Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Nothing I hear, see, taste or touch is "real." There is no "out there," at least as popularly conceived. The brain is a sense organ; as such, it's responsible for processing the flood of input that I (presumably) receive from the outside world. It translates photons into images; vibrations in the air become sounds. My existence in the realm of the "real world" hinges on my nervous system's ability to translate physical phenomena into senses and subjective impressions.

But just how much trust should I grant my nervous system? The world in my head -- a world stitched together from images and intuition and acquired skills -- certainly seems like a faithful reproduction of what everyone else is experiencing . . . but how do I know? As long as I'm embodied, I must rely on the "virtual" interface of my nerves and brain.

Elliptically enough, I assume the existence of a somatic brain (the computer presently running "Reality 1.0") based on data harvested by the very sensory relay system I'm questioning; I infer its existence from observation. In the same way, I seem to be a creature of cells and DNA -- a tangible "thing" operating within the boundaries of the universe (itself another thing, although of a different order).

And maybe that's the way it is -- but I can't be sure of it. In the end, all may be Mind. The real world -- the material "ontosphere" of cars and bad weather and laptop computers -- may be a solipsistic or consensual fiction. Presupposing that it's consensual, we may partake in it out of sheer convenience without realizing it for what it is -- like telephone users casually assuming, for the sake of practicality, that the person they're speaking to has managed to project his personality through space. As Bruce Sterling has noted, cyberspace is that quizzical domain between the wires.

I'm not postulating a malign "Matrix"-style virtual reality. If anything, the idea that our minds inhabit an illusory world of gross physical matter is more suggestive of Hindu cosmology, with the self ("atma") forced to operate within a hierarchy of substrates.

I think it's very probable we share our world/s with others who have achieved something like "system operator" status. Strangely, if they chose to interact with us, that interaction might be necessarily flawed. This concept provides a plausible framework for Jacques Vallee's "multiverse" hypothesis, in which UFO occupants and paranormal experiences represent an ontological breach. It also compliments physicist David Bohm's transcendent vision of an "implicate" order wound up in our workaday "explicate" existence.

Quantum entanglement, for example, seems paradoxical to us. But if we could plunge deeper, into the universe's "source code," apparent paradoxes would dissolve because our consciousness (as of now, little more than a passive instrument) would be forced to mutate in ways that defy description.

Social commentators remark on the gulf that frustrates our attempts to collaborate meaningfully with our fellow humans. Perhaps we behave like discreet islands of consciousness because, in Bohm's explicate order at least, that is truly what we are. "Reality" is a crude sort of lingua franca; we are motes drifting on a vast and uncharted sea, disconnected and confronted by a universe that has become, under the light of bleeding-edge science, as arcane as any hallucination.

A bone-deep existential unease sets in. Am I a cosmos unto myself, chasing my own synapses (which may or may not be an accurate representation of whatever is actually doing the thinking)? Or, like quanta at the hands of particle physicists, am I fundamentally entangled in something more real?

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