‘We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.’
Some of you may recognise this quote from the 1998 film The Truman Show, written and directed by Andrew Niccol and Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey. The film features the life of Truman Burbank, who lives with his perfect wife, in a perfect town full of perfectly happy people who all know and love him. What the unsuspecting protagonist doesn’t know is that since before birth he has been the star of a 24h reality TV show, broadcast live around the entire world. His hometown of Seahaven is built under a giant arcological dome in which everyone except Truman himself is an actor involved in the screenplay. He is furthermore classically conditioned by negative imagery and memories that dissuade him from travelling or moving away from the setting.
The film touches on some of the greatest philosophical debates of all time such as the distinctions between free will and determinism and appearance and reality. The question of what is real has been debated for centuries. In Ancient Greece, almost as a presage to Einstein’s general relativity, Heraclitus identifies the essence of the universe in ‘becoming’ believing that everything is subject to time and change and that even that which appears static is effectively moving. This philosophy is incorporated in his famous aphorism “πάντα ῥεῖ” which means “everything flows”.
‘It is not possible to descend into the same river twice, or to touch a mortal substance twice in the same state; due to the impetuosity and speed of change it is dispersed and collected, it comes and goes’
Parmenides on the other hand on the other hand offers a more static and objective notion of reality, according to which man can only choose between truth (ἀλήθεια), based on reason which guides us towards true essence and opinion (δόξα), based on sensation, which guides as towards appearance, or false essence.
‘For nothing exists or will exist except being, since Fate fettered it to be whole and unmoving’. (fragment 8)
The most famous analogy to the Truman shows depiction of an illusory reality can perhaps be found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which tied up prisoners observe shadows on a cave wall believing they are all that there is to reality. In this analogy one prisoner breaks free from his bonds and notices that the shadows are mere imitations of puppets behind him and, upon leaving the cave, sees the real things which these puppets are meant to represent. Truman, until he begins doubting the world around him is like such a cave prisoner.
The notion of an illusory reality has also been depicted in many fictional masterpieces such as the Matrix, 1984, Blade Runner, Brave New World, Memento and Inception. What, in my opinion, makes the Truman Show such a modern depiction of man’s perception of the world is how it is dealt with in a lighthearted and almost humorous manner, almost as presage to the superficiality of our age, which unsurprisingly is obsessed with reality shows and gossip culture. But most of all, what I find particularly refreshing in the Truman show, which is absent in many film and literature depictions of the topic, is that it provides a motivation as to why Truman begins to question his reality: technical difficulties. While for example, in the Matrix, the protagonist Neo is portrayed as some sort of mystical prophet with a strong inner eye, Truman is a completely normal man, living his day to day life. If it weren’t for some particularities in the production, he would most probably never have questioned his odd existence.
Which leads to some rather complex questions: (1) Why is it that we ask ourselves certain questions and others we do not think of? (2) Why is it that some question reality and others do not? (3) when is it or rather what is it that makes us question our reality, or rather, which are the technical difficulties that cause our attention to shift away from what we know, and lead us to question our worldview?
To answer questions (1) and (2), let me bring your attention to the topic of ‘attention’ itself, which I believe is extremely relevant to this argument. I want you to imagine for a second walking down a busy city street and paying attention to your surroundings. You are likely to set your eyes on many different people and situations: perhaps a particularly skilled busker, an interesting architecture, a woman talking loudly on the phone about her husband or a police officer placing a fine on a badly parked vehicle. Now imagine you are not alone on this walk, but your best friend is walking beside you. You have many things in common but still, do you think he/she will notice the exact same things you do? You might both notice the busker as you have a similar taste in music, but for a million reasons, most of which determined by the casual setting of your eyes (maybe you stop to tie your shoelace and notice something on the ground) your 50 metre walk is characterised by a million different particularities. Extend this argument to the whole street and you’ve got 200 people living a completely different experience.
This subject is discussed brilliantly by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz in her research book titled ‘On looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’. In which she purposely goes on walks with people in different fields of expertise to see how differently everyone perceives the world around them.The author points out how “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”
I often pride myself upon my ability to be distracted by the beauty in life. In my first post on this blog I wrote about a woman playing the violin in the tube in Berlin, and how angry at humanity it made me that no one else seemed to notice her. Now my mind flutters to all the thousands and thousands of things that, every day and in every situation skim past me unnoticed. Even in this moment, while I concentrate on writing this article, I am missing out on the majority of things happening around me. In her book Horowitz invites the reader to a similar reflection.
‘By marshalling your attention to these words’ she writes: ‘you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance’.
The absurd level of individual bias that affects perception and hence, reality, is rather scary. The scary question is: if I had handled and directed my attention differently, would I be a different person? If I hadn’t read a particular book, smelled a particular smell, met a particular person, or been in a specific place at a specific time, would my reality be different? If a stage light had not fallen from the sky right in front of Truman’s nose, would he ever have questioned his world?
How much of our notion of reality is dictated by sheer and utter casualty? As I have previously pointed out, it is impossible for a human being to see the world without the filter of our perception: this is made up by our cognitive functions and conserved knowledge. We don’t see the world how it is exactly, but how it is projected through our own beliefs, knowledge and sensations. I am not sustaining that man has some magical thinking ability that can create phenomena with his mind, but simply that what we look at, and the way we look at it are what construct our notion of reality.
These considerations on attention explain both, why it is that we pay attention to certain things and others not, and why different people pay attention to different things. This is made up largely by casualty, and increasingly more by the personality based decisions that are constructed through time by the combination of our casual experiences, which eventually determine the objects of our attention.
I recently have embarked upon an online course in Philosophy of the Sciences offered on Coursera by the University of Edinburgh (brilliant course by the way, I suggest it to anyone who is interested in the notion of reality and consciousness and exploring the origins of our universe and the world as we know and perceive it). During my studies I found a similarity between the casualty of attention and experience and what Australian physicist Brandon Carter referred to as the Anthropic Principle in 1974, which has since become a key worldview in philosophy of science. Anthropic reasoning is based on the notion that the kind of observer we are will set restriction to the kind of physical conditions we are likely to observe. In other words, we are context-sensitive physical observers that can only thrive in a narrow range of physical conditions and are only likely to observe conditions suitable for our observation.
Think of this from a cosmological point of view: our bodies contain a very wide range of elements, from lighter ones such as hydrogen to heavier and rarer ones such as iron and sodium. These last ones are only formed in the heart of stars through stellar nucleosynthesis, in which lighter nuclei combine together to form heavier ones. This means, quite literally, that our bodies are made of stardust. Now think of all the other natural phenomena that have permitted our existence on planet Earth, in the Solar System, in the Milky Way, in our Universe. (for a good picture of the size of Earth in the Universe, check out this interactive scale). Without gravity, carbon chemistry (which is only possible at particular temperature and pressure conditions), the freezing of water or the particular structure of space around us, we wouldn’t even be here to observe these phenomena.
The absurdity of circumstances that has permitted our existence, which is often referred to as ‘cosmic fine tuning’ has lead to many theories according to which the universe has somehow been ‘designed’ for our specific existence. This is, unfortunately, a categorical generalisation, of the anthropic principle, which is far from what the principle wishes to suggest. Imagine being a frog in a pond. It is one thing to say: it is likely that I have grown up in conditions that allow for frog spawn, and thus these are the conditions I can observe’. It is another to generalise and say: my presence in this pond indicates that the universe was designed with a view to generate frogs’.
The reason why we cannot make this generalisation is intrinsic in the anthropic principle itself. We know what we observe. And it is likely that what we observe is a reality that has allowed for our existence, for us to be there to observe. In other words we are in someway codependent on the specific reality we observe. Who is to say that there may not be other types of reality, in which there are not conditions for our existence and hence we are not able to observe? Scientists have speculated the possibility that our universe is merely a subset of a much larger ensemble (often referred to as multiverse) that can contain all the physically possible ways the universe could be. From such a point of view, it is not surprising that we inhabit this particular universe with just the right conditions for life.
If it isn’t clear to this point, I am offering a critique of the scientific and philosophical notion of causality, which is at the basis of Newtonian science. The sheer casualty (by which I intend chancely, accidental, unforeseeable nature) of our daily experiences, leads me further and further away from the scientific cause-effect laws of physics. Which leads me to another consideration on scientific progress.
To answer question (3) let me introduce another topic we looked at in the afore mentioned course: the different stages of ‘science’ as described by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962). Before Kuhn, science was seen as a sequence of scientific theories which build on and perfectioned its predecessors by providing a more accurate image of the world.
But according to Kuhn this picture is totally wrong and there is no such thing as a distinct scientific method. He describes how, during periods of normal science, scientists work within a scientific paradigm. This includes the main scientific theory, the experimental and technological resources as well as the system of values of the community, such as simplicity, mathematical elegance, parsimony, etc. During this time, textbook work is fundamental. Kuhn moves away from Popper’s notion of falsificationism, towards a view of scientific research as ‘problem solving’, or rather attempting to solve the minor difficulties and discrepancies of textbook knowledge.
When a significantly large number of these anomalies accumulates, the normal science enters a period of crisis. At this point the community may decide to abandon the old paradigm and move onto a new one, in what Kuhn refers to as a paradigm shift. The choice of this new theory is not dictated by its superiority over the old one but on its higher puzzle-solving power, which accounts for the anomalies in the old one. In short, according to Kuhn, a scientific paradigm is picked over another one not because it is closer to the truth, but because it is better at problem-solving than the previous one.
In the Truman show, Truman constructed his notion of reality with what he was presented. When anomalies started to present themselves, he attempted to find solutions to them, based on his conserved knowledge of how his world worked. When the number of anomalies accumulated (stage lights falling from the sky, people acting in a repetitive and staged manner, meeting his supposedly deceased father, etc.) he no longer had the ability to solve them according to his rationale. Truman entered into a period of crisis, and decided to search for solutions elsewhere, similarly to what Kuhn would define as a paradigm shift. When Truman discovered that his life was a TV show and decided to exit the little door in the sky, he did not move closer to reality. He did not pick reality over fiction. He merely chose a different reality, in which the anomalies he couldn’t account for in the first one made more sense.
Shift this argument to our human notion of reality and you get the same reasoning. Newtonian science has worked so far, and we’ve managed to find solutions to minor difficulties with its basic principles and assumptions. With the introduction of quantum mechanics in the 1920’s, this is no longer possible. What quantum mechanics demonstrates is that the reality we observe is dependent on the observer. This seems to have rather strong connections with the psychological notion of consciousness: the fact that we experience an internal world of images, sensations, thoughts, and feelings that are related to the external world.
However, mainstream science seems to have always largely ignored the anomaly of consciousness which its traditional methods were unable to explain. This kind of goes against Kuhn’s view that unexplainable anomalies cause a crisis and then a paradigm shift. Based on recent times, one could ironically revise Kuhn’s theory as follows: when science has unexplainable anomalies that accumulate it does not immediately enter a crisis. It quite simply ignores the problem until it happens to discover a theory that works better, causing a paradigm shift. Consciousness has been ignored because it didn’t make sense with traditional newtonian science: it could not be empirically observed, and it clashed significantly with science’s search for objective and universal truths.
However, with the introduction of quantum mechanics, the phenomenon of consciousness is no longer ignorable and can in no way be explained by our current paradigm. Many theorists have tried to do so, opting towards a better understanding of brain chemistry, towards computing theory according to which consciousness rises from complexity of the brain’s processing, or looking towards chaos theory. But how can something as immaterial as consciousness rise from something as unconscious as matter?
The impossibility of answering such a question leads me to think that we may be approaching the time to stop with the problem solving and justifications, and to question the basic assumptions of science and reality. What I’m trying to get at, in this rather diverse argument which has fluttered from cinema to philosophy and from cosmology to consciousness, is that I feel it might be time to question the validity of cause-effect, materialist newtonian science. I believe we have reached a point in history were the failure in its explanatory value is significant, as quantum mechanics and consciousness show us. From a broader perspective, cosmology and anthropic reasoning show us how so called cosmic fine-tuning have pushed a us towards an anthropocentric view of reality which is widely supported by cause-effect laws. Is it possible that we are now shifting from a causal view of reality to a casual one, in which our existence is based upon chance and not cause-effect laws?
Gilmore, Robert (1995). Alice in Quantum-land, Springer Science and Business Media, illustration.
Horowitz, Alexandra (2012). On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Simon and Schuster: 2014
Kuhn, Thomas (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Einaudi: 1999
Professors Massimi, Michela and Richmond, Alistair. Lectures in Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh.