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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Is the world real?

When we wonder whether the world is real, we're really asking something else.

E veryone has wondered whether the world is real. In one sense, it's obvious that what we're really asking is not whether it's real (because obviously something is there), but whether it is as it appears to be. Maybe we're living in a simulation. Or maybe it's a torture chamber created by an evil deity.

When the world seems fake, there's always a psychological reason for it. We're always asking something else. Our task is to figure out the real question we're asking.

We may be suffering from psychological or physical pain, in which case we're hoping that it's a bad dream and we'll wake up: we don't want this to be real. Or maybe we're deprived of psychological factors we need, like companionship, and are substituting something fake, like the internet, instead. When we fill our lives with fake things, it shouldn't surprise us that we edge toward dissociative-rerealization disorder. Or maybe we're frustrated with our limita­tions. Why, for example, when we put something down, can we never remember where it was?

Logically, of course, we know the reason is that our memory is not designed for modern lives where we have 57 screwdrivers, 2000 books, and thousands of other items. We know that if we made mental notes of every action we'd remember them forever, and the memories would quickly become inaccurate and useless.

Orion Nebula
How do we know this is real?

In all these cases, what we're really asking for is more power. If we're losing things, we want fine-grained power over our mental processes. If something terrible happens to us, we think we're doubting that it's real, but what we really want is the power to change the past—the power to make it unreal.

How often has each of us wished we could go back in time to change some decision that we now know has had disastrous consequences? If we could just send a warning to our past selves—not to let this person get away, not to marry that one, not to make that bad career decision, or not to stick some particular object in the place where it really does not belong—our problems would go away.

Sending information back in time is, of course, impossible. But not just because the laws of physics prevent it.

If we could send information back in time, it would automatically change how we interact with the world. We'd go into a mode where we test the effects of each action to determine which was the best course. This would in turn create a multiverse in which infinite combina­tions of decisions would be played out. Since billions of other people would be doing the same thing, it would be impossible to hold their actions constant, and therefore every test we made of the future would give us an incorrect result.

If we could change the past, it would be like living in a world with the capricious deities in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where you're walking around minding your own business and suddenly you're a horse.

What people really want, therefore, is for themselves to have the power to influence the past but for no one else to have it. And that is indistinguishable from the desire for absolute power.

The firmest law of nature is that time is unidirectional. Why do we call this a law? The term suggests that somebody dictated it. But why is there any regularity in natural phenomena at all? Why is there not just chaos?

True chaos would be incomprehensible to us, but the concept of chaos defines for us the boundaries of what is knowable. Our intelligence can only exist in an ordered universe: not because the brain is complex, but because intelligence itself is derived from the universe. Our intelligence cannot exceed the intelligence of the universe any more than the shape of a key cannot be more complex than the combination of pins in a lock.

Our conscious minds try to create a consistent interpretation of the sense data and emotions that we experience. This gets in the way of any ideas or insights that come from our subconscious. The subconscious is always feeding us its own insights, plans, and ideas, but they are intercepted, filtered, and reinterpreted by the conscious mind, which forces them into the narrative it is creating.

So when we gaze down at the mess our lives have become, all the opportunities we missed, and all the essential things we need to survive but can never get, and we wonder if there could be some magical way to get out of it, it's nothing but another narrative that our mind has created to help us survive.

There are people out there who are convinced they don't exist. In most cases it's the result of severe trauma. But when we follow the crowd instead of making our own decisions, we edge toward intellectual non-existence ourselves. We think that joining the crowd is giving us power, but it's actually depriving us of own sense of agency. When everything that happens to us is caused by others, it's no wonder the world feels fake, because for all practical purposes it is.

jun 22 2019, 5:54 am. last edited jun 25 2019, 5:57 am

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