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Is The World As We Know It An Illusion? August 2, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Metaphysics is probably the branch of philosophy that annoys lay people the most.  It’s easy enough to understand the importance of ethics or aesthetics but when philosophers start asking questions like, “is this chair really here”, most people tend to mentally check out.  The reason is obvious; to most of us it is a ridiculous question.  Of course the chair is here.  I can touch it, see it, taste it (if so inclined) and generally perceive it as existing.  So why do philosophers continue to grapple with such things?

The question boils down to whether or not we can trust our perceptions to give us an accurate glimpse of the real world.  To illustrate this point, think of schizophrenics who believe they hear voices that aren’t really there.  Alternatively, just go watch The Matrix again.  The idea that the “real” world may not actually be there, or that we simply are unable to perceive it for one reason or another, has a long history in philosophy.  It can be found in such disparate works as the writings of Plato, the Gnostics, Idealism, all the way up to it’s modern incarnation in the simulation hypothesis.  I have neither the time nor the expertise to delve into all of these topics but I encourage those who are interested to delve deeper.

It’s not just the field of philosophy that tackles the issue however.  Neuroscience and psychology have begun to look at the question in a more quantitative manner and ask how much things like the structure of our brain influence our perception of reality.  That seems to be the subject of a series of lectures soon to occur in Great Britain:

Professor Bruce Hood will explore the limits of the human mind in a series of prestigious lectures for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest independent research body in the world, it was announced yesterday.

The psychologist plans to induce false memories in audience members and use pickpockets to demonstrate how easily people are distracted, in a bid to prove how we have less control over our own decisions and perceptions than we like to imagine.

“A lot of the world is make-believe. We’re only aware of a fraction of what’s going on,” Prof Hood told The (London) Times. “We have this impression of an expansive panorama in front of our eyes, but all we are ever seeing is an area the size of our thumbs at an arm’s distance. The rest is filled in, as the brain creates a stable environment.”

While I’m sure it will be thought provoking I doubt the Prof. will manage to bring about any sort of consensus on the issue.  That is a shame because the answer to that question has some interesting ramifications for transhumanism.

On of the most talked about potentialities of human enhancement technology is the ability to not simply enhance our current abilities but to give us new ones.  Inspiration for this can be found easily in the natural world.  Insects can see into the ultraviolet, an ability which allows them to perceive differences in color completely hidden to us.  Similarly, vipers can see further into the infrared.  There is some evidence that certain species possess the ability to sense electromagnetic fields.  Even the structure of the brain is different among different lineages; a feature which, as stated above, is likely to play a major role in what we actually perceive the real world to be.

Do these creatures experience reality in an utterly different way?  Do they experience a different reality all together?  As we not only heighten but expand our perceptive ability is it possible that we will approach a more accurate picture of reality?