Thursday, April 08, 2010

Are you sure this is reality?

We do not know reality: we only perceive it.  Our perceptions are constrained by the limitations of our bodies, the chief of which is the body’s drastically limited timespan.  We extend the range of our immediate ability to perceive, but we are ultimately still very much constrained.  Our perceptions are affected by:
a)      The body’s limitations, such as hunger, fatigue, tolerable temperature range, and so on;
b)      The necessity to mediate our way through the body’s world: to sufficiently fit in to the world around it.
That latter encompasses both physical limitations and the dominant necessity to navigate through interactions with other bodies.  Those other bodies may or may not be inhabited by consciousnesses like ours – it matters not, it’s the verisimilitude that counts.

So in effect, we could be in a comprehensive simulation: that is, trapped inside a “virtual reality” environment that we know not how to exit.

Consciousness of that effect has been heightened in recent years by the emergence of new technologies that get ever closer to simulating [our own understanding of] reality.  This to the point where a syndrome has been documented whereby some people have become convinced that this current “reality” is some sort of simulation.

Philosophically, this is not new.  Science fiction writers in particular have expressed this idea from time to time.  Two writers who have explored this theme several times are Daniel Galouye and, of course, Philip K Dick.

In Dick’s case, the theme is obsessive, something that has in fact dominated his life.  There remains debate over whether his pathology was drug-induced (he had a long and deep history with various psychoactive drugs) or whether he had a pre-existing condition which he reacted to by self-medicating.  There are arguments both ways, but they’re academic now.  What is clear is that the theme (that reality is not as we perceive it) is deeply pervasive throughout his work.  Interestingly, this may be what led to him being the hottest commodity in Hollywood amongst traditional science fiction writers*, albeit mostly after his death, as technological improvements better enabled Hollywood to realise his visions.

Galouye is another story.  Largely unheralded, and dying young,  first encountered by me through the novels Counterfeit World and Dark Universe (when in the course of absorbing my high school library’s science fiction collection).  The former (published as Simulacron 3 in the US) exemplifies this sub-genre: how do you ever tell if you’ve escaped from the simulation into reality?

In fact, a common feature in these science fiction treatises is the discovery of a flaw in the simulation: a thread pulled which unravels the simulation.  (the answer: construct a better simulation that plugs the hole.)

I was reminded of all this on a simple bus ride, observing the people outside my vehicular universe and trying to verify whether there was a difference between reality and a simulation thereof.  Technological advances are going to make it increasingly hard to be confident of tha tdifference.  We’re likely to see much more simulation/reality psychosis.  But as Dick might say: is it really psychosis?

*Some films based on his work include  Blade Runner (‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall (‘We Can Dream It For You Wholesale’), Next (‘The Golden Man’).


bazza said...

Hi Stephen. Reality is a very tricky concept to nail down. You could have also said that our perceptions are limited by the parameters of our sense organs.
For example in 'reality' is there any such thing as colour? It's not in nature but in the angle of incidence in light as it strikes our eyes and becomes interpreted by the brain.
For an insect that might 'see' in the infra-red, the reality would be different.
Perhaps this makes perception more real than reality!

Tom Eagerly said...

I have read this post four times. At first I thought it was in a foreign language but now I see that the fault lies in me!
This subject isn't in the blogoshpere; it's in the stratosphere way above my head.
I am glad you brainy guys are taking care of these kind of problems for us mortals!

bazza said...

Hi Stephen. Please visit my blog to collect an award!