May/June 2012

Editorial, May 2012

Written by Tom McGuire

Google recently announced that they have built goggles which allow human beings to hook their brains up to an online feed, giving them constant bursts of information. Like a smart phone for your mind, these ‘augmented reality glasses’ respond to your voice commands and fill your field of vision with constant reminders, directions and suggestions about where to have lunch. It is not far from the scenario depicted in M.T. Anderson’s satirical novel Feed in which just about everybody has a chip installed in their brain which is permanently hooked up to the Internet. Many people find such technologies disturbing because they blur the line between reality and make-believe.

But the line has never been as clear as we might like to think. Many philosophers and scientists have long pointed out that, for the most part, the tapestry of sensual experience which we call ‘life’ takes place within the mind. It is easy to assume that when you look at something, you are just seeing what is there – but in fact your mind generates an image of the thing based on data provided to it by the eyes. In many cases the mind generates images which do not correlate to anything in the physical world; imagination or hallucination for example. But how do can we distinguish between them? How do we know that anything our mind takes in actually correlates to something ‘out there’ in physical reality? Perhaps what we experience is just an incredibly convincing virtual reality. This unsettling and boat-rocking idea comes up in many philosophies and more recently in popular culture. However, despite being exposed to uncertainty about how valid our experiences are we tend to trust the way it all seem to ‘hang together’. There are a so many predictable laws that seem to govern how it plays out. Trial and error tells me that the experience of cutting open my finger is likely to result in the experience of exquisite pain. Or, like Descartes, some might say that God is the architect of our experience and would never lead us into falsehood.

Many philosophers have long thought that the way in which the world appears to us is different from what it actually is. One of the earliest Greek philosophers, Parmenides, argued that reality must be totally unchangeable and everywhere the same – features which do not apply to what we normally label as reality.

Why do philosophers get so worked up about whether what we experience is actually real? When conducting discussion groups with young people on this kind of topic, I started out expecting them to find the idea of ‘living in the Matrix’ disturbing. But a surprising number of them indicated they are more concerned with the quality of their experiences than how real they are. They would prefer a comfortable illusion to a harsh reality.

Test your own intuitions about this. Imagine that you could walk into a virtual reality chamber so convincing that it was able to simulate every taste, sight or sensation – with virtual mangoes that taste just like the real thing, and soft beaches of sand that you can feel with your toes. While in this virtual world your physical needs are met, allowing you to freely enjoy a computer generated life that you could control. I suspect that there are many people who would say ‘yes’ to living in the chamber. However, I would see this as detestable and I think it has something to do with being philosophically inclined.

My own bias tells me that the philosophical spirit is one which tries to shed as many layers of unreality as possible, rather than adding them on and thereby tightening the coil of illusion. The philosopher wants to know what is, and not merely what seems. Given that our mind already generates part of what we take to be ‘real life’, to plunge deeper into a completely artificial life would be to miss something deeply important. However I must admit I am sometimes at a loss to explain why truth and reality are more valuable than an artificial happiness. And in fact there are many circumstances, particularly the arts, where we value the fruits of imagination over ‘real life’. However, I agree with Joseph Campbell when he says that stories or myth (which is typically what art tries to convey) actually reveal deeper truths about the human condition even if the content of the story is not factual.

A range of thoughtful articles around the theme of reality and appearance have been assembled in this issue for you to consider, reflect and enjoy. We hope you benefit from this edition of Café Philosophy, and keep thinking deeply.