A few days ago I explained why I wasn't writing about an idea I had: Embrace what's real, not an ideal. I was planning to revisit that topic tonight. But this morning I read a fascinating chapter in David Chalmers' new book, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.
The chapter, "Have we fallen from the Garden of Eden?," reflected the basic notion I had. That there's a marked difference between viewing life as it actually is, versus how it could ideally be.
Chalmers starts off his chapter with a creative look at how science has changed the Eden-like view of reality where things are just as they appear. As you read the passage below, you'll understand why some words are capitalized, but I'll point out the reason now.
Those terms point to a Platonic sort of perspective where Time, Space, and Such are unchanging absolutes. The "fall" from Eden was a scientific understanding that things are not as they intuitively appear, necessitating the lower case time, space, and such. Chalmers writes:
I like to think of the Garden of Eden as a place where everything was exactly as it seemed to be, in our pre-theoretical picture of reality.
In Eden, everything was laid out in a three-dimensional Space. Space was Euclidean and was not relative to anything. Things in Eden changed with the passage of Time. Time flowed from moment to moment in one direction, with absolute simultaneity across the garden and across the universe.
The apple in the garden was gloriously, perfectly, and primitively Red. When we Perceived the apple, the apple and its Redness were simply revealed to us directly, without any mediation.
Rocks in Eden were Solid, full of matter all the way through without any empty space. They had an absolute Weight, which did not vary from place to place.
People in Eden had Free Will. They could act with complete autonomy, and their actions were not predetermined. Their actions were Right or Wrong. They either met the standards of Morality or they did not.
There there was a Fall. We ate from the Tree of Science, and we were cast out of Eden.
We discovered that we didn't live in an absolute three-dimensional Space in a world of absolute Time that passes. Instead, we live in a four-dimensional and non-Euclidean spacetime. Space and time are relative to reference frames, and there's no absolute now.
We discovered that we didn't live in a world where objects have intrinsic qualitative Colors that are revealed to us by Perception. Instead, colors are complex physical properties that affect our eyes and our brains in complicated ways. In perception, colors aren't directly revealed to us but instead are inferred by the visual systems in our brains.
We discovered that rocks aren't Solid. They consist of mostly empty space and are merely solid. They don't have an absolute Weight. They have one weight on Earth, another on the Moon, and in other space they're weightless.
The jury is still out, but evidence suggests that we may not have Free Will. Our brains seem to be mechanical systems that determine our actions or at least strongly constrain them. However, we may still have free will -- the ability to choose our own actions and mostly do what we choose to do.
There may be no absolute standard of Morality by which our actions are Right or Wrong. Instead, there may simply be a system of morality that we construct and endorse, according to which our actions are right or wrong.
We no longer live in Eden. We're growing accustomed to our non-Edenic world. But Eden still plays a powerful role in our picture of reality. Perception still presents us with a world of Colorful and Solid objects laid out in Space and changing with Time. We naturally think of people as acting Freely and doing things that are Right or Wrong.
This is pretty damn brilliant of Chalmers. The Eden metaphor is marvelous. His use of capitalization draws our attention to how, while things are not Platonic Absolutes, they're still absolutely real.
We don't have, or are, a Self. But we certainly have, or are, a self. There's no Consciousness floating around in some ethereal realm, but consciousness is with us from birth until brain death. God as an eternal heavenly being is fantasy, but god is as real as someone's conception of divinity.
Later in the chapter, Chalmers asks, "Is reality an illusion?"
Was Vishnu right, after all? In light of the fall from Eden, is ordinary realty an illusion? We seem to be in an Edenic world, but we are not. Things seem to be Red and Square, but nothing in the external world is Red or Square. As Cornel West put it: Is it illusions all the way down?
Yes and no.
Insofar as perception says that objects are Red, it's illusory. Nothing is Red. Insofar as perception says that objects are red, it's not illusory. Many things are red.
I've argued that for perception to be perfectly accurate, things would have to be Red. But they can be imperfectly accurate, even if things are merely red. Perception has some illusory elements but nevertheless can be used as an accurate guide to reality.
Chalmers says that in some ways a digital simulation isn't all that different from the world we inhabit now. In a simulation, things appear more real than they actually are. Yet they're still real. A digital tree is real, yet not in the same way the trees in my yard are.
(Assuming I'm not living in a simulation.)
Likewise, modern science -- quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and so on -- tells us that things are not as solidly real as our everyday intuition leads us to believe. But they're still real.
Chalmers ends his chapter this way.
Has the onset of illusion in the fall from Eden made our life worse? In Eden, people perceived Red and Square things directly. We seem to experience a world of Red and Square things, but our world is merely a world of red and square things. But even if this makes our lives imperfect, it's hard to see how it makes our lives much worse.
Eden is a kind of hypothetical ideal.
We can think of it as Reality 0.0. Ordinary physical reality, after the fall, is Reality 1.0, at least assuming we're not in a simulation. Virtual reality is Reality 2.0. In both ordinary reality and virtual reality, Eden has been stripped down to its structural core, with consciousness at its center. But virtual reality remains on a par with ordinary reality.