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The Falsity of a Real Reality: Background information when reading Fundamentals

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Ten Keys to Reality

by Frank Wilczek

Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek X
Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2021, 272 pages

    Jan 2022, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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The Falsity of a Real Reality

This article relates to Fundamentals

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Humans are incapable of knowing for certain what is real. We use our five senses to collect data about the environment around us. Data is the key word here; we don't see, hear, touch, taste or smell reality. We use our senses to sample data about the environment.

This data is processed by our brains, which then interpret and give form to what we perceive as reality. Our reality is nothing more than our perception based on limited, sampling-error prone data.

The brain itself is comprised of around 100 billion individual cells, which in turn are built upon a handful of subatomic particles. These particles are reconfigured to create different types of atoms. Science has demonstrated that these atoms and subatomic particles don't actually exist in any particular place until they are observed. That's right: we know that reality can't exist in a time or place until it's observed — at least on an atomic scale — though, the question of what comprises an observation is still open to debate.

What we do know is that the brain is the root of human consciousness — a feeling that we are alive and that there is an external reality outside of the body with which we interact. The brain therefore works nonstop, using our bodies to maintain its consciousness. The brain not only interprets sensory information, but stores data collected via the senses to help us move through our environment, compare current sensory input with previously acquired perceptions (memory recall), and add to our understanding of what we think of as reality.

Our five senses are relatively weak and extremely limited. For example, we can only perceive certain wavelength frequencies with our eyes — not infrared or microwaves. In fact, a pet hamster smells better than we do, and a canine's hearing is far superior to ours. Even so, the human brain is a supercomputer. It processes the body's constant sensory input to construct a convincing perception of reality that it can navigate the body around in.

Our brains literally invent what we see. Eyes are just light sensors. Babies aren't born seeing. Everything is blurry for months, because a baby's brain has not figured out how to give shape, meaning or definition to the data the eyes send it. Over time, the brain constructs the data. It creates simple rules that speed up the processing. The adult brain almost instantly translates the patterns of light that it sees into shapes and colors, which it then translates from previous sensory input into identifiable objects that we can interact with.

Right now, your eyes are transferring light waves to your brain — upside down, in fact. Your brain is translating the shapes of letters and words by recalling what it has already interpreted in the past, finding previously composed definitions for these light patterns in order to make sense of the light waves and read "words." Words, of course, after years of processing, now have meaning to you — meanings that do not exist outside of your brain and are also being translated into thoughts almost instantaneously.

Vision takes up most of our brainpower and dominates most humans' sensory input. But pause for a second… What do you sense? Do you hear the hum of the refrigerator? The sound of cars on the street outside? An itch on your inner calf you didn't notice while reading?

Your brain is constantly collecting data from all of its senses. If there was a loud sound suddenly vibrating in your eardrums, or you felt a mouse running up your leg, your brain would quickly attempt to interpret such sensations and make sense of them. (Good luck quickly interpreting the mouse running up your leg, unless you have experienced it before, but the loud bang might immediately be deciphered as a car door slamming.)

Your brain can easily be tricked into perceiving a reality that does not exist. Illusionists have a storied history of knowing how to manipulate our brains into seeing what is not there. By taking advantage of our involuntary brain and limited biological functions, illusionists can predictably manipulate what we see, hear and even feel. The fallibility of vision and memory are so well-documented that eyewitness accounts are no longer accepted as evidence in many courts.

Humans have learned to supplement our sensory shortcomings through technology. Telescopes and microscopes — using the benefit of magnification — allow us to perceive our surroundings beyond the limitations of our standard, unassisted vision. Megaphones help us magnify and pick up sound vibrations that we might have otherwise missed.

Much of the technology we take for granted today is dependent on sensors and supercomputers to allow us to see, hear and sense things far beyond our biological limitations. From heat-sensing cameras to artificial intelligence analyzing massive amounts of data we could never come close to deciphering ourselves, science continues to highlight that we are merely stumbling around in the darkness.

Or are we stumbling at all?

As physicists continue to add to our knowledge about the universe at an unprecedented rate, one underlying question has yet to be resolved — does reality, as we perceive it, actually exist? Is anything we perceive real? Though it may seem outlandish, science has not yet been able to answer this question. There are a few approaches being explored, however.

Reality Is an Illusion

Your reality could be an illusion. The fallibility of the human brain to create extremely vivid and believable alternate realities is well-documented in those suffering from schizophrenia. What schizophrenics perceive is very real to them. Also, certain psychoactive pharmaceuticals are known to interact with our brains, inducing hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality. Finally, it's nearly impossible to determine whether the other people you think you are interacting with are real. Unless you live in what you perceive to be Russia, you can't possibly know if Russia truly exists right now. You have a concept of Russia built through media exposure, perhaps personal trips and interactions with other people who claim it is there. Scientifically, that doesn't make it real.

Reality Is a Simulation

There is actually a 50 percent chance you are living a simulation, according to a recent study using probability theory. There is a variety of logical reasoning behind this, although some physicists have countered that the amount of data required to simulate our world would be far more than all the data in the universe. Yet, given that our universe very well may be only one of infinite universes, that might not be as large a problem as some think.

What does being in a simulation really mean? It means that you are merely living a programmed reality. You are programmed. Though probably not quite as creepy as the film The Matrix depicts, there is a 50 percent chance that you don't have free will, and that reality as you perceive it is nothing more than a giant program being run by something at a much larger scale than we can perceive.

We Are Living in a Hologram

Mathematically, it is conceivable that we are living in a hologram. Physicists have shown that reality, the entire universe as we currently perceive it, can be calculated using two-dimensional, Cartesian-based math. Thus, we either falsely perceive three dimensions, four including time, or we live in a hologram that tricks our senses into sensing four dimensions.

Everything Is Quantum

Quantum physics has demonstrated that two, contradictory, opposite facts can both be true at the same time. (Though, I am not sure how it would fly at a protest between two activist factions if you were to yell: "It's okay, everyone. Quantum physics shows that you're all correct!") But it's true. Quantum computing technology actually depends on it.

If ever found to be applicable at larger scales than atoms, this fact would turn our reality on its head. To spell out what a radical rethinking of the universe this would entail, consider the following scenario that would be totally feasible if quantum physics were to apply at larger scales:

Truth: The Earth revolves around the sun.
Truth: The sun revolves around the Earth.

An additional quantum enigma? Two objects extremely far apart, with no known connections, can have an instantaneous impact on one another. The problem? This instantaneous change occurs much faster than the speed of light, which according to general relativity is the maximum speed anything can move in the universe. What this means is that the fate of two objects can be entwined with one another, even though no physical connection appears to exist. In essence, an atom across the universe, right now, could be dictating the actions of an atom in your brain — or vice versa.

Social scientists have only just begun exploring quantum theory and how it might be applied to their research. The ramifications of applying quantum mechanics to social interactions could be explosive if hypotheticals hold up at non-atomic scales. Society and law are largely built upon the ideas of free will and the permanence of facts. It is generally accepted that truth is truth, and truth can't be contradictory to itself.

What if everything we believe and have built society on is wrong? It is at the quantum level. Truth and reality always depend on perspective. No one perspective is truer than another.

Regardless of what scientific reasoning and research demonstrate is the best path forward to understanding reality, one thing is clear: humans tend to get a little cocky about how "true" and "absolute" the perceptions our brains present to us are. The world you perceive is invented, but the ramifications of your invented reality are "real" enough. In other words: don't forget to turn off the iron before you leave for work!

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

Article by Ian Muehlenhaus

This "beyond the book article" relates to Fundamentals. It originally ran in January 2021 and has been updated for the January 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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