Thursday, May 4, 2017

#124 / Reality Is What?

In a new book, Deviate, Beau Lotto of University College London apparently argues that reality has nothing to do with what’s physically in the world, and has everything to do with what and how we perceive the stuff that’s actually out there. 

“[We] know what is ‘real’ according to what is useful. Evolution isn’t terribly interested in reality. It’s interested in what enables you to ‘not die.’ Hence perception (and behaviour more generally) is about what helps you to survive.” I am getting this from an online article in Inverse, which is also the source of the somewhat disturbing and nausea-producing image above.

The Inverse article further elaborates on Lotto's views as follows: 

[Lotto] cites language as a clear example of something that’s part of our reality but only exists in our collective imagination. “It doesn’t exist without us,” he writes. “But it is very much part of our reality, because it was useful for it to be so.” Scientists have theorized that the human capacity for language is what allowed us to form the social bonds we needed to survive as a species. In Sapiens, the historian Yuval Noah Harari expands on this concept of “shared fictions,” explaining that things like money, laws, and religions are likewise very much a part of our reality because they’re useful to us but also don’t exist, in any concrete and objective way, anywhere outside of our minds. If we collectively stop believing in any of these things, they stop existing — and therefore are no longer part of reality. Perception, he concludes, is all in the brain. And because we’re now learning how to manipulate perception in the brain, it’s entirely possible that we can thereby alter our experience of reality.

I have a great deal of trouble believing that things like "money," "laws," "religion," and "language" are in any way "fictional," or "imaginary," or that they exist only inside our brains.

In fact, I have a twenty dollar bill in my wallet right now. My house is filled with books that all contain writing in several different languages. I went to church on Easter, and there were probably a thousand people there with me, and while I know some of my non-churchgoing friends think that religion is a hallucination, the people in the pews seemed real enough, and there was a traffic problem after the service. You could have measured it, if you had cared to. Finally, please don't tell a lawyer that laws aren't "real." Don't try that out on someone incarcerated in one of the horror palaces we call "prisons," either. Our laws, and what they generate, are very "real" indeed.

I think that Lotto and Harari are pointing out something very important about "reality," however, which is that the human world that we inhabit (including money, laws, language, and religion) is the product of what human beings decide to do, together. We live, most immediately, in a "created world," and we are the creators of the world in which we live. In fact, in our world, nothing is "inevitable," and "anything is possible," as I frequently argue in this blog. Because it is a world that we create collectively, and one in which, literally, "anything is possible," I think it's quite accurate to say that "we live in a political world."

In other words, this world, which exists because we have found it "useful" (Lotto and Harari are right about that) is not "fictional" or "imaginary." It doesn't exist only in our brains, either. It exists because humans have made it this way, and every aspect of the reality of our daily lives is, in fact, susceptible to fundamental change. A world without money? Yep! We could do that. A world without religion? Talk to John Lennon. Seems possible. Lotto and Harari are recognizing, I think, that there is no "inevitability" to the world in which we immediately live, and they suggest (with some reason, I think) that the "realities" of our world have come into existence because we find, or once found, these realities to be "useful." 

But this understanding of our world, which agrees that there is nothing "inevitable" about the reality we inhabit, and that our reality exists because it seems "useful" to us, is something different from claiming that our world is "fictional," "imaginary," or a world that is nothing but "perception," existing within our brains alone. Something that started in our brains has been precipitated into real existence through human choice and action.

We can choose differently. Any part of the human-created world can be eliminated, and made "unreal," when we no longer find it "useful." That's the way I'd try to characterize what Lotto and Harari are pointing out.

This understanding of "reality" puts the human world in a completely different category from the World of Nature, a separate and preexisting world upon which our human world is totally and radically dependent. We seem to think we can ignore the primacy and absolute inevitability of the World of Nature, and that we can live only in the world that we create - or that we "perceive," to characterize it the way Lotto and Harari would put it.

We must not forget that we "live in two worlds," not just in the human world that we create. The fact that we have forgotten this fundamental truth about the "reality" we inhabit is what has given us global warming, and what is bringing death to all the living things on Planet Earth. And that includes us. 

If we need to be in touch with reality so we don't die (a very defensible premise), then we had better recover a right understanding of our radical dependence on the World of Nature very promptly.

The World of Nature is not imaginary, either!

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