Real Reality 1 of n: The Problem with Perception

08 Nov

For the past several days, since Friday of last week in fact, I’ve been feeling a most peculiar and unsettling feeling. See, the problem is, I’m not entirely convinced of my own existence.

This is going to be a multi-part series of posts. I don’t know how many, nor what I’ll say in my next one, but this is a complex line of thoughts I’m having, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get it all out in one post. It might be disappointing – I don’t think I’ll come to any hard conclusions here. Feel free to ride along if not getting answers doesn’t bother you. =)

Part 2 is here: Real Reality 2 of n: A Conundrum

Part 1: The Problem with Perception

Let me explain. I’ll start with the outside world – the external world as it appears from my point of view. Let us take it as a fact, complete and whole and true, that there is no way for me to directly verify the existence of this external world. Nothing in the external world can be verified to exist with 100% complete certainty. This is a known problem, and I’m not the only one to have stumbled across it, but it is a perfectly accurate viewpoint.

If you’re not following, consider this: how do we perceive the external world? Through our five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Raw data about the outside world is collected by our sensory organs and transmitted electrochemically to our brains, where this data is parsed, analyzed, and constructed into what we feel is an accurate portrayal of the world. This portrayal is then fed to our consciousness, and we form decisions and act on the basis of that information.

Do you see the problem yet? Going from the external physical world (what we think of as real hard solid objects) to the internal mental world (the world we actually perceive as hard solid objects) requires several changes in format – lossy changes – before we are even allowed to start thinking about it. Consider sight alone: (1) light enters our eyes as photons and strikes our retinas, which (2) produces an electrochemical response that travels through our optic nerve and into our brains, where (3) the signals are translated into a visual scene that exists entirely in our minds. This isn’t the complete picture – there’s more processing that happens, and I don’t fully understand it all – but that’s 3 format changes in just this simple explanation – from physical light to electrochemical response to a mental projection of the scene. Consider as an analogy how much data is lost or corrupted when you make photocopies of photocopies.

If you still don’t see the problem here, consider this: electrochemical inputs can be faked or manipulated. You prove this yourself every single night when you slip off into your dreams. How many of us can say we never had a dream so vivid that we were certain of its reality, no matter how bizarre its manifestation? I certainly can’t say that.

So that’s the crux of my problem. There’s no scientifically valid way for me to verify the existence of, well, existence. Any physical apparatus I could build would be inadequate. How would I verify the existence of the apparatus itself? This is foreshadowing…

Are there any points to be made for reality’s reality? Is there any way to restore my confidence? The persistence of reality seems to be a solid point in favor. We do all seem to share a predictable, persistent, and self-consistent experience of reality. If I put a hole in my wall at home, that hole will stay there until its fixed, whether I’m around to perceive the hole or not. If I leave my house untouched for fifty years, I can come back with confidence that the hole will still be there. The things I do in this world have lasting consequences, and choices cannot ever be unmade. The arrow of time points in one consistent direction, and entropy never decreases.

These are like paper bricks in the wall of evidence, though. Suppose we all just came into being, literally, five minutes ago, complete with memories of a past that never actually occurred. This is a wholly unscientific line of thinking, but interesting nonetheless – such a state of being would be consistent with the representation of the world we perceive, and we would be completely unaware that anything was amiss. You simply can’t rule it out. Once you stop taking reality for granted, you realize you could come up with dozens of ideas that would manifest a world such as ours.

What this boils down to, for me, is that I am not at all convinced that the world around me is real. I have no way to justify such a claim, as I only have my own experiences to draw from. I can never experience anything from any point of view other than my own. The people I meet, interact with, and form relationships with are no different from the rest of reality in this regard. Yes, this means that I’m not at all convinced that you are real either.

No offense. =)


Posted by on November 8, 2011 in Uncategorized


8 responses to “Real Reality 1 of n: The Problem with Perception

  1. allthingstasha

    November 19, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I love the fact that real or have to live with me….FOREVER!!!! *evil laughter*

    • esforbes

      November 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

      Lol – silly, I choose to live with you. =D

  2. Spencer

    December 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    There’s a name for a person who is convinced that he alone exists and that the entire world and all the people around him are just figments of his imaginiation; a Solopsist. I heard a philospher discussing solopsism recently and he told a pretty funny story. On coming to a new university he heard that a professor in another department (I believe it was medicine) was a real solopsist. Anxious to meet a real solopsist he went over to his office but he wasn’t in and only his secretary was available. When he spoke to her she sad, “No, he’s not in, but we try to take care of him around here. We really do. Because WHEN HE GOES WE ALL GO.” get it?

  3. Spencer

    December 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Just a few assumptions I see in your discussion of reality…(1) You sound like a materialist and a naturalist…believing only the measurable or that which can be phsyically apprehended can be classified as real. Just a few things you will have to put in the “non-real: category would be (a) Persons—as distinct from their bodies (b)Abstract ideas such as numbers. Can you prove to me the existence of the number 2? If you can’t identify numbers themselves as real, as a materialist you have to flush rather a lot of precious things down the toilet…like science (c) Do you believe your wife loves you? You doubtless do, and you probably hold this as a rather firm conviction that occupies a central place in your life. But beyond her not having a soul, her love itself also cannot exist by your framework. For intellectual consistency you should openly deny it, should you not?
    Personally I have always found materialistic naturalism, especially as it is wedded to sceince in the minds of its adherents, to be a bit silly. Yes, sceince purports to examine the material because that is what it can (currently) examine. But some centuries ago you had a semblance of sceince with no concept of electromagnetic fields and, lacking the tools to examine them…. would a sceiintist at that time have been betraying his profession had he started to speculate about their existence? My point is that science as it has been historically practiced is about guessing as to the nature of phenomenon and devising experiments to prove, disprove, or clraify the guess. This means, to me, that sceince continually seeks to move beyond what is directly observable and devises ways to try to do so where it cam to investigate what it does not currently see. At the stage of hypothesis and before an experiment has been developed I can’t see in what way one could not call the position of that sceintist a position of faith.

    My larger point is that sceince seeks to explore and define what it can explore and define with the tools available. It seems to me the best scientific position on the areas that sceince CANNOT currently examine is “I don’t know”—or some kind of rather emotionally neutral agnosticism. I cannot think of a LESS sceintifc position than believe that sceince claims the utter non-existence of all things it can’t currently measure. Take the Higgs Boson–all the rage now as sceintists at teh LHC try to gather evidence for its existince. But it is named after a British scientist who postulated its existence in 1946—I don’t think he had a Hadron Collider available. Was he then a poor sceintist? He was discussing things he couldn’t measure and postulating teh existence of a thing that might or might not exist and in any case there wold be many decades before anyone could even figure out how to construct a tool to look for it. Incidentally, the will never apprehend it directly if it is there—they will only gather data to measure the probability of its existence.

    So…I suggest you think carefully on what you mean by “material” and “non-material”. I should think there may easily be many things that are real but that we are unable to measure currently. By this assumption of ‘materialism’ we are obligated to assume their non-existence. It just seems awfully presumptious.

    • esforbes

      December 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      Hi Spencer, thanks for the comments. =)

      Firstly, I don’t really consider myself any ‘-ist’ other than Humanist. To give myself any of these other labels would be to force myself into a box, defending a belief system that may or may not be relevant to the issues at hand. As far as my reliance on evidence goes, I see no other choice. Either something is, or something isn’t – it’s pretty much black and white – and the way to tell the difference between what is and what isn’t is to determine whether the subject of inquiry can be physically interacted with.

      My goal is to embody the precept of ‘open-mindedness’ to its fullest capacity. I am willing to have my beliefs challenged and my opinions changed, but only after serious examination of the subject. Part of that examination involves a thorough review of the evidence. This is necessary because I am striving above all else for correctness and applicability – if a supposed fact isn’t upheld in reality, it’s not much of a fact, is it?

      You seem to be confusing two different definitions of the word ‘real’. I’m not sure exactly what definition you’re using, but I’ll clarify mine using the examples you’ve given:

      A – Persons as distinct from their bodies: I would contend that this distinction is meaningless, for without a body how would one be a Person? Don’t we tend to identify people using their physical features (sight of face, sound of voice, feel of skin, etc)? If you’re referring to knowing someone’s mind, as distinct from their body, there too I would disagree that Persons are not real. Our minds are as physically real as our bodies, according to the evidence which shows that are minds are caused by our brains – or rather, the physical organizational structure of our brains and the ongoing electro-chemical reactions thereof.

      B – Abstract ideas: I do not believe the concept of the number two is real in any physical way. Abstract ideas do not of course exist physically (except insofar as the brain contains the physical representation of these ideas in the form of the electro-chemical reactions of our neurons when we think about them), and that includes our number system. There are many mathematicians who would agree with me. But you seem to be suggesting that just because something is not real, it is not useful. Here I would strongly disagree. Numbers and number systems are tools we as humans use to catagorize and organize the structure of the universe that we encounter on a daily basis. They – like all such abstract concepts – were invented to make our lives easier. That’s all.

      C – Love: Yes, I believe my wife loves me, but this belief is not as concrete a tenant as you seem to expect. A person’s love changes on a daily basis and is, to my experience, a collection of all our expectations and desires for someone else. I believe Tasha loves me right now, but that could change tomorrow. To directly answer your charge, however: Love as a pure concept of course does not exist. To suggest that love can exist outside of the brain is like saying there can be such a thing as a heartbeat in the absence of a circulatory system.

      The question of whether our experiences are physically real or not is largely left up to the individual to answer for themselves. I feel my love for my kids, sometimes, as a tangible thing – when I am deeply missing them, I can almost feel it as a physical pain. My love for them affects me, and it affects them, and so I think it’s real enough for human purposes.

      In my articles on this subject, a thing is ‘real’ if it is capable of physical interaction. By this, I mean: does this thing interact with other things? Can it be measured or felt by some thing? What effects does it cause? What physical change is occurring in response? If there are answers to this question – even if we don’t know what the answers are yet – then the thing is real.

      If these questions can’t be answered, then there’s no point in considering it from a scientific point of view. If a thing doesn’t interact with the real world, then it doesn’t exist in the real world. This should be common sense. How, after all, would you see, feel, or detect such a thing if it never interacted with normal matter? Your eyes are normal matter, as is your brain and all the rest of you.

      Your larger point is a bit of a tautology: that science is ignorant in the areas in which science is ignorant. Of course we can only find what we have the tools to find – that’s a given, and no honest scientist would suggest otherwise. This is why examining the evidence is so important – science works by continually refining itself to cull errors in theory.

      If the theory of electromagnetism, for example, were incomplete it would describe phenomena that don’t match reality, and scientists would be trying to refine the theory to account for these problems. And indeed that’s exactly what’s happening – scientists have found that classical descriptions of electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces are, while very accurate at macro-scale, are incomplete when applied in quantum scales – hence the search for the Higgs Boson, quantum gravity, and the Grand Unifying Theory.

      Science doesn’t sit still, and it doesn’t bend to the wishes of those it serves. Science examines evidence and refines its knowledge based on that evidence. It’s got a proven track record, too – all the scientific advances in the last two centuries have brought us an unprecedented level of power and control over the workings of our world, all thanks to our understanding of the physical world in which we interact.

      Theories don’t sit in a vaccuum either – the Higgs Boson was theorized about well before it could be detected because quantum theory suggested, through extrapolation from the data they had, that it exists. Scientists, being humans, may have beliefs one way or the other about its existence, but SCIENCE does not, and the evidence, when it finally comes to light in a non-ambiguous way, will settle the case.

      The point of all this is that I’m not presuming anything – just taking what the evidence shows and presenting my interpretation of it.

      Thanks again for the comments – very thought-provoking. =)


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