Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Are These Things Called "Realities"?

Here follow some philosophical musings, pursued by my rambling mind one evening during the Xmas / New years interval.... I inflicted these ramblings on my kids for a while then finally decided to shut up and write them down....

The basic theme: What is this thing called "reality"? Or if you prefer a broader view: What are these things called realities??

After yakking a while, eventually I'll give a concrete and (I think) somewhat novel definition/characterization of "reality."

Real vs. Apparent

Where did this idea come from -- the "real" world versus the "apparent" world.

Nietzsche was quite insistent regarding this distinction -- in his view, there is only the apparent world, and talk of some other "real world" is a bunch of baloney. He lays this idea out quite clearly in The Twilight of the Idols, one of my favorite books.

There's certainly some truth to Nietzsche's perspective in this regard.

After all, in a sense, the idea of a "real world" is just another idea in the individual and collective mind -- just another notion that some people have made up as a consequence of their attempt to explain their sense perceptions and the patterns they detect therein.

But of course, the story told in the previous sentence is ALSO just another idea, another notion that some people made up … blah blah blah …

One question that emerges at this point is: Why did people bother to make up the idea of the "real world" at all … if there is only the apparent world?

Nietzsche, in The Twilight of the Idols, argues against Kant's philosophical theory of noumena (fundamentally real entities, not directly observable but underlying all the phenomena we observe). Kant viewed noumena as something that observed phenomena (the perceived, apparent world) can approximate, but never quite find or achieve -- a perplexing notion.

But really, to me, the puzzle isn't Kant's view of fundamental reality, it's the everyday commonsense view of a "real world" distinct from the apparent world. Kant dressed up this commonsense view in fancy language and expressed it with logical precision, and there may have been problems with how he did it (in spite of his brilliance) -- but, the real puzzle is the commonsense view underneath.


To get to the bottom of the notion of "reality", think about the example of a mirage in the desert.

Consider a person wandering in the desert, hot and thirsty, heading south toward a lake that his GPS tells him is 10 miles ahead. But suppose he then sees a closer lake off to the right. He may then wonder: is that lake a mirage or not?

In a sense, it seems, this means he wonders: is that lake a real or apparent reality?

This concept of "reality" seems useful, not some sort of philosophical or mystical trickery.

The mirage seems real at the moment one sees it. But the problem is, once one walks to the mirage to drink the water in the mirage-lake, one finds one can't actually drink it! If one could feel one's thirst being quenched by drinking the mirage-water, then the mirage-water wouldn't be so bad. Unless of course, the quenching of one's thirst wasn't actually real… etc. etc.

The fundamental problem underlying the mirage is not what it does directly in the moment one sees it -- the fundamental problem is that it leads to prediction errors, which are revealed only in the future. Seeing the mirage leads one to predict one will find water in a certain direction -- but the water isn't there!

So then, in what sense does this make the mirage-lake "only apparent"? If one had not seen the mirage-lake, but had seen only desert in its place, then one would not have made the prediction error.

This leads to a rather mundane, but useful, pragmatic characterization of "reality": Something is real to a certain mind in a certain interval of time, to the extent that perceiving it leads that mind to make correct predictions about the mind's future reality.

Reality is a Property of Systems

Yeah, yeah, I know that characterization of reality is circular: it defines an entity as "real" if perceiving it tends to lead to correct predictions about "real" things.

But I think that circularity is correct and appropriate. It means that "reality" is a property attributable to systems of entities. There could be multiple systems of entities, constituting alternate realities A and B, so we could say

  • an entity is real_A if perceiving it tends to lead to correct predictions about real_A things
  • an entity is real_B if perceiving it tends to lead to correct predictions about real_B things

I think this is a nicer characterization of reality than Philip K. Dick's wonderful quote, "Reality is whatever doesn't go away when you stop believing in it."

The reason certain things don't go away when you stop believing in them, I suggest, is that the "you" which sometimes stops believing in something, is actually only a tiny aspect of the overall mind-network. Just because the reflective self stops believing in something, doesn't stop the "unconscious" mind from assuming that thing's existence, because it may be bound up in networks of implication and prediction with all sorts of other useful things (including in ways that the reflective self can't understand due to its own bandwidth limitations).

So, the mirage is not part of the same reality-system, the same reality, as the body which is thirsty and needs water. That's the problem with it -- from the body's perspective.

The body's relationship to thirst and its quenching is something that the reflective self associated with that body can't shake off -- because in the end that self is just one part of the overall mind-network associated with that body.

Counterfactuals and Analogies

After one has seen the mirage and wandered toward it through the desert and found nothing -- then one may think to oneself "Damn! If I had just seen the desert in that place, instead of that mirage-lake, I wouldn't have wasted my time and energy wandering through the desert to the mirage-lake."

This is a philosophically interesting thought, because what one is saying is that IF one had perceived something different in the past, THEN one would have made more accurate predictions after that point. One is positing a counterfactual, or put differently, one is imagining an alternate past.

This act of imagination, of envisioning a possible world, is one strategy that allows the mind to construct the idea of an alternate "real" world that is different from the "apparent" world. The key mental act, in this strategy, is the one that says: "I would have predicted better if, 30 minutes ago, I had perceived desert over there instead of (mirage-) lake!"

But in discussing this with my son Zar, who doesn't like counterfactuals, I quickly realized, one can do the same thing without counterfactuals. The envisioning of an alternate reality is unnecessary -- what's important is the resolution that: "I will be better off if, in future cases analogous to the past one where I saw a mirage-lake instead of the desert, I see the analogue of the desert rather than the analogue of the mirage-lake." This formulation in terms of analogues is logically equivalent to the previous formulation in terms of counterfactuals, but is a bit more pragmatic-looking, and avoids the potentially troublesome postulation of alternate possible worlds….

In general, if one desires more accurate prediction within a certain reality-system, one may then seek to avoid future situations similar to past ones in which one's remembered perceptions differ from related ones that would have been judged "real" by that system.

Realities: What and Why

This seems a different way of looking at real vs. apparent reality than the one Kant proposed and Nietzsche rejected. In the perspective, we have

  • reality-systems -- i.e. systems of entities whose perception enables relatively accurate prediction of each other
  • estimations that, in future situations analogous to one's past experiences, one will do better to take certain measures so as to nudge one's perceptions in the direction of greater harmony with the elements of some particular reality-system

So, the value of distinguishing "real" from "apparent" reality emerges from the value of having a distinguished system of classes of phenomena, that mutually allow relatively accurate prediction of each other. Relative to this system, individual phenomena may be judged more or less real. A mind inclined toward counterfactuals may judge something that was NOT perceived as more "real" than something that was perceived; but this complication may be avoided by worrying about adjusting one's perceptions in future analogues to past situations, rather than about counterfactual past possibilities.

Better Half-Assed than Wrong-Headed!

After I explained all the above ideas to my son Zar, his overall reaction was that it generally made sense but seemed a sort of half-assed theory of reality.

My reaction was: In a sense, yeah, but the only possible whole-assed approaches seem to involve outright assumption of some absolute reality, or else utter nihilism. Being "half assed" lets one avoid these extremes by associating reality with systems rather than individual entities.

An analogue (and more than that) is Imre Lakatos's theory of research programs in science, as I discussed in an earlier essay. Lakatos observed that, since the interpretation of a given scientific fact is always done in the context of some theory, and the interpretation of a scientific theory is always done in the context of some overall research program -- the only things in science one can really compare to each other in a broad sense are research programs themselves. Research programs are large networks of beliefs, not crisp statements of axioms nor lists of experimental results.

Belief systems guide science, they guide the mind, and they underly the only sensible conception of reality I can think of. I wrote about this a fair bit in Chaotic Logic, back in the early 1990s; but back then I didn't see the way reality is grounded in predictions, not nearly as clearly as I do now.

Ingesting is Believing?

In practical terms, the circular characterization of reality I've given above doesn't solve anything -- unless you're willing to assume something as preferentially more real than other things.

In the mirage case, "seeing is believing" is proved false because one gets to the mirage-lake, one can't actually drink any of that mirage-water. One thing this proves is that "ingesting is believing" would be a better maxim than "seeing is believing." Ultimately, as embodied creatures, we can't get much closer to an a priori assumptive reality than the feeling of ingesting something into our bodies (which is part of the reason, obviously, that sexual relations seem so profoundly and intensely real to us).

And in practice, we humans can't help assuming something as preferentially real -- as Phil Dick observes, some things, like the feeling of drinking water, don't go away even if we stop believing in them … which is because the network of beliefs to which they belong is bigger and stronger than the reflective self that owns the feeling of "choice" regarding what to believe or not. (The status of this feeling of choice being another big topic unto itself, which I've discussed before, e.g. in a chapter of the Cosmist Manifesto.).... This is the fundamental "human nature" with which Hume "solved" the problem of induction, way back when....

Now, what happens to these basic assumptions when we, say, upload our mind-patterns into robot bodies ... or replace our body parts incrementally with engineered alternatives ... so that (e.g.) ingesting is no longer believing? What happens is that our fundamental reality-systems will change. (Will a digital software mind feel like "self-reprogramming is believing"??1) Singularity-enabling technologies are going to dramatically change realities as we know them.

And so it goes…


Peter A said...

Hi Ben. How about this:

Reality is the name we give to the order we find in the system of our sense data.

A lake is the name we give to patterns we experience in sights, sounds, tastes, etc. A desert mirage encompasses some of those sensations (visual ones at a distance), but not all. It is a real mirage, just not a real lake.

Yes, we make assumptions about reality, but the assumptions can be modified at any time by new sensations. We arrive at the mirage and can't drink it. Or we look at a dessert wrapper and see the strawberry taste came from synthetic chemicals. (Ingesting is not believing.)

Yes of course machine bodies will alter our reality if they give us new senses with which to detect patterns. Years ago, I read about blind people given artificial eyes that translated patterns of light and dark into skin sensations on their backs--in effect, a new sense. Were they seeing a room the same as me? Of course not, but they could navigate through it.

All this seems very obvious to me.

Unknown said...

Dear Ben,

for the most part, I find your characterization convincing, especially the systemic perspective. I would not expect anything different from you than a gnostic perspective, which I personally tend to see as half-assed. I'd prefer to make of multiple, constructed reality systems not into a presupposition, but put it into the set of possible conclusions. On the pre-side, we can get by with a less loaded interpretation, like 'encoding'.

I think that you are mistreating Kant, btw. He uses the Noumenon exclusively in the negative sense, to delimit our access to 'things out there', and make clear that we have to get by with appearances. In that sense, he is on your (and my) side.

Ben Goertzel said...

Peter A... I think your characterization of reality (as posited in your comment) is too broad, because a mirage is also order perceived in sense data. Sure, as you say, it's a real mirage but not a real lake... But still I think it's useful to articulate a sense in which the mirage is less real than an "actual" lake, and the characterization of "reality" given in your email doesn't do that explicitly ... whereas the characterization given in my blog post does...

As for "obviousness" -- I guess all philosophy looks sorta obvious, to those who find it intuitively agreeable. But yet, there are radical disagreements among intelligent people about these "obvious" things!! For instance, to some smart folks I know it's obvious that the universe is a giant computer; and to other smart folks I know, this is obvious nonsense...

Ben Goertzel said...


Indeed, in my characterization "An entity is "real" if perceiving it tends to lead to correct predictions about "real" things." , the existence of multiple potentially incompatible reality-systems is a conclusion rather than an assumption....

Because in this view, the characterization of reality becomes a hyperset equation, which may have many different solutions in the space of possible entity-systems...

As for Kant, it may be that I'm overly influenced by Nietzsche who dissed Kant so vituperously. But I did read Kant (in english translation) myself, and i don't think my response is utterly unfair. But that would be a long and deep argument, probably not best pursued in these comments!! Anyway that is just a side note to the main point of the post, obviously...

Thanks for your comment!

Peter A said...

Ben, thanks for your reply.

Okay, so you like a definition of "real" that distinguishes between a lake and a mirage. I prefer a definition that distinguishes between a mirage and the angel touching your shoulder right now, i.e. concepts with no verifiable referents in sense data. I reserve the term "unreal" or "imaginary" for the latter.

Does your definition make this distinction?

Why is this important? We can define words however we like, but the purpose of words (apart from beauty) is to enable communication without confusion. And our species is plagued with immense confusion about concepts like God, Satan, angels, afterlife, etc. which have no clear definition in verifiable sense data. The confusion reigns and causes tragic conflicts because people can't grasp the above distinction. Their words confuse them.

Even scientists and philosophers fall victim to such confusion. Sometimes when I read their discussion of alternate realities, it sounds like theologians discussing how many angels fit on the head of a pin. But it's been a long time since I studied physics, epistemology, and the philosophy of science, so I could be mistaken.

gregory said...

i like the yogic view .. reality is that which doesn't change

donald wilhelm, III said...

My theory of general intelligence fits with the view that the sole purpose of the brain is to support movement. Conscious words are the audible feedback of unconscious, culturally trained muscle movement patterns of the vocal system muscles. No different from riding a bicycle - thousands of muscle movement patterns, all unconscious. Some implications: words are unconsciously selected for cultural (read peer pressure) fit, and not for fit with any "real world"; words then do not represent, or refer to, any entity - material or abstract; thus, they cannot perform actions, and verbs are not action words; verbs act as aspect selection couplers, in a sentence.
2012 is a good year to introduce this theory, since it means that verbal logic is superstition (not far fetched when we look back in history at witches, etc).
This presents an opportunity to extend the scientific revolution of believing only reproducible results, to the arena of everyday affairs.
It also implies that academia, dependent as it is on verbal logic, has some rebuilding to do, but it is becoming a troubled enterprise anyway, and needs retooling. It is way past time for humans to stop giving animal powers of volition to words that refer to entities that don't exist.
Wittgenstein failed to see that even humans don't perform actions; particular word-aspects associated with a person's name culturally fit with other word's aspects. Therein lies the illusion of language.
Peace (will be possible when people stop fighting over words that don't refer or represent).

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Stephen Paul King said...

A 'reality' is that which is free-of-contradiction for some collection of mutually communicating observers thereof.
This definition is a bit circular, but I think that it is scale and context invariant.

Anonymous said...

Well hell, I don't agree with Stephen Paul King at all, my reality is filled with contradiction even without considering the community at large; I very rarely find myself in total agreement with myself on any random subject to say nothing of the community at large. But anyway . . .

Have you read the paper by Brian Josephson, "Biological Observer-Participation and Wheeler’s
‘Law without Law'" ( I found the references rather interesting, especially the link to INBIOSA (

Reality is that which maintains without regard to phase transition . . . the phase transition commonly referred to as death being, quite possibly, the most profound indicator . . .