is it real? and does it really matter?

What does it mean to be real? An awkward introductions to scientific mass solipsism.

cutting strings

This week, I’ve been thinking on and off about perception and reality. Having written a post about some of the potentially dangerous consequences of digitizing human minds and uploading them to a world they know is not real, read Stephen Hawking’s thoughts on our model of reality, and finally getting the chance to see the movie Inception, with it’s subtle and haunting ending, made me think about the consequence of trying way too hard to scrutinize or alter reality. Mainly, how do you try to determine what’s real with absolute certainty without suffering from a bout with a psychotic episode? After all, there’s no objective way to establish whether you live in a real, physical world, or something straight out of conspiracy’s blogs’ straightjacket-friendly ravings about alien overlords creating humans on their supercomputers and controlling their existence with code. You could only go by what seems to be the likeliest, most logically sound scenario, i.e. that we all live in a real world.

The root of the problem is that we have limited senses and tend to form ideas of reality from the information available to us. And sometimes, we run into people who process all this information in a way that makes us wonder if they’re living on the same planet we occupy. But if our perception is what makes our reality, how do we know our perceptions couldn’t be manipulated? That was the question asked by Descartes, and his very, very unreassuringly simple answer was that we can’t. Control our perceptions and you control our reality, and since you’re controlling the very things with which we build our picture of what the real world is like, there’s no way to check whether we’re actually being manipulated into thinking something is real. And this is true in just about everything, from our daily humdrum routines, to looking into deep space. Because we can only see so much, all we really have are our best guesses, estimates, and consistently confirmed data. But what if we try to focus all our energies on determining whether we live in the real world or not? What would happen?

We all know that when people believe they’re not living in the real world and there are no actual consequences for their actions, they can, and will, do terrible things. But we also have the desire to escape into a world where we can customize our existence on a whim, while drawing the borders between our fantasies and reality in the process. So when we escape reality by convincing ourselves that it’s not actually there, or plunge into a dream world, we end up with a case of psychosis, constantly unsure if we’re awake, dreaming, or even exist. It would probably be a bad idea to get too involved with any technology that can radically alter our perceptions as not to completely boggle our minds about what’s real and what’s not because we crave a strict delineation between what’s real and what’s not. Maybe it’s best to just stay focused on living in, and surviving whatever we perceive to be real as best we can. And ultimately, that may be all we could do in the end. Just take things one day at a time and accept that we’ll always live with a little but of doubt and uncertainty about everything.

# science // perception / philosophy / psychology / reality


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