Reality is Something You Make

This was originally posted as Reality::Reality() - Read This if Nothing Else during the discussion of my article submission Manic Depressive Geeks on Slashdot on April 9, 2000.

Slashdot is a news and discussion forum for the Free Software community. Their slogan is "News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters"; I bought a t-shirt from them with "Release Your Inner Nerd" emblazoned on it that I wear proudly.

The discussion was on a technical community site and so what follows talks about quantum physics and makes metaphorical references to concepts in computer programming and networking, but I post it here in hopes that it can be useful to anyone - skip past the technical jargon if you're not hip to it.

The title "Reality::Reality()" is an experession in the C++ programming language for "the constructor for objects of the Reality class".

Reality::Reality() - Read This if Nothing Else

Here's something I've learned and used in my life that is a fundamental fact of existence. Please try to understand and take this with you if you take nothing else from this discussion.

This applies to everyone, not just the mentally ill or computer geeks, but all humans, even people from other cultures, and animals too. Even if you choose not to apply this to your own life, knowing this and understanding it will help you to deal with other people, especially difficult people who don't make sense or who don't understand you.

Most people feel that reality is something that just sort of happens to them. In fact the vast majority of people believe this so deeply that they don't even know that they believe it or ever consider the question of whether it could be otherwise. Things that are, just are because they happen that way.

But that's simply not true. There is an objective, absolute physical reality, but it is too vast, too complex for any living being to comprehend. This objective reality is also devoid of any significance and meaning.

The reality we experience is something we make. We do not have complete control over it, but everyone has influence over its general course, and it can be changed with time. Further, in conducting our construction of reality, we are constantly making choices, usually unconscious, and there is constant opportunity to choose, far more than most people would believe without really spending some time contemplating it.

Many people are satisfied with their lives, but many aren't, but believe they have no choice to have it any other way. Some people struggle constantly to improve their lot but consistently fail and live miserable lives - it's not for lack of trying, it's because they live in a reality that is not effective for them and they do not see the way to change it or even know that's what they should do.

I didn't invent this concept - I learned about it in an anthropology course at UC Santa Cruz. It has been "discovered" repeatedly over the ages and written about by many people, and the concept is expressed and taught in many different ways, and understood differently by many people. But however it is expressed the fundamental idea is common and widespread and very old.

I'll describe it the way it was taught by Prof. Stuart Schlegel in Anthropology of Religion, where we concentrated on studying the world views of some other cultures - and the social and mental processes by which they constructed them.

The objective physical reality I mentioned was termed Nouminal Reality by Emmanuel Kant. Nouminal reality is the physical universe in its entirety and complexity. There is no conscious perception of nouminal reality because it is both too detailed, too complex and our senses are physically incapable of perceiving it - most light is to long or short in wavelength to see or feel, much sound too quiet or lost in noice, most objects to small to see or too large to comprehend.

Nouminal reality is all there is, and it is completely true and absolute, but it is also meaningless.

For example, in nouminal reality there is no boundary between physical objects. Where one thing stops and something else starts is an artificial concept; in physical reality the quantum wavefunctions of almost all particles in the universe decay exponentially into infinity but never fully reach zero, although the wavefunction may have zero points it will almost always (except in a black hole) come to a non-zero value on the other side.

In the nouminal world there are events (too numerous to imagine) but they have no significance. The Kennedy assassination and the atomic bombings of Japan occurred but were no more important then events in some nearly-evacuated patch of empty space out between the galaxies somewhere. At best they could be described as complex particle interactions, and the events did have consequences but the consequences were only more particle interactions.

Nouminal reality is the raw, unfiltered and unformatted data that we use as a raw material to sample, filter, interpret and distort the information that we actually experience.

Subjective Reality is what we actually experience happening to us. A lot goes on in the process of transforming nouminal reality info subjective reality.

Reality construction is a layered protocol, like a TCP/IP stack. You might get a sense of nouminal reality by wiring an audio speaker into an Internet backbone cable; subjective reality is the formatted web page with styled text and nice JPEGs and maybe some streaming audio. It looks pretty automatic to the naive user but we all know the decades of process and engineer-millenia that went into making a web page happen.

And protocols can change. And you can choose what web pages you're going to look at. Some parts of it are easy, but significant change is a difficult process in life, as in standards development and implementation.

The first layer in subjective reality construction is physical selection. We can only experience the things our senses are sensitive to - we see a limited range of light wavelengths and hear in a narrow spectrum of audio frequencies. We can only see things that occupy a solid angle in our visual field wide enough to resolve in our physical eyes.

There are evolutionary and biological selections and interpretations applied. Part of the processing of visual signals in the nerve from the eye to the brain transform visual pixels into edge information and movement - our vision is much more sensitive to distinct edges and motion than to broad, stationary featureless fields.

I'm sure a lot of this filtering results from evolutionary processes not just to make us see well but to allow us to survive to reproduce. Loud or high-pitched noise, bright lights and flashes get our attention quickly because through most of history they've signaled danger or injury.

Once we've constructed a vision of an object we have to choose which objects to pay attention too and what to consider significant. Look at the room around you. See the objects in it. Now try to see all the objects all at once in their entirety. Pretty difficult, isn't it - a mental strain at best and not something you can do for any length of time.

The choice of what to see, and what significance these things have start with our culture. Us geeks will walk into an office and see computers.

A Tiruray on Mindanao in the Philippines will walk into the forest and see homes for spirits, and take care not to walk to close to any tree lest they disturb the spirit. This isn't just their belief - this is their reality, their universe. They'd see one of our offices and probably be thrown right into a panic or severe depression.

We have significance applied by our upbringing and by our personal preferences. Your friends and loved ones capture your attention much more reaidily than random strangers on the street - and we see humans in general much more readily than animals or plants because we attach such importance to other humans.

A whole lot of selection, filtering, whittling down and built-up significance is applied before a sensory perception is spit into our conscious mind for us to think about consciously. The part we normally get to consider consciously is only a small part of the object and most of what we experience is created by our own minds.

The most important thing to understand is that during the vast majority of those filtering processes, choices are being made - choices as to what to point your eyes towards, what sounds to focus on, and most importantly what significance to apply to the things we perceive.

This process exists for purely internal experience too, and this is particularly important for people who are unhappy with their lives. If you can come to understand the processes by which experience is created, both external experience and in your own mind, you can alter it in a way that will tend to be more positive and effective.

It's also important to understand that biology has a vast influence over what you construct. You can choose consciously to absorb a new trait into your personality, but there are things about being human that are too deeply wired into our brains to be able to alter through conscious will.

That is why I, as a manic depressive, choose to medicate myself with psychotropic drugs. Manic depression's sympoms have too profound an effect on me to be able to control them through better living, but I can choose to affect the biological component with medication.

The choices made in subjective reality construction are mostly automatic and unconscious - but they are still choices. They have to be automatic because there are too many choices to make for your conscious mind to be able to keep up with them all. But you can decide to alter the process and make a conscious decision to change your experience and then there are processes by which this decision can be implemented in the subconscious over some time, sort of like pushing a new STREAMS object down on the stack, or removing one.

I'm not going to go into how this is done. I can recommend some reading later. But this is basically the process taught to psychiatric patients in mental hospitals. It's not usually couched in these terms but I've found that the shrinks are quite comfortable discussing it this way with me when I bring it up.

The problem for mental patients is that they are in a very difficult and desperate position when they are asked to effect this change. They don't have the tools any more - it's like working with a stone chisel that's been smashed to bits. But there really is no choice and it is a long and difficult process to create the mental and emotional tools needed to do this and to heal.

If you're having an argument with someone who just doesn't seem to grasp your point, consider that they may have more than a different opinion, they may live in a different world. Jack Valenti doesn't just think DVD hackers are vandals - they are sapping the very foundations of his world. That may help you to understand the desperation of some people who work to oppose you. (nb. see If you can't protect what's yours, you own nothing, Jack Valenti, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2000.)

And understanding these processes, and the process by which changes to reality construction are effected, may allow you to live a more satisfied life and to be more effective in gaining t he support of people who might otherwise oppose you.

Tilting at Windmills for a Better Tomorrow.