Day 173: So It Turns Out Nothing Is Real

originally published June 21, 2012

It’s time to strap on your thinking bong and start imaginating.

What if our world isn’t real? What if nothing we see, taste, fondle, bend, mutilate, or masturbate to exists in the physical world? What if there is no physical world? Do I still have to pay my insurance premiums?

The Simulation Hypothesis has me questioning everything. If nothing is real, and everything I perceive is in fact a computer simulation, or some kind of organic simulation in an alternate reality, what is the real nature of consequence? If that homeless guy I urinated upon wasn’t really there, am I only in a virtual jail cell? Is the public scorn I see in those picketers outside my window just a fantasy? Hypothetically, of course.

Zeno of Elea put it like this: If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, then the flying arrow is therefore motionless. Motion is an illusion. I myself have uttered those same three words, usually when I’m stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the bank.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a prisoner sees some shadows on the wall, cast by unseen hands moving statues in front of a fire. For that prisoner, those statues are real people – his reality is deceptive.

Descartes contemplated whether or not his perception of reality was because of a dream or some evil demon. Descartes must have had a job as mundane as mine; no kind demon would bestow that upon anybody. He felt that the mind exists apart from its extended body. Somehow I picture him as having poor hygiene.

Philosopher David Hume had so little faith in reason, he didn’t feel it could even establish whether the sun was going to rise tomorrow. Nothing can be proven, so it’s best to simply ignore the argument as to whether or not reality is an illusion. That’s fine Dave, but I’ve still got 660 words to write today.

Kant doesn’t offer any clear answers either. Under his concept of transcendental idealism, what we see is simply how things appear to us, not how things actually are. That’s what I love about philosophy – its complete inanity. The way it poses incredibly rich questions, then proceeds to answer them in a way that holds no practical, applicable value in one’s life. Unless you can get away with the “I’m sorry officer, that Stop sign appeared to me to be a Stop sign, but I don’t trust that its true nature is a Stop sign. Have you read any Kant?” defense.

Phenomenalism, a field of study so obscure it doesn’t even slip by Microsoft Word’s spell-check, states that things do not really exist, except as perception and sensory stimuli. That fried chicken was not extra-crispy fried chicken. You perceived a crunch, observed the flavor, and experienced the sensation of swallowing it, but the chicken did not really exist.

Believers in modal realism think that there are an infinite number of worlds out there, running parallel to our own. So there’s probably a world in which our coins are shaped like jellyfish. There’s probably a world in which geese sneeze root beer. And there’s probably a world in which everything we perceive is a simulation. Modal realism is probably the weakest avenue to turn to for evidence of anything.

So if reality isn’t real, then what the hell is it?

The Dream Argument, mentioned in passing by Plato and Aristotle, then expounded upon by Descartes (who would have been a scary guy to take LSD with), suggests that everything we experience could simply be a nocturnal fancy. Ours or someone else’s. You might be reading this article at work right now while the guy in the cubicle next to you is plotting some elaborate Inception scheme. I’d go home, just to be safe.

Maybe there’s some sort of elaborate computer equipment involved. The Matrix is probably the first movie to come to mind with this concept, unless you’re big into blue cats, in which case you jumped right to Avatar. The trip-nician’s term “Passing Through The Veil” refers to that moment in which you are so immersed in the simulation that you are no longer aware that it is a simulation. Just think – that could be you right now. Maybe Keanu was right.

The Brain-In-A-Vat concept is similar. That idea, that a brain might be suspended in a vat mad-scientist-style, while plugged in through its neurons to some supercomputer which feeds it impulses it can pass off as reality, is used in thought experiments. This is what people in the Triple Nine Society do to keep themselves amused. I’ll get more into it on Day “#474: Solipsism”. Crap, now I actually have to remember to write that.

The idea of the Simulation hypothesis has driven innovators to contemplate the creation of the ultimate virtual world simulation. We’ve seen this in fiction and reality (I suppose “reality” should have quotes around it for the purposes of this article). Is it possible to plug ourselves in to a machine that allows us to travel into the bodies of others, trying to change a timeline while wisecracking with Dean Stockwell?

Can a fully realized existence take place within the cartoon visages of a Second Life or Utherverse? Maybe in the plastic grip of a video game headpiece?

The Star Trek holodeck emerges as the ultimate Simulation fantasyland. Professor Peter S. Jenkins at York feels that by 2050 we’ll have unlocked Simulation technology, and planning anything after that would be pointless. I’d have to agree; once they develop the holodeck and I can spend every day riding a hoverboard made of bacon through the Skittles forest, I won’t be making any further real-world plans.

I’m going to jump off this speeding bus (second Keanu reference!) of thought before my brain starts hurting. If life is all some intricate Truman Show, if I’m living some adjusted timeline because of some It’s A Wonderful Life-ish angel whim, or if this is more like what happened in The Thirteenth Floor (I have no idea… never saw the film), then I don’t care.

As long as the simulation lasts at least until The Dark Knight Rises comes out next month, I’ll endure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s