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biophile's picture

How real is reality?

I'd like to think that the picture we have in our heads at least resembles reality. After all, how could we survive in the world if it didn't on some level? If I see a lion running towards me in the distance, I'm not going to just stand there and wonder if it's simply a product of my imagination. I'm either going to run around in circles hopelessly or actually do something to save my life. Even if the picture I have of the lion doesn't completely capture its presence (I can't feel the vibrations it causes in the air or smell the hormones being released into its blood stream or see it in hyper-dimensions, insert other techno babble here, etc), it's enough to know that this is A Very Bad Thing. The brain didn't evolve to enable us to see all of reality. We just need a sliver of it if we want to live long enough to produce the next generation.

Don't get me wrong. It's fascinating to see in what ways we're limited and how our brain tricks us into believing that we can perceive everything around us. The things we talked about in class (how we see walls and checkerboard patterns; holes in our vision that are covered up) are neat little algorithmic tricks our brains carry out just because it's a convenient way to process information. It's amazing to think about, how there are really so many different ways to process information in systems. I for one would never have thought that our brains registered changes in brightness and then colored in the area between change accordingly.

It's really cool to think about for its own sake and it's also really handy to study for practical applications, e.g. in engineering, systems management, etc. After all, what experimental lab is better than the world around us? Nature is the ultimate experiment because the designs we see today have been around for millions of years and have been tested under divers conditions. The study of complex biological systems have far-reaching implications for electrical engineering and communications, for instance. We can find the most efficient design for new developments in technology by looking at what has stood the test of time.

I'm getting off-track, but here's my point: the reality we each experience is a subjective thing. One of the main goals of science is to detect and study the patterns underlying our collective perception of reality in order to see how things work. I hesitate to say that there is no such thing as reality, though, because there are certain things that are just true and we can't get around them. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, even if you use different words for it. The laws of physics and math are true, even if there are new discoveries being made on astronomical levels and in quantum mechanics. The motion of pendulums, the firing of neurons, the synchronization of bodies, the algorithms in computer programs, metabolic cellular functions- they all follow these laws and they can be accurately modelled according to these laws. Outside of this cerebral area, though, I'd say that reality is up for grabs. Let the uncertainty commence.


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