January 2009 Reflection

I am currently on the training camp trip with the UCD Boat Club in Seville, Spain. Since I have said that I would be doing some thinking, I thought I would share some of those thoughts instead of a travel entry. Here goes a beginner’s attempt at philosophy.

Returning to Ireland from home has made me think a lot about reality. Well, really the multiple realities: the one that we each hold in our heads, the one we perceive that each person we meet holds in their head, and the objective sort. Perception of reality is part of what makes us human. We perceive data from the world, integrate it with our thoughts and experience, and try to take the action we think is the best. We assume that similar mechanisms exist in those around us as we form a “theory of mind” about other people. Often, we ask our friends and advisors for their ideas and experiences when we make decisions because their views help us to be more “objective,” and will help us make better decisions or form more accurate thoughts. The interactions between these three senses of reality seem to cause a lot of problems. In courtrooms, friendships, relationships, business, and especially when outside our comfort zones, we are forced to see where our reality does not match those of others. If they were the same, we would avoid a lot of arguing, but also lead pretty boring lives.

As individuals, we have several ways in which we can approach our often-contradictory perceptions of reality. One, we can assume that our perception is completely accurate and objectively correct. Two, we can assume that there are multiple interpretations of reality, with some being closer to objectivity than others. Three, we can assume that no perception of reality can be judged to be more objective than another. Four, we can assume that no objective sense of reality can exist.

Let’s say you assume that your perception of reality is completely objective, and that it is the only objective sense of reality. This makes life pretty easy to describe in that all other perceptions of reality are wrong, and ours is right. A good image here is of everyone trying to copy a great work of art, in that only the original one (objective reality) is flawless. However, unless this assumption holds true, your perception is brittle. Any conclusive evidence to the contrary must be ignored, or the entire house of cards will fall down.

Now let’s instead assume that there exist multiple perceptions of reality, and that ours may or may not be correct. Imagine lots of people trying to flatten crumpled pieces of paper. Each one will look a little bit different and, with lots of effort, will start to look like the original, but will never be quite right without some heavy machinery. This approach has solved the brittleness problem. Now we can adapt to information contrary to our current perception by shifting to a new paradigm. However, we now have a new problem, in that we have no idea if our current perception is correct, or if any paradigm we see is more correct than any other. We can, and psychology says we do, create (possibly arbitrary) criteria to determine which are more “objective.” By introducing these criteria, we inherently distort the possible realities we apply them to, further shifting us away from any sense of objectivity. Under this assumption, we constantly desire and try to make our criteria more accurate, often by talking to others or examining new experiences. It requires lots of time though. We must first understand our own opinions sufficiently, then understand the opinions and experiences of others, to sufficiently compare the two. This process requires a level of self-awareness that is difficult to achieve, and an investment of time that makes its application necessarily limited.

Let’s assume instead that there exists no way to determine objective reality, but that one still exists. Unlike the analogy above, we are no longer trying to flatten the pieces of paper, but rather we each make origami from them and share them with each other. This “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” approach runs contrary to what our brains appear to be programmed to believe. However, this approach solves the problems outlined above. Perceptions are robust in that they can adapt to contrary information, and we no longer need to discover objectivity, or the one reality, because understanding each person’s perception of an objective reality is what’s really important. But, can we judge any perceptions to be more valid than any other? Can one eyewitness be judged to be more accurate than another? Can one person’s reading of the Koran be truer than another’s? Is murder always bad? Is the sky really blue? What this particular approach posits is that the validity of a particular perception of reality is just a matter of individual choice.

Finally, the last approach is to assume that no objective reality exists. As a self-respecting scientist, this grates me because it means that things exist that are unknowable logically. Then again, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem shows that, at least mathematically, no set of ideas can be both complete and consistent. This means that anything that completely explains the world will never be always true, whereas something that is always true cannot explain the world. If contradictory views are both viewed to be true, then, supposedly, we can completely explain the world. Even so, we are still left with the same questions about the validity of perceptions of reality and still left without clear answers.

I have no idea what’s correct from the options above, but guess that the correct one isn’t on this list. That said, who’s to say what is correct?

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