What Is Real? – or – Let’s Get Real…
There are uncounted numbers of articles and blogs that talk about what is real. There are many articles and blogs talking about what infinity is and if it is real or even if numbers are real. The awesome blogger Allallt has a post about Infinity and that is what inspires this posting.
There are many ideas about what reality is. Most of them are posited in absence of explaining how we perceive reality. That is left for the reader to decide best for themselves. This is a mistake for it is in the perception that the difficulties of what is real and what is not happen. The question itself is about what we perceive to be real and not, not actually what is real or not.
Your brain is a meat machine. It is a chemical based computing system which has only the ability to sense the outside world and create, for analysis, hypothetical simulations of the world. The sensors are not perfect, not even close. Humans wear hearing aids, glasses, and all manner of prosthesis. We use night vision and microscopes/telescopes to see with the eye what the eye cannot see on its own. We use tools to extend the effect of our impact on the world around us. We are, for lack of any better phrase, isolated from the world around us by the necessity of senses and remote muscular control. I say remote because the muscles do not decide to activate themselves, our brain activate them. We are, in a sense, a biological drone… controlled from the brain but still the ‘I’ in this is remote from the physical world interactions. Because of this we cannot be certain that the world is not a simulation or that the world we perceive is ‘real’ … whatever that means.
Without certainty, and we innately understand that we don’t have it, we can only know what we sense. When you’re seeing something unusual, you might turn to your friend and ask if they saw it too. This behavior shows we do not innately trust what we sense, but seek external corroboration for anything unusual. That is to say that in normal circumstances this is what we do. Some will swear they saw a ghost without any corroboration despite any valid reason to not believe such things exist. These people are using only their perceptions and nothing else.
Spoiler alert: we cannot sense abstract ideas. They are not available to our senses, only to our brains. It stands to reason then that abstract ideas are not real and are merely a confabulation borne of activity in our brains. Funnily enough, numbers are just such kind of stuff – including the value infinity. They exist only in our heads. The question then about reality is ‘what does it mean to exist only in our minds?’ Is that existence as valid as the existence of anything outside of our minds? On a technical level, yes it is. Let’s use a football as an existing object outside of our minds. We know the football exists because our senses tell us that it is there, has form and mass, and can be observed by others. Yet all that information is delivered to our brains via nerve cells and electro-chemical signals. If someone explains the vital statistics of the planet Jupiter to us, these data get to our brains with the same kinds of electro-chemical signals. That is to say that our brains get the information in the same physical format. To our brains there is little difference in the information except that one is accompanied by local sensor data and one set is not. Because our friend also observed the football, we trust the information about the football’s existence. Because Neil DeGrasse Tyson told us about Jupiter we trust the information. We now have the same level of trust for both sets of data. Both sets were received in the same format to the brain proper, and both are now incorporated into our simulation of the world around us as facts or truths.
Now, let’s assume we have more friends in high places and this time Stephen Hawking tells us that infinity is real. That such a value exists. That it is at least one greater than anything you can imagine or measure. This is a concept, but a real concept. It can’t be tested except theoretically. It can’t be measured, except in the abstract. It can’t be sensed except in the imagination. Remember that we received the data about infinity in the same ways we did about the football.
Whoa!? Did I just argue that reality is not ‘real’? No, just that we can’t tell the difference EXCEPT where our senses can be part of the data collection process. Yes, using technology we can extend our senses all the way to Jupiter and Mars and beyond. The infinity concept and others like it do not have the additional weight of sensory input corroboration.
Okay, smartie pants, just what is a concept by your definition then?
Wow, I’m glad you asked that. I’ve been waiting for that question. To ask this question one must necessarily answer the challenge to define thought. Shall we?
I’ve been talking about the simulation running in your brain that models the world around us and allows us to interact with it in a seemingly real time manner. Without the simulation we’d have to interpret all the sensory data ourselves, one bit at a time, such that simply moving your head out of the way of a flying football would take much longer than it does for a football to break your nose. If we think about it for a bit, our sight and hearing senses send us millions or billions of bits of data during such an event. It is a true wonder of nature and evolution that we have a brain which can process that amount of information in near real-time. We do that by summarizing the data in chunks and by sensor type then that data is fed into a simulation where we can predict the outcome of the unfolding events. That simulation is what you call consciousness. If you are deaf and blind or asleep you’re going to get your nose broken by the football… or eyes closed while listening to your music player. The point is that nothing is real or existent to our minds unless it is summarized in that simulation.
Concepts are simply thoughts. Thoughts are the act of connecting objects together through action in the simulation without needing sensory input to do so. Doing this, thinking, you can imagine what it is like to be on the beach in the south of France right now, or some warm summer afternoon. Your mind has the ability to call into the simulation objects and rules that are not part of the immediate world around you. What I’m getting at here is that thoughts are real, in as much as the exist in our minds. To be pragmatically useful, they need to be about things that are in the immediate world around us. The concept of infinity is not pragmatically useful except to help solve certain kinds of problems. It is not a concept at that point, it is a tool or simulator rule which helps us to simulate the problem in our mind. In that respect, it is as real as gravity or the explosive properties of petroleum products. That is to say that inside our minds all concepts are as real as each other. We like to differentiate real and concept by the property of an idea that defines its existence in the real world. A thought about ice cream is not a concept, ice cream is not a concept. A thought about infinity is a concept, you can’t go to the local grocers and order 4 liters of infinity.
Numbers are mathematical values used to represent relationships between objects. These relationships are concepts and real. The relationships between objects when represented by math can help us to put a spaceship on Mars but still, you can’t go to the grocers and get a couple liters of square root. (I’m not saying that wouldn’t be a good flavor of ice cream)
In our minds, real data and concept data share the same space and are used in the same simulations. It is only their connection to the outside world that differentiates real and conceptual. God belief is conceptual. Belief that water is made of 2 hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule is not. Infinity is a useful concept, it is not real. The only way that we have to reliably confirm that an idea or thought is about something real is where it can be verified and observed by others. That does not stop us from treating thoughts or ideas as real inside our minds/simulations. This is generally called superstition or delusion. When we find that an idea or concept can be shown in the real world and is verifiable and testable, then the concept becomes a thought about the real world. When a crazy idea or thought is found to be true in the real world we sometimes call this genius. Genius in this case can be defined as the ability to see relationships between objects that have not be commonly observed or discussed. A crazy idea that is not found to be true in the real world remains creative imagination or delusion or superstition etc.
The path to enlightenment is nothing more than removing false rules from the simulation in your mind, and knowing when to trust a concept and when not to.
All thoughts are conceptual, some are about real things, some are not.