The Myth of the Transparent Window, preface

For the post following this one to make any sense, there’s something that I first need to convince you of: you are living in a simulation.

I don’t mean that you’re a brain in a vat or a human battery, though either scenario may in fact be true. I’ll grant that you’re a real person in the real world interacting with real things — and you’re still living in a simulation. We all are.

Neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles described it beautifully (and I’m desperate to find a source for this):

“I want you to understand that there are no colors in the real world. That there are no textures in the real world. There are no fragrances in the real world. There is no beauty, there is no ugliness. Nothing of the sort. Out there is a chaos of energy soup and energy fields. Literally. We take that and somewhere inside ourselves we create a world. Somewhere inside ourselves it all happens.”

When you consider the mechanics of perception it’s easy to grasp why this must be true. Seeing entails the cells in the retina being stimulated by light to generate electrical signals which are sent down the optic nerve to the brain. These signals are the entirety of your brain’s access to the visual realm. Your eyes don’t transmit shapes and colors and faces and movement; they transmit blips at various frequencies. Just blips. It might as well be Morse code over a telegraph wire.

This is true of all five senses, of course. Your brain gets nothing from the outside world but blips. A bajillion blips every second. The job of the brain is to transcode these blips into… something. But what? How does it know what to transcode them into? It has no reference for what these blips represent. A certain symphony of blips might correspond with the sight of a tree, another might correspond with the sound of a ringing phone. But the brain can’t go out and verify any of this. It’s blind, deaf, and numb to everything but the blips themselves.

Sensory systems in animals (like everything else) did indeed evolve blindly. A fantastic book, Kinds of Minds by Daniel Dennett, outlines the steps in evolutionary history that eventually led to consciousness. A very simple organism like a sea sponge is mostly cut off from any information about its environment — it may be able to react in some way to water temperature, but that’s about it. If food happens to flow by, it lives; if not, it dies. In contrast, an organism that can acquire some sort of information about its surroundings, and, better yet, act on that information, may end up having a survival advantage. A worm that can detect light can use that information to burrow out of view of predators. It doesn’t know that this is what it’s doing, of course. The behavior is entirely robotic. This habit is only ingrained because worm brains that happen to respond in this way to blips from the light-sensing organ get eaten less frequently. The worm’s brain has been engineered, in the most primitive capacity, to respond appropriately to the outside world. Appropriate responses to stimuli are the seeds of consciousness.

Most organisms get by well enough on these reflexive behaviors, but it’s not ideal. There are all sorts of dangers that these organisms are completely vulnerable to, novel ones in particular. In an unfamiliar situation, the organism can only discover that an act is fatal by actually doing it. The ability to anticipate consequences without suffering those consequences was a game-changing evolutionary development. This required a brain capable of some level of simulation — a brain that could construct a rudimentary model of the outside world and test behaviors against the model before deciding to execute them. Some simulations yielded more survivors than others, and life entered a new kind of arms race.

Animals living in communities could enjoy less turbulent relations with other members when they could begin to simulate the internal states of others based on external cues, since the internal state is a predictor of future behavior. Likewise, animals that gave off more obvious cues to their own internal states could integrate themselves more easily. Social structures became more and more complex. Mirror neurons and empathy were born. There’s no easy or agreed upon solution to the problem of what “full-blown” consciousness is and how it emerged, but a common thread in the discussion is the notion that, in the case of humans and maybe the other apes, the simulation being performed by the brain has managed to loop in on itself. The simulation has come to include within it the internal states of the being that’s doing the simulating. An ouroboros.

This is all almost unbearably oversimplified, and there are countless books on the subject that paint a far more complete picture. But the important takeaway is that at no point in this timeline did brains ever have access to anything but blips. The blip-generators (sense organs) and the blip-receivers (brains) were molded in parallel over the eons by survival pressures. The structure of our perceptions were determined not by accuracy, but by usefulness. Accuracy is quite often useful, but as I’ve said before, there are survival advantages to delusion. Our internal models of the outside world are simply the ones that have survived the arms race. Whether or not they are accurate, consistent, or rational has always been a secondary concern.

And our internal models are, in a profound sense, where we live. It’s very tempting to look at a red apple and think, “That’s how that object really looks.” But how could you know? All you have is what your brain constructed out of blips. You have no way of verifying how correct this construction is. What does correct even mean? As Eccles said, it’s all soup and fields out there. There is no red, only wavelengths. Red is how your brain transcodes those wavelengths, and the experience of red is far more viscerally real to us than measurements of waveforms.

There’s a great deal of information out there that our sense organs aren’t privy to. For example, when I look at the apple, a three-dimensional object, all I see is a two-dimensional surface wrapped around it. A perfect simulation of the outside world should include everything there is to know about an apple, inside and out. Imagine a conscious being whose sense organs react to X-rays rather than the spectrum visible to us. A very different set of information about the world would be made available to him, and he would thus be living inside a very different simulation. Whose simulation is the correct simulation? His or ours?

There is no correct simulation, just as there’s no correct map for a territory. Different maps highlight different features, and the value of a given map depends on how you intend to use it. Subway maps are abstracted to the point where they tell you very little about the actual territory they represent, but when you need to travel on one a subway map is far more useful than a satellite photo. Usefulness is more valuable than accuracy for evolved systems; accuracy is only valuable to the extent that it can be useful.

I hope the mere fact that there are so many ways to experience the external realm (varying depending on neurology and sensory systems) is enough to convince you that your own experience must be constructed rather than passively received. There is no transparent window to the outside world, no authentic way to receive sense impressions. The day to day experiential world you float through is an incomplete and highly filtered simulation that’s highly geared toward improving your chances of survival. The outside world itself, assuming it exists, is something you experientially have zero access to.

Why this fact matters so much when evaluating the “perception is reality” claims made by people like proponents of the Law of Attraction is the subject of the next post.


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