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.

  1. Great post MAL!
    Does the world exist when there is no one to perceive it?

    • Oh, the subtle but overlooked distinction between what is real and what we are justified in saying is real…

      • I tried to avoid simply saying that, opting to try to explain why that is so. I hope it made sense.

        • It makes sense. It’s related to Carl Sagan’s question about the difference between an incorporeal dragon that can dodge every imaginable investigation and a dragon that does not exist at all…

          • I try to internalize it so that the ideas are presented as thoughts. Each reader has them and has to grapple with how theirs work and where they come from.

    • There is a damn good question. It does exist but it has no colors or names or shapes… it simply is

  2. Our brains produce symbolic representations that it then manipulates and tests against the environment in which it operates to establish confidence in the representation. Sense data aids in accumulating feedback (which is why we can train our brains to ‘see’ with our skin and balance the body’s movement with our tongue. Our brains don’t care which organs sense; it simply requires data to formulate representations of the environment. Representations that work describe the environment. If there was nothing to describe, then our brains would have nothing to work with. That’s how we ‘know’ our environments are real: they cause effects independent of the brains that represents it. It’s a sound working hypothesis (using Bayesian inference) to safely assume the representation that works for everyone everywhere all the time describes an environment independent of the brains that arrive at representing it the same way.

    The tools for describing the environment are many and one the most functional ways is using a symbolic representation that can be independently manipulated and then tested against this external environment. This is where math comes in so handy. Math is a symbolic representation of empirical data and numbers a symbolic representation of quantity. Combined in systems of representation, this tool works to allow us to manipulate changing variables to arrive at ‘answers’ that can then be tested against the external environments so that we don’t have to keep going back to the environment each step of the way and “reinventing the wheel” each time we wish to work with quantity (sticks that are handy today, rocks that are handy tomorrow, seeds that are available at this time of the year bit not that time, and so on). Now imagine having to start counting every time from the single to the quantity we wish to start with, wasting time and energy before we can even begin the calculation to compare and contrast data we wish to do! Much easier to establish a common numerical system first and then work with it. Again, the numbers are not real (how many symbols are there, for example, to represent the number 7?, how many different numerical bases – computers, time, distance and direction, – are there in operation around you today?) but representative, and their manipulations – like infinity – represent useful constructs.

    These constructs are developed to represent our external reality. Some are easy to understand, some deeply counter-intuitive, some so far out there that they are very difficult to grasp. That’s why we tend to use symbolic representative systems (words and math and art and mythology let us not forget) to help us break down the descriptions and relationships and causal effects we are trying to describe before we begin to make predictions about them and then test. That’s what our brains do all the time – waking and sleeping. They are symbol machines busy manipulating the data they receive and interpreting non stop.

    • Having worked with the code in 3D online games, I can see the world now as objects with properties in that same paradigm. Obviously our world is more complex than what our 3D worlds are at this point, but the point where everything becomes data in our brains keeps us isolated from the physical such that it could in fact be fake or a simulation. The trick I think, is to understand that we live in our own simulation so it appears often enough that the external world is a simulation.

      Your comment about what our brains are doing continuously from birth to death is quite correct in my view. From this consciousness emerges. You also touched on why humans can’t think of anything that they have not experienced or something derived from experience and I think that is untested validation of my understanding that the brain is just a computer on which consciousness runs as an application.

      There is still a missing something that is needed to validate free will in this existence we know. All verification of such is done from within the domain we are examining so it is difficult to say that in this existence there is free will rather than it simply seeming like there is free will. I’m still working on that. Other’s listen to my ideas but remain unconvinced of free will. I believe that the Heisenburg uncertainty principle will in fact turn out to show us that no quantum particle can be deterministic in all respects. This might simply push the power required to compute the deterministic values of any given 3D object of our experience to more than the energy known to be in this universe. At that point the probability that the universe is fully deterministic is both moot and negligible.

      Deterministic universe would require that every 7th dimension particle/string etc. behave in deterministic ways also. The matrix of compute necessary becomes impossibly large so as to make the problem practically unsolvable. Unless someone discovers a rule that demands that all dimensions follow some deterministic path that is evidenced in test instruments we can assume that even if the dimensions we are familiar with are effectively deterministic we cannot assume that all dimensions are so. There is in this room to explain free will as it has been but also remove the deterministic properties of a monist understanding.

      Thanks for such a great comment.

      • My understanding of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is an either/or problem, and it this: the police officer asks me if I knew how fast I was going and I tell him no, but I knew exactly where I was. This is why I call it the principle of indeterminancy: we can determine either speed or location but not both at the same moment. It is complicated by the notion of the observer effect and what quantum meal is complete without a dessert of entanglement!

        I am not clear how any of this relates to our brains symbolically representing our environments and testing these road maps and models by selecting what works best over time. Again, if the testing is affected by a simulation, then the simulation is as real as real can be known, whereas if the process of symbolically representing our environments is merely a simulation then the environment will be disconnected from affecting it and we will achieve the likelihood of .5. And, like with the probabilities of QM, with enough data to produce statistical consistency, we establish accuracy of our road map/model to very high degree… because it works.

        I don’t think we have free will because if it’s free then it’s not will (it’s random) and if it’s will then it’s not free (it’s contingent). I think our decisions are like an every narrowing run of directly connected if/then statements: the final product is absolutely chained – determined, in other words – by the causal chain that led to the final link. Where I think lots of folks go astray is assuming we can’t grant more consideration – more weight – to this link or that and this is also established by brain. But the remarkable thing is that our brains are far more than computers and can make selections of which neural links to weigh more heavily based on all kinds of chemical interactions: the eureka moment of a burst of creativity might be causally related to the number of grains of caffeine we percolated and then ingested, the mood we have affected by a colour which changes the neural pathways of considerations, and so on. With trillions of connections available to us, we arrive somewhere with a causal chain that could not have been any other way at that exact moment. But to presume this means a determinancy something like destiny is incorrect; what might have been indeterminancy at an earlier stage becomes determinancy when the brain acts on it and we have no miniature invisible driver controlling these neural reins of actual selection; we have grooves of pathways deeper and easier to utilize (like the ploughed furrows of a farmer’s field) for our thoughts to follow (like water poured over them). We can retrain the brain to use smaller and more difficult furrows by practice and environmental reinforcement (like the mirror box therapy by Ramachandran). Note that no amount of ‘will’ free or otherwise transmutes this pain, but a simple visual trick does the job because the brain selects the visual cortex to ‘trust’. This goes back to our brain’s reliance on symbolic representation and relying on what works! Even if this box therapy is a ‘simulation’ as far as the brain is concerned it is real as real can be known.

        • I agree with you but with uncertainty 😉
          The ever tightening causal link/choices does lead to a determinant spot but that spot is not predetermined. This is true of every change of if/then links, but if/then implies a known limited set of choices which the human brain is not limited to, and this gives us those spurious aha moments. At any point in the chain of events one can cast a perspective backwards through them and say they worked together to lead to this one point when this is not necessarily so. At any given point we can choose an option/answer/action which negates all or most of all previous choices. You might argue that even the aha moment which causes a choice that was not being lead to is deterministic as Harris does, but this thought stands in stark contrast to moments of random genius. Such are truly rare, but not impossible. More below.

          to the point that we are all going to die, choices we make which affect our bodies ability to resist decay do have a causal chain that seems unbroken because the body is required to adhere to physical laws. The human brain is not constrained to those laws in operation except in the manner in which it functions (electro chemical). The action of thought is not constrained to physical laws and therefore is not constrained to a causal chain of events. Notably, Sam Harris gets this wrong (along with other bits) in his argument against free will, where free will is merely the ability to choose a preferred action, not to act on it, not to prevent it, only to choose it. In this manner, every thought is in and of itself an act of free will by this definition. circling back, free will is not constrained by the physical universe except as mentioned. We cannot will ourselves to live longer, for example.

          On the thought of random genius, our brains are able to combine any property of any object in ways that are not determinant or experienced so far. This can be said to be part of the subconscious mind doing the work, but it is not easy to reproduce. True random genius is rare and we have the plethora of ‘theories of everything’ we have now to show for it.

          Any idea should work normally for normal situations but in the edge cases we see the most interesting things. The random genius moment is an edge case. Savaants can do wonderous things but are not able to produce genius thought, at least this not their claim to fame.

          Random genius, like all random thought, seems to have root in the subconscious mind yet it is unexplained why or how the brain sees the rules differently for these moments. When Einstein looked at a clock and saw relativity clearly, there is no particularly good explanation for why that would be. I figure that some random thought can be sourced from random chemical or electromagnetic activity external to the brain. It’s unknown, yet seems limited to a small group of individuals and even at that, not reproducible that I know of. If it were available in pill form the government would be making it 24/7 for military use. We still spend a lot of resource finding the best and brightest… good will hunting style if need be.

          The variability of the human brain confuses the issue but does not remove the edge cases.
          Well, that was rambling a bit. Despite our focus we cannot force genius to happen and that indicates strongly that our point in time is not simply a result of a chain of causal events. Such would be recognized as a pattern… even old dogs learn new tricks once in a while.

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