For more on this blog series, start here.
If the end goal is to understand what it’s all about, the starting point must be to address what “it” is.
Now, the question of reality might seem pretty obvious. I mean, reality is simply reality, get on with it, right? Maybe. Probably.
It’s likely not something you think about much. We kind of need to take the “realness” of our world for granted for daily life functioning. But it’s not something I wanted to take for granted, since so much hinges on it. And what if our assumptions of what reality is, ingrained over the years because of their being taken for granted, are wrong? How would we know? It turns out to be not quite so simple.
The problem is, in some ways, we can’t know. After all, you can’t use the framework of reality to test theories on it, since reality itself is in question. It’s kind of like asking a fish what water is like. How do you even define reality, or put it into perspective of the “broader picture,” when it is the only picture there is, or at least the only one we know? The more you think about it, if you’ve tried, the harder it gets (which is honestly one reason I stopped thinking about it so much).
It is certainly possible we are living in some sort of virtual reality, whether created by some other being (think: Matrix) or ourselves (think: the dreaming you do every night). The problem with these sorts of theories is they are non-falsifiable. You can’t disprove them, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily right (in the same way as if I were to claim watermelons are blue on the inside until you cut them). Anyone who says, “but this must be real because…” can be countered by someone else saying, “well that’s just because that’s how your perceived reality works so you are conditioned to see that as real.” Any “evidence” could itself just be simulated evidence.
These questions have been around for countless centuries, much to the delight of the philosophizing industry. More recently, the idea is that everything, from physical forces to DNA to the behavior of particles, seems determined by one thing: information. And if we live in the information age, when it seems likely that in the not-too-distant future we could create a VR (or millions of VRs) so realistic it would be entirely indistinguishable from reality, then what’s to say we aren’t already in one?
For me, one of the reasons I started questioning reality was because of quantum physics. Now, I don’t know enough about quantum physics to understand it (not much at all really); I just know enough about it to know that no one understands it. And that on the sub-atomic level, things operate much differently than we expect. Cause-and-effect, time, distance, continuality, objective existence apart from subjective observation – it’s all up for grabs. And if that’s true on the particle level, and if everything is made of particles, then how do we have faith in even our perceptions and assumptions of the macro-world?
So I’ve laid out the gist of the problem. Eventually, though, I came to the point of acceding that what I experience is, indeed, reality. Why? And, more to the point, what do I mean by that?
First, even if we are in some sort of VR, or (the scarier thought) if I am some sort of comatose being typing these words to no one except my own projections, it still presupposes some sort of reality from which the VR or self originates from. Even in we are in a VR, it would be based on a reality it originates from (e.g. our VR trees are based on [presumably] real trees). Even if you are just my projection, I must be real enough to make projections. So the question becomes not whether there is reality at all, but whether what we perceive as reality is the “real” reality or if we are deceived in some way. Small progress in this thought journey, perhaps, but a comfort nonetheless.
Second, I found it difficult to get past the point that reality, by definition, must exist. Ultimately, I would define reality as simply that which exists. And in some ways, it really may be that simple. I realized the distinction between “virtual” and “reality” may be a moot point; that there seems to be some sort of assumed false dichotomy between “information” and “physical,” or between deception and existence. In other words, everything is virtual (in that everything is merely a sensation produced in our brains – you don’t really see your computer itself, you “see” an image you project of a computer based in information your brain process, which sounds a lot like VR), and everything is “real” (in that even a VR headset is made up of physical atoms and photons). With regards to what we commonly call reality, it seems that everything is information, and yet everything is physical. Both-and, not either-or. (As for the issue of deception, a helpful question to ask may be, is a mirage “real”? I would say yes – a mirage bends reality, but does not negate reality’s existence, but in fact depends on it.) So in all, trying to decide in which box to fit reality, or how “real” things are, is useless. Regardless of exactly how it works, or to whatever extent it is physical and to whatever extent it is information, it still is; it exists; it is our reality.
I came across this amazing article recently (definitely recommended reading, if my post has interested you enough to get this far) which develops one way of looking at this: “There is, however, a more profound reason why perhaps we should not get too worried by the idea that we are just information being manipulated in a vast computation. Because that is what some physicists think the “real” world is like anyway. Some physicists feel that, at its most fundamental level, nature might not be pure mathematics but pure information: bits, like the ones and zeros of computers… This gets to the nub of the matter. If reality is just information, then we are no more or less “real” if we are in a simulation or not.”
Finally, it may simply be a case of a sort of Occam’s Razor. Since there don’t seem to be any undeniable pieces of evidence that one side can put forth for which other sides can’t come up with alternate explanations (e.g. the “unfalsifiable” bit earlier), you kind of have to just choose a preference. And in that case I think the burden of proof probably rests on the side that has the more complex case. Though it’s not necessarily much of a stretch to think that our physical world could be a creation (or re-creation) by another reality, I find it hard to believe that people, with their very non-formulaic range of personalities, emotions, cares, joys, and relationships to be concocted in some way. The “this is reality” view seems more natural, simple, self-evident, and “right.” While that may not be a proof, it may be reason enough to prefer. As the article linked to above says, “we know deep down that the only notion of reality worth having is the one we experience, and not some hypothetical world “behind” it.”
we know deep down that the only notion of reality worth having is the one we experience
You would think this semi-resolution of the matter I have arrived at, that “reality” is, in fact, real, would be comforting. (Maybe it is to others – “Yay, at least Stephen isn’t going COMPLETELY crazy.”) And granted, it has its benefits. But it raises other problems. If this world surrounding me is actually real – incredibly, vastly, informationally-filled, completely outside of me and greater than me and independent of me in its reality sort of real – and yet I find myself within it, trapped in it inescapably with my fate irrevocably tied to it, yet without my having seemingly any final knowledge of what it is or why it is or what I have to do with it – then that is a truly terrifying thought.
This, combined with the certainty if death, means there is no easy way out.
Lest I win an award for the most morose blog post ending, I will introduce the next question. Which is, logically, where did this reality come from? I don’t exactly know. I guess that’s a topic for another day.