A stroll through the real and the imaginary


It seems that we are at a turning point. Facebook or, as now renamed, ‘meta’, is insisting in its hype that the ‘metaverse’, its version of virtual reality,  is as real as, well, real reality.

In light of this, the philosopher David Chalmers, he who gave us the rather exaggerated concept of the ‘hard problem’ of self-consciousness, is to give subscribers to the New Scientist the benefit of his wisdom in a talk in February. He too will say that Metaverse-style virtual worlds are genuine and meaningful realities. Computer generation does not necessarily mean that they are fake or fictional. We can live a meaningful life through our VR headsets.

He asserts that virtual reality will no doubt bring wonderful things and awful things and, in so doing, it will offer the full range of the human condition. Well, he’s right in his last statement, bearing in mind what’s already available by way of games software.

I’m not though sure that he is right as to the reality of virtual reality. Most of us would accept as a working definition that what we can touch and feel and see and taste and smell is real to us. So then, in that sense, a well-executed VR would indeed be indistinguishable from our actual reality.

But is that what we really mean by the word ‘real’? If I am aware that someone has programmed a computer to induce sensations in me, do I think of those sensations as representing real objects or experiences? If I can literally switch off reality, I’m not sure that it’s very real! For me, reality, even in its ever changing forms, ought to have an inherent permanence and not be capable of being switched on and off on a whim.

I can well imagine what Professor Chalmers is likely to say in his talk, because he gave a Ted talk a few years ago in which he tried to persuade his audience that our minds were not limited to our brains. This new talk looks as though it will be a rehashed version. In his TED Australia talk, he said that our minds should be thought of as including our iPhones, reminder notes made on paper and any other record of our thinking. They all extended our memory and so should be classified as part of our mind.

But this exteranlly recorded information has to be read or listened to and so loaded into my brain. So then, I don't think that external data is a natural fit as a part of my brain! It's just external data.

In fact, in his talk, he gives no justification for his assertion. Instead he, in effect, simply redefines what we normally mean by ‘mind’ to suit his theory. If though he were right, would
it mean that losing my phone was a form of Alzheimers?

Neither in his talk did he make any reference to the compelling classification of the types of reality given to us by Karl Popper. Popper proposed that there are three worlds or domains. World 1 is the world of material objects, events, and processes, including the domain of biology. The second is the world of mental events, processes, and predispositions – the world of beliefs and other psychological phenomena.

The 3
rd domain consists of the externalised products of the human mind – knowledge, art, engineering etc. And this 3rd world is open to investigation and criticism in ways in which the contents of my brain are not while they still remain private and unrecorded.

But what if I am part of a computer simulation as in the Matrix, so that my apparent ‘reality’ is being imposed on me? In the absence of obvious programming errors, I shall have great difficulty in detecting my situation.

If, though, a decision on the reality of my reality is felt to be required, we can adopt another strategy.  If someone-else is creating an illusory life for me, then at least we know that there is someone-else, which would seem to mean that they live in an actual reality, unless we have a Russian doll scenario, with my creator the creature of someone-else. Either way, there must at least be a reality for the person ultimately pulling the strings. So then, if a reality exists, then it might exist for me as well and with far less complexity. And applying our old friend Occam’s razor, it does seem easier to cut out all the puppet masters and say that on a balance of probabilities I am not someone-else’s creation.

By coincidence, the latest edition of ‘Philosophy Now’ looks at how we might be sure of what is real. Bishop Berkeley suggested it was impossible, whereas Dr Johnson demonstrated his proof that reality exists by kicking a stone. I’m afraid I’m with the Bishop. The question of reality has been a long line of philosophical enquiry which has been and will remain doomed to failure if we are looking for actual certainty.

But other than the wished-for certainties of philosophy? Our best guess, well my best guess, based on evolutionary theory is that everything we ‘know’ is in fact the result of our senses feeding our brains with data coming from our interaction with things around us. Our brains then interpret the data to create an image of the world which corresponds sufficiently with what is ‘out there’ to stop us injuring ourselves.

With the help of our parents, we are able gradually to acquire information and understanding of how our ‘reality’ apparently works. This then allows us to interact with whatever other beings or things exist around us and so benefit as a result. Scientists are able to do experiments which, in their assumed reality, apparently tell them things about the world in a way which is consistent with the results of other experiments. And so we have a view of the world which is increasingly consistent with their current theories.

But what do our images of things really amount to? After all, the scientists tell us that our sensations of sight and touch etc. do not give us a fine-grained view of the world around us – we do not see or sense the atoms and sub-atomic particles. We are sensing what is there only at a macro scale with no real concept from the sensation of what the object sensed 'really' is at a sub-atomic scale.

Does that have any effect on our definition of what is real?  Probably not. We use our senses to tell us what is around us in ways which enable us to react to them. It may reasonably be suggested that our evolutionary development as animals requires that, for each species, the way in which we sense things should be to our advantage. Other animals have other ways of perceiving things, but they have not caught on amongst we humans.

That is not to say that we all perceive things in exactly the same way. Whether my images are the same as yours (if ‘you’ exist) is difficult to work out. Research supports the idea that we do indeed see colours differently and that we sense the taste of food differently. We certainly feel pain to different degrees.

That there is a range in the way we, as human beings, perceive things is not in itself surprising. Everything else that we believe that we know about ourselves (and other organic life) entails variation from the norm with the typical Bell curve distribution. So then, I can’t be sure that my understanding of reality is a full description of what is out there, but only that it works for me.

Does the lack of certainty as to whether life is real or imaginary actually matter? Whether it turns out that I live in a real world or a world of illusion, it seems that I still have to eat, sleep, dress myself and do all the other things which are needed during the course of my life.
Which means that answering the question has no obvious practical value.

Of course, if it is a world of illusion then, if I do not eat, my death will also be an illusion - an experiment I don't think I want to conduct. On the other hand, if the world started inexplicably to turn against me, it would be nice to know if it was real or illusory. Even given such information though, we cannot easily control our dreams...or our nightmares.

Paul Buckingham

1 January 2022

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