads us to it." Edward Hussey, in his scholarly book The Pre-Socratics, says:

If Heraclitus is to be so insistent on the lack of understanding shown by most men, it would seem only reasonable that he should offer further instructions for penetrating to the truth. The talk of riddle-guessing suggests that some kind of revelation, beyond human control, is necessary... The true wisdom, as has been seen, is closely associated with God, which suggests further that in advancing wisdom a man becomes Iike, or a part of, God.

This quote is not from a religious book or a book on theology; it is an analysis of the earliest philosophers by a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Hussey makes it clear that to these early philosophers there was no distinction between philosophy and religion. The first great quantum leap in Greek theology was by Xenophanes of Colophon, born in the mid-sixth century BC Xenophanes, without resorting to any authority expect that of his own mind, says:

One god there is, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that.

This is a subtle and advanced concept of God, evidently without precedent among the Greek thinkers. "The arguments of Parmenides seemed to show that all reality must indeed be a mind," Hussey writes, or an object of thought in a mind. Regarding Heraclitus specifically, he says, "In Heraclitus it is difficult to tell how far the designs in God’s mind are distinguished from the execution in the world, or indeed how far God’s mind is distinguished from the world." The further leap by Anaxagoras has always fascinated me. "Anaxagoras had been driven to a theory of the microstructure of matter which made it, to some extent, mysterious to human reason." Anaxagoras believed that everything was determined by Mind. These were not childish thinkers, nor primitives. They debated serious issues and studied one another’s views with deft insight. It was not until the time of Aristotle that their views got reduced to what we can neatly — but wrongly — classify as crude. The summation of much pre-Socratic theology and philosophy can be stated as follows: The kosmos is not as it appears to be, and what it probably is, at its deepest level, is exactly that which the human being is at his deepest level — call it mind or soul, it is something unitary which lives and thinks, and only appears to be plural and material. Much of this view reaches us through the Logos doctrine regarding Christ. The Logos was both that which thought, and the thing which it thought: thinker and thought together. The universe, then, is thinker and thought, and since we are part of it, we as humans are, in the final analysis, thoughts of and thinkers of those thoughts.

Thus if God thinks about Rome circa AD 50, then Rome circa AD 50 is. The universe is not a windup clock and God the hand that winds it. The universe is not a battery-powered watch and God the battery. Spinoza believed that the universe is the body of God extensive in space. But long before Spinoza — two thousand years before him — Xenophanes had said, "Effortlessly, he wields all things by the thought of his mind" (Fragment 25).


you cannot really know because you [would] have to trust what that entity or your forgotten ego says which could be deceitful too.

Seems to lead straight to Descartes:

Latin: "Non posse à nobis dubitari, quin existamus dum dubitamus: atque hoc esse primum quod ordine philosophando cognoscimus."

English: "That we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt, and that this is the first knowledge we acquire when we philosophize in order."

quoted from Stackexchange post

Doubt is unnecessarily harsh though. While essential to Descartes formulation, it is too reductionist in considering all phenomena.

A reasonable step would be to apply Buddha's test in the Unanswered Questions: Does it matter whether Cohaagen exists or Cohaagen does not exist?

  • If he has a detonator it does matter.
    – user22051
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 17:26
  • @PbxMan Yes, interesting. One should follow it up, within reason, n'est-ce pas? Perhaps also be open to psychoanalytic conversation. ;-) Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 18:09

It seems to me this is more or less the issue of hard solipsism. I am not aware of a way out of this. If you take even a small portion of Hume as true, this explains why we cannot ever resolve this issue (see An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding for all the gory details - Hume set out the limits of our knowledge - he was the Heisenberg of Epistemology or rather Heisenberg was the Hume of Physics!). There is just no way out of our subjectivity and even if we achieved some knowledge that was in 'reality' (whatever that might mean!) objective, we apparently wouldn't know it because we have no way of knowing that what we are perceiving is in fact being objectively perceived.

Are we part of a PC simulation? Are you all part of my imagination? No one knows and apparently can know. But we all behave as if this wasn't true and that's good enough for me. The rest is interesting philosophically, allowing us to know the parameters of our knowledge faculties, but as a practical matter..not so much..

  • Hello, and welcome to Philosophy.SE. The question explicitly asks not only for possible inspirations, but actual references. Your only reference is to Hume, yet Hume and Solipsism could hardly be further apart and the link to Dick seems to be based purely on speculation. Thus, it is questionable whether your answer meets the requirements outlined in the body of the question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:08

Actually, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" is science fiction novelette (NOT a novel) by American writer Philip K. Dick, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in April 1966. It is derived in part from his intellectual interests in Philosophy (mentions the Pre-Socratics in his extant letters a lot), Psychology, and German Culture (especially opera music, poetry, and Nazi history resources). He has written that he was raised a Quaker by his Mother, converted to Episcopalianism in part due to his intellectual interest in the works of Bishop Jim Pike, and, in an interview given late in his life he clearly stated that he was "a religious anarchist."

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