Random Ontologies, Entry 1.

I’ve been thinking about writing down some of my thoughts on philosophical/scientific things that interest me…or rather, the questions that I ask and the responses I’ve come up with to them. This is not meant to be any sort of formal essay or argument; merely a collection of ideas I’ve had. Feel free to think about them or ignore them as you choose.

The two most important questions I can think of are:

  • What is human consciousness?
  • Does human consciousness play any part in the way the universe works on a fundamental level?

Before you start thinking that I’ve succumbed to magical thinking, bear with me.

Humans are, insofar as we are aware, the only creatures in the universe capable of abstract thought — or, let me rephrase that, capable of thinking abstract thoughts, which is more precise. We are also the only creatures capable of making things up — of imagination and lying. This may seem obvious, but it’s not, because imagination and lying are things that don’t make sense from a purely physical standpoint.

It can be argued that there is a strong evolutionary value to imagination: if one can create inside of one’s head a small model of the world in which one can try out certain actions — what will happen if I try to jump into this river to chase this tasty deer, or what will happen if I were to jump off of this cliff — one can avoid a great deal of trouble and, therefore, ensure survival. It seems like an odd thing to have evolved, though — aside from humans, Nature always tends to favor external, physical survival traits rather than mental ones. But maybe it was imagination, first and foremost, that kept our frail species alive in a hostile world.

Here’s an experiment: right now, I want you to imagine an urban place you’ve never been — let’s say, in my case, Red Square in Moscow. Just imagine yourself standing in the middle of this place, looking at the buildings, the people around you, the sky. Can you do that?

Okay, good. I know you can, because almost all humans can. Hold on to that scene, in your mind, for a moment.

In computer graphics, you hear the term resolution used a lot. Resolution is the word we use to describe the number of pixels in an image or display, or how many pixels a sensor (such as a digital camera’s sensor) can take in at once. You hear the terms high-resolution and low-resolution used a lot; essentially, they refer to the ratio of number of pixels in a given area of a graphic input or output device. Hi-res images have higher ratios; for example, part of how we measure the quality of printer is in how many dots per inch (DPI) or pixels per inch (PPI) it can reproduce. Up until recently, printers were three to four times higher resolution than computer monitors (an average of 200-300 dpi for printers vs. 72-96 dpi for screens), which is why most people still prefer to read print off of paper rather than a screen: it’s sharper and more detailed on paper.

Resolution can also be used as a measurement of fidelity. A “lo-res” copy of an image is in fact a simplified approximation of that image. Take for example, these two images of the Mona Lisa.

Two versions of the Mona Lisa. Both are recognizable, but the image on the left is much lower-resolution. Even the image on the right is an approximation, though.

Both of these are relatively low-resolution reproductions of the Mona Lisa, one more obvious than the other, even though both are recognizable as Da Vinci’s famous painting. To  your perception, the image on the right looks more “realistic” — or higher resolution — but in fact both images are simply approximations.

There’s a famous story about Picasso at a dinner party, where a fellow guest asked him why he didn’t paint “realistic” art. Picasso asked the man if he had a picture of his wife in his wallet. The man did, and produced it. Picasso looked at it for a moment and remarked “She’s rather small, isn’t she? And flat?”

A wallet picture is an approximation of an actual person — a rather small and flat one. So are the images above small, flat approximations of the Mona Lisa. A perfect replica of the Mona Lisa would be a replica which reproduced the original painting down to the arrangement of the atoms in the molecules of paint on the canvas. Of course, at that level of precision — of resolution — the “replica” would be absolutely identical to the original. There would be no difference. Even the most exacting and skilled of art experts could not tell them apart.

(We’re not even going to get into the fact that the Mona Lisa itself is a simulation of some still-unknown woman –or perhaps a gender-bent portrait of the artist himself — a projection of a three-dimensional person projected onto a two-dimensional canvas.)

Let’s not use the word “replica” anymore, though. Let’s use the word “simulation”, which is defined as “the act of imitating the behavior of some situation or some process by means of something suitably analogous”. One example would be a flight simulator, which imitates the behavior of an airplane in flight. Many pilots train on flight simulators before they ever actually take a real plane into the sky, because no matter how realistic, how hi-resolution the simulator is, it ignores one aspect of flying a plane entirely: namely, it will not hurt or kill you and damage or destroy your aircraft if you fail to land properly.

But a simulation doesn’t have to necessarily be of an actual situation or process to be realistic. Video games are simulations of realities, simplified and abstracted and occasionally tweaked away from “real” reality whilst maintaining a certain internal consistency.

For example: Super Mario Bros. is a simulation of an Italian-American plumber wandering through a colorful world killing antagonists who try to harm him or impede his quest to find the Princess. It is not a realistic simulation. Mario is rather small, and flat, and were he mapped onto the real world he would consist of pixelated blocks and unnatural colors. Likewise, he is capable of utterly impossible feats, such as jumping several times his own height into the air from a standstill, gaining the ability to store and launch fireballs at will, and to instantly double his own height by eating a mushroom slightly larger than he is. He fights creatures that are physically impossible — flying turtles, animated mushrooms with angry human eyes, living bullets. Super Mario Bros. is not a high-resolution simulation at all.

Contrast that with a more recent game such as Red Dead Redemption, which got a lot of positive press last year. RDR is a far more realistic simulation than Super Mario Bros. in every sense — visually, sonically, and even in regards to the physics of the tiny universe it contains and the behavior of the non-player-characters. It is easier to suspend your disbelief when playing Red Dead Redemption, despite the fact that you are controlling an apparently normal human being’s behavior via a plastic thingy with buttons in your hand, sitting in your living room. You can lose yourself in its depiction of the American West, in all its glory and grandeur.

And yet, it is still, in comparison to the reality we inhabit, very small. And flat. And unrealistic in other ways — in our world, when someone gets shot with more than one bullet at once, they almost always die. And when they die, they’re dead forever; no save point.

The late Jean Baudrillard made the majority of his career as a postmodern philosopher and media critic off the notion of “hyperreality”, which he defined as “a simulation of reality without basis in fact”. Super Mario Bros. is a hyperreality: it simulates a world that does not, never did and never could exist. Of course, so does Red Dead Redemption: but the “hyper” part of its hyperreality is a little more subdued, a little less glaring.

Had Rockstar Games, maker of RDR, wanted to make a perfect simulation of the late 19th century American West, they would have replicated all of, say, Arizona down to the molecule, including the humans who inhabited it. These “simulated” people in this simulated world would, presumably, behave exactly like real people, because the processes that allowed them to exist would be at least as complex as those of “real” people in the “real” world.

Ignoring the practical impossibility of this for a moment, let’s say that Rockstar did somehow accomplish this superhuman feat. How would they store the game’s data, if it was a precise replica of Arizona circa 1875 or so? They’d be storing the position of every atom in that space — hell, every electron in every atom in that space. It would require at least as many actual electrons to describe the simulation as there were in the actual thing it was simulating. Like our Mona Lisa, the map would, in essence, become the territory.

Of course, Rockstar could compress the size of their simulation a bit by leaving out the bits that a player would never encounter, such as impassable mountain tops and the bottom of deep lakes, places a “player” could never experience. They could also reduce the amount of information stored — reuse the same grain of sand over and over again, rather than having each grain of sand be its own unique, discrete self. You could probably shave several thousand petabytes of data off in this way before even the most observant player began to notice.

But in doing so, your simulation would suffer a loss of resolution. The player might not know, but you’d know. And if you ran the simulation long enough, it would begin to behave in unrealistic ways. Soil erosion would work differently if every grain of sand were physically identical down to the atomic structure. After a year, or ten, or ten thousand, your simulation would not only not be identical to the real world it was simulating, it would be wildly different.

Which brings us back to our imaginary urban scene. I told you we’d come back to this.

Pull it up again in your mind. Picture the scene, imagine the sounds and scents around you. Look at the faces of the people in your scene. Notice what they’re wearing, how their eyes are shaped, how tall or short each one is.

What you are doing is creating a hyperreal simulation within your own head of a place you’ve never been. The picture of Red Square in my head is probably wildly inaccurate, as it’s mainly based on a few dozen 1980s Cold War-era movies. But though it might be imprecise in its level of resolution, it’s still at least as high-resolution as Red Dead Redemption‘s simulation of the Wild West, if not much more so. I can smell coal smoke in the air — I don’t know if Red Square really smells like coal smoke, but the places I’ve been that are similar in Turkey and Eastern Europe always did. I can picture the people — people I’ve never seen before, who don’t exist in real life. I can see the sky, clear blue even on a cold day. I can see the breath coming out of my own mouth as condensation, drifting and fading away.

The human brain is not a computer, but it shares one very important attribute with a computer: it is a real thing. It consists of atoms and electromagnetic patterns, which are — ultimately — the same thing when you get right down to it. And everything in it, everything it does, happens in the real world. What we call a “calculation” in a computer is the process of electrons flowing through silicon circuitry, bouncing this way and that through logic gates. The term “calculation” is an abstraction of a real process.

In the same way, what we call a “thought” is an actual, physical event within our brains. It’s some as-yet unknown combination of electrical and physical activity happening in the incredibly complex labyrinth within our skulls. We don’t understand it, but we understand that it is a real thing, a material object/event in a material world. Thoughts are not abstractions.

Let me repeat that, because it is absolutely vital.

Thoughts are not abstractions. Thoughts are things. Real things.

When you imagine Red Square or wherever you chose to imagine, that simulation of reality exists as a physical pattern of logic gates or electrons or whatever the case may be within your brain, the same way the world of Super Mario Bros exists as a series of instructions hard-coded onto a Nintendo RAM cartridge. It exists. It is real, the same way your notional Red Square or Alexanderplatz or Santa Monica Pier in your head is real; it takes up a finite number of electrons inside your head.

The electrons in your head aren’t a perfect miniature replica of Red Square, of course; if I were to hack the top of your skull off, I wouldn’t see a miniature Kremlin hiding in there, anymore than if you tore open a Super Mario Bros cartridge you’d see a perfect little Koopa Kingdom hiding inside the gray plastic. It’s an abstraction of a real place; your brain builds it from instructions and fills in the redundancies and the gaps the same way a Nintendo console takes the binary data encoded within that cartridge and builds a tiny Day-Glo world from it.

The most fascinating part of this, to me, is the fact that your brain has constructed a realistic model of a place that, if you were following my instructions, you’ve never been. Again, my Red Square may not be a precise simulation of the real Red Square, but it exists at a similar resolution, follows the same rules. I can walk, in my mind, into any corner of it and inspect it, look at the cracks in the cobblestones, see the grass struggling to grow there. I can replicate the color of the grass with the color picker in Adobe Photoshop and show it to you. If I were a better draftsman, I could draw you my Red Square, from any angle you liked. I have never been there, but in my head there’s a Red Square at least as believable as the real one.

Every imaginary place is real, in the sense that it exists in some abstracted form within the real world.

The lands of Middle-Earth began as a structure of synaptic connections in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien; he put them down onto pressed, bleached sheets of wood pulp with ink and abstracted them in a different way. You read the words, and in your mind is your own Middle-Earth. It’s not precisely the Middle-Earth that Tolkien was thinking of, maybe; in your mind, Gandalf the Gray may look to you like Sir Ian McKellen, who played him in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s books; as Gandalf first appeared in The Hobbit, published two years before McKellen was born, I suspect he didn’t look that way to Tolkien. To someone else who’s never seen the films, Gandalf may look in their minds like their grandfather, or Sean Connery, or no one real at all. And yet, if I showed you my internal vision of Gandalf and you showed me yours, we’d probably recognize them as the same person that Tolkien describes: “…an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.We do this every Hallowe’en: your friend may look nothing like Ian McKellen or Sean Connery or your grandfather, but when he walks into the party in the blue hat and gray cloak and white beard, you know instantly that he’s Gandalf. He doesn’t have to explain himself; indeed, his costume is considered less effective if he does.

In other words, you and I would be able to recognize one man pretending to be another man who never existed. Because humans are capable of inventing people who don’t exist, and worlds for them to live in, and we are capable of replicating those worlds — those thoughts, those electrical patterns in our heads — to one another by converting them into patterns of sound (speech) or marks on a page (writing) or the selective exposure to light of celluloid (film). Tolkien is long dead, but in the same way that his DNA is literally still extant in his children and grandchildren, the patterns of electrical impulse in his long-decayed brain are still literally extant, in slightly modified form, in almost any bookstore you’d care to walk into in any city on the Earth.

The point of all of this is that humans can create worlds that are larger on the inside than the outside, like Doctor Who’s famed TARDIS; that our thoughts are literally part of the material world and can effect change within it; and that we can nest internally consistent realities within one another. Inside every book and every video game and every movie is a compressed reality, your brain is the tool that uncompresses it and fills in the blanks.

So what else can the human brain do within the framework of a rational, material universe?


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One Response to Random Ontologies, Entry 1.

  1. conrad says:

    have you read Fabric of Reality by D. Deutsch. There is some cool thoughts in there concerning some of what you are writing about. Turing Machines with unlimited energy supplies being able to essentially perform virtual reality universes….etc etc

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