"...external objects and facts about them define the realm of the real."
Reality simulators get interesting once they are used not just to replicate a current, "here-now" sensory environment, but to create sensory environments simulating existence at distant places, perhaps at past times. This occurs when a "here-now" cap is cut loose from its collector devices (the artificial eyes, artificial ears, and so forth) and made to display data received from distant locations, or data which has been gathered in the past and stored for later retrieval.
In the "here-now" mode, the artificial sensory environment is indistinguishable from the natural one. Likewise, in the more advanced "here-then," "there-now" and "there-then" modes there will be no clues provided, within the synthetic experience, which would lead the user to suspect that this experience was synthetic. His life will be as rich, as textured, and as convincing as our own—not "virtual" in any sense of concern to him.
Whom should it concern?
Perhaps the last man on earth not plugged into a reality simulator, who would want to enunciate a view of things according to which all the others are leading "unreal" lives compared to his own, and according to which he alone is in touch with the real world. This view of things, which is packed inside the adjective "virtual," almost always takes the form of a theory of objects.
A theory of objects maintains that the best all-around explanation for the occurrence of sensations is the existence of a world of external things, like tables and chairs, which are the ultimate causes of those sensations.1
These external objects and facts about them define the realm of the real, and must be distinguished from pseudo-objects to which we might (wrongly) impute real existence on the basis of machine-generated sensory data provided by reality simulators. The latter may be illusory; the former not.
External objects don't negotiate. They simply are: silent, stolid, and sufficient-unto-themselves. The mountain doesn't disappear when we turn our backs on it; it exists whether or not we know it, or like it. Likewise for the constituent parts of tables, chairs, and mountains, which in the last analysis are protons, and electrons, and neutrons, and the like. These thingsare the ultimate building blocks of the universe, and enjoy an inert, no-nonsense, bedrock existence in terms of which all events and processes in the universe are to be explained, and in terms of which illusion is separable from reality, as chaff is from grain. What's real becomes a question of which objects exist, and which do not. Things at the bottom of things: that's what a theory of objects is ultimately about.
The last man on earth not plugged in to a reality simulator has the lowdown on things at the bottom of things, and that's what makes his experience "real," and the experiences of all the others "derivative." He knows that everyone else is in a machine—a man-made machine—the operation of which is analyzable in terms of the properties and interactions of certain specifiable objects. Helmets and wires and neurons first, forces and molecules next, and lastly, the fundamental particles of the nuclear physicist. What may pass for convincing perceptual experiences for subjects strapped into reality simulators can be explained in terms of the interactions of a very great number of independently-real particles. That's what is really going on, even if it's only the last man on earth who knows it.
It may be lonesome at the ontological top, but our man is convinced, and proud. Reality is his alone.
He stalks up and down the corridors of the mausoleum in which the "synthies" lie prone, watching their toes twitch through the tiny quartz windows, and feeling a contempt born of high position.
Meanwhile, back on the pseudo-ranch, people are having a ball. A Casper Milquetoast gets to play private eye, apparently for real, and nuns are spared the inconveniences of the convent as they become enlightened. Nerds cast themselves as quarterbacks, and jocks get to be rocket scientists. Things sometimes fall upwards, and people can fly.
That is not to say that events are chaotic, or without explanations, within the "synthetic" environments created by reality simulators. Effects have causes, and processes spin themselves out in accordance with physical laws. Science works perfectly well within synthetic environments. Regularities are perceived in terms of certain repetitive observations; that is to say, certain sensations occur. Theories are proposed which, if true, would explain why these observations and not others were made, and are accepted if additional observations occur which are predicted on the basis of the theory. These theories may well postulate that certain objects exist, and sooner or later, particularly in the case of well-tested, universally-accepted theories, commonsense may regard these theoretical objects as enjoying real, bedrock existence, and as constituting a court of last appealin which alone questionsconcerning the ultimately real nature of things are to be adjudicated.
Even within the reality simulator, we will seek solace from the view that the world really is the way it would have to be in order that the occurrence of current sensory data be explained, even if those data are generated by machines we control.
A theory of objects provides equal comfort within the reality chamber as it does outside the chamber. And so, our inclination towards a theory of objects, in defense of a current world view, fails in itself to give us any hints as to which side of the wall we might be on.
1The classic enunciation of this view is owed to the English philosopher John Locke. See An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1690.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.