What is Real — The Symbol and the Thing

Everything is real.. but people mistake their illusions for reality.

When you ask most people “Which is more real, an object or its shadow?” Most people will automatically say that the object is real and the shadow is not. Upon further inspection one will realize that the shadow really is there too, and is no less ‘real’ than the object. I speculate the confusion comes because people can see the distinction between a shadow and its related object, and see the shadow as just an ‘image’ of the ‘real’ object. They are seeing a thing and a bad copy of it (which is not the thing), and therefore “must not be real.” Either that, or they only think of material objects as being real.

For the last several years my axioms for determining if something “exists” were the following:

1. If it can be directly perceived by the five senses (smell, sight, sound, taste, etc.)

2. If it can be directly perceived by the five senses augmented by scientific instruments (microscope, telescope, particle accelerator, etc.)

3. If it affects something else that can be perceived by 1. and 2.

So basically, invisible, silent, odorless, massless things that don’t affect anything else can (for all practical purposes) be placed in the category of “does not exist.” All things in this category are indistinguishable from one another.

Now these axioms seem to be very restrictive at first, but #3 allows much room for invisible things that affect visible things. This is how I can consider emotions to be real, since they observably affect how people interact with the rest of the observable world.

Now, what do I mean by ‘illusions’? The way I’d always thought of the mind as operating was that it receives sensory input, finds patterns in it, and assigns symbols to those patterns.

Suppose you look outside your window and (hypothetically) see several cars. You call each car a “Car”. However each of these cars are probably different from one another in many ways. So how do they all have the same name “Car” when they’re all different?

If you take a car and replace one part of the car with a new replacement part, then do you still have the same car as you had before? What happens when you continue to replace one part after another, one at a time, until every single part of the original car has been replaced? Do you still have the original car?

If you take the car apart into its discrete components, it’s not a car anymore, but a pile of car parts. Where did the car go? Did it go to a car heaven?

The way I think of it is this: The ‘mind’ (let’s assume it exists for the moment) draws little dotted lines around portions of sensory input and gives them symbolic names. So by drawing the lines differently you can get “two halves of a car” or “a pile of atoms” or include the occupants of the car and the ground the car rests on as all one thing.

The thing is.. this “Car” or “pile of atoms” is an illusion. There is something real out there, but it’s not “pile of car parts”, or any of the other possible symbols.

When I say that people are looking at illusions, I mean that they are mistaking their model of reality for reality itself.

The snake eating it’s own tail….

This is something I’ve devoted considerable thought to:

Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem states that in any formal system complex enough to include arithmetic, there are certain statements that cannot be determined to be true or false from within the rules of that system. The result is that you are able to create statements like “This statement is false.”

Generally, the statements that cause problems are self-referential, or refer to themselves indirectly though other statements.

It occurred to me that the human mind can hold thoughts such as “This statement is false” without blowing up and saying “does not compute.” Therefore, it is running on some other kind of system. I think (and “I” is an entirely different discussion) that the mind itself is a feedback loop. Whenever you think a thought, you hear the output of your last thought, and you think of something based on that, which feeds into your next thought, etc. etc. Try to shut up the voice in your head and see how hard it is.

Feedback loops form the core of many dynamic (chaotic) systems and fractal geometry. Basically the way the math works is you repeat a function over and over again on the output from the last step. The values will either get closer and closer to one number, or bounce back and forth between two values, or four.. but at a certain point they become completely chaotic – unpredictable. In the regions of chaos, you can find certain values that once again bounce between three, or six, or whatever values. So you have order leading to chaos and chaos leading to order. (but of course order and chaos are only illusions, and are the same thing in reality)

Small changes in initial conditions will also give rise to radically divergent behavior in these systems. These sets tend to be self-similar on many scales.. so a small part of the set looks like the whole, and vice versa.

When you look at the world around you, (and you’ve been doing a lot of work with fractal geometry), you’ll see that almost everything in nature is a fractal or chaotic/dynamic system.

The turbulence in circulating fluids, predator/prey population models, meteorological forecasts, the three-body problem, cell growth in plants, etc. etc., are all chaotic/dynamic systems. If you look at the EEG of a conscious person, it looks similar to a graph of the stock market, or a cross section of a mountain range. There are many repeating patterns, but it’s in general unpredictable. If you look at the EEG of someone who’s stoned, or having a seizure, the pattern is a nice orderly sine wave. Order = no thought.

When you say “I” it is the symbol that your mind calls itself. It’s another recursive feedback loop. It too is an illusion (see above) but what is left there when you take away the symbol “I”?

As an Engineer I started to drive myself crazy trying to rationalize the universe (going around and around in circles). It was very hard for me to accept it but, reality isn’t logical (A=A, etc.) It’s a snake eating it’s own tail.