WHAT IS ‘NORMAL’, ANYWAY?

In online worlds the everyday concerns that define real life coexist with experiences that can only be described as ‘surreal’. It is fairly safe to say that if you spend long enough exploring such worlds, sooner or later you will find yourself asking, ‘what is normal’?

Philosophy has long struggled with questions regarding the nature of reality, and whether or not it exists independently of the mind. Bishop George Berkely (1685-1753) was bothered by the Newtonian ideology and its decree that nothing is needed other than ‘what can we describe through equations?’. Wanting to feel there was a divine presence in the world, Berkely came up with the rather radical solution of denying the existence of a world external to ideas. ‘To exist is to be perceived’. Reality just is the ideas you have of it; reality only exists in subjective experience. When he heard of Berkely’s philosophical system, Dr Samuel Johnson is said to have cried, ‘I refute it thus!’ and stubbed his toe on a rock.

I have sometimes stated that  imagination, RL and online worlds exist in the mind. This might sound more like Berkely’s belief in the non-existence of objective reality, rather than Johnson’s conviction that rocks (and, presumably, all material things) really do have an existence independent of subjective experience, but there is a crucial difference. Today, cognitive neuroscience uses psychological experiments, studies in brain anatomy and the relatively recent technological advance of functional brain imaging to build up a model of how the brain creates our mental world. It does not deny the existence of a reality independent of the mind, far from it. There really is something out there, going about its business whether we perceive it or not. But, cognitive neuroscience tells us that we are not in direct contact with this external reality. As Jeff Hawkins explained, ‘you hear sound, see light and feel pressure, but inside your brain there isn’t any fundamental difference between these types of information. There’s no light inside your head, it’s dark in there. There’s no sound entering your head, either… The only thing the cortex knows is the pattern streaming in on the input axons’. What we experience, then, is not reality itself but rather a simulation, a model of reality created by the mind based on the patterns of information flowing in through the senses.

The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe explained how, “over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists…have found that our brains function in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we ever know are guesses or interpretations our minds create about what is going on”. If this is really the case, we might have to accept a weak form of solipsism: Since we now know that experiences shape our neuroanatomy, and no two people ever have exactly the same experiences, it seems likely that each person’s mind generates a different perception of reality. Obviously, there are some things we agree on, but strictly speaking each person lives alone in their own world of meaning.

Well, that sounds like a decisive victory for immersionists, doesn’t it? We are all simulated people living in a simulated reality. However, the way the cortex works has many similarities with the fundamentals of augmentism. That, recall, is the belief that online worlds are communication tools that allow you to continue, enhance, and expand your social and personal life (conversely, an immersionist would say the simulation of RL stops when you log on and a different simulation begins. Who we are in online worlds is not who we are in RL). What the cortex does is prediction. It ‘remembers’ the patterns it ‘experienced’ in the past and uses them to anticipate what patterns it’s going to experience in the future. Like an indefatigable scientist, the cortex is constantly trying to falsify your model of reality by comparing its predictions against the behaviour of reality itself. Whenever there is disagreement between the model and reality, the former is junked and a revised model is put in its place and the cycle of predict-test-falsify-refine-predict continues.

So here we have two-way communication between the cortex and reality. The former constantly asks ‘is this model accurate?’ and the latter answers by responding in a manner that was anticipated or not. The brain strives to make its model of reality as accurate as possible. You can well imagine the Darwinian cost of an inaccurate simulation, such brains would have been removed from the gene pool. After tens of millions of years of fine-tuning by evolution, you can be sure that your mind does a very good job of simulating reality. In fact, it’s so reliable and so consistently able to reflect reality itself that, by any practical measure, it IS reality. Only in very exceptional circumstances, mostly using tricks developed by cognitive neuroscience that are designed to exploit the methods the brain uses to construct its model, do we become aware that what we perceive is really a simulation.

But what we are asking ourselves here is not ‘what is real?’ but ‘what is normal?’. There are various reasons to believe that our sense of normality is totally skewed, even without considering the cultural influences like fashion, religion and nationality coloring our perception of the world. For one thing, the environment our minds model is highly unusual. It does not seem that way to us, there is nothing more familiar than the place in which we live. But space exploration has shown us that environments in which we can survive and thrive are extremely rare. Our world is an anomaly, an exceptional oasis floating amongst a normally hostile Universe.

Furthermore, evolution tuned our senses to intercept information useful for survival within the environmental niche our species evolved in. To be sure, our senses are superbly fine-tuned. Compare a robot’s ability to orientate itself with respect to objects in a room with a person’s ability to do likewise and you begin to appreciate the sophistication of our senses. But the very fact that they are so highly-tuned inevitably means our senses are hopeless at tuning in on information outside of a narrow range. Take vision, for instance. Our eyes are instruments designed to pick up electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from 400-700 nanometers- the wavelengths of visible light. But this is an extremely small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges in wavelengths of hundreds of kilometres or more at the ‘radio’ end all the way down to a millionth of a nanometer or less at the ‘gamma ray’ end. The same thing applies to our audio sense, our tactile sense, our temporal sense and our spatial sense. We hear birdsong because it comes in a frequency our sense of hearing can tune in on, but we don’t hear the eerie wailing of Saturn. We feel the weight of a cat curled up on our lap, but not the millions of bugs crawling over the surface of our eyes, nor the neutrinos passing through our bodies. We can perceive events on a temporal scale ranging from seconds to decades, and a spatial scale ranging from millimetres to tens of miles. But reality extends far beyond this range, with particle events occurring in femtoseconds at one extreme to galactic events occurring over billions of years at the other.

People have long wondered about parallel worlds and whether or not there are realities co-existing with the one we experience and yet somehow hidden from us.  Now we can appreciate that there is a great deal of truth to the premise of parallel realities, for they would be the simulations minds would construct if senses tuned in on information outside of the range our eyes, ears etc can detect. Imagine beings whose ears are radio antennae. Provided they were tuned to the appropriate waveform, such beings would hear the noise generated by Saturn’s aurorae. But they could never hear (and therefore, probably not be able to imagine) the sounds of nature that are so familiar to us. Or, imagine beings whose eyes are tuned to wavelengths at the X-ray or gamma-ray end of the spectrum. They would see a universe so shockingly different to ours that it would be impossible for them to visualize the calm of a clear night or the colours of a sunset that we who tune in on visible light know so well.

But could there be a way for our hypothetical beings to learn something of the realities carried on information outside of their perception? Indeed there could be, and online worlds exist thanks to the two most important conditions. The first of these is technology. Augmentists seek to expand and enhance our innate desire to share information, and that same drive can be and has been directed to develop tools that gather information our senses cannot tap into. Particle accelerators are used to probe reality on the smallest scales, while orbiting satellites peer as far as visible light will permit, but also see the universe through X-ray, gamma-ray and radio waves.

Simply gathering such information, though, is only the first step. At the moment, these incredibly sophisticated instruments may be able find and store data that our senses are incapable of intercepting, but as yet they don’t have the ability to perceive it. The ability to reason analogically; to invent and learn terms for abstractions as well as for concrete entities; to reason outside of the current context; to invent terms for relations as well as things and the ability to learn and use external symbols to represent numerical, spatial or conceptual information- these are all abilities that machines have yet to acquire on even a rudimentary level. But the human brain is a master of them all, and it uses these abilities to conceptualize reality. This is where immersionists become so useful. From oral storytelling, to the writing of novels, to the art of film-making and now the construction of online worlds, people have saught not only to see reality as we know it, but also to see a world different to the one we are familiar with (for better or worse) and share this imaginary reality with others. That ability must be used when analysing data gathered by our scientific instruments. As philosopher Joel D. Morrison explained, ‘we can view science as an attempt to build a rational and functional puzzle from a relatively small percentage of the total number of pieces critical to a comprehensive theoretical construction. It is the monumental task of science to take this incomplete yet vast collection of puzzle-pieces and form a coherent and accurate picture of observed reality’.

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