Is Reality Real?: 8 Scientists Explain Whether We Can Ever Know What Objectively Exists

Ask aloud whether real­i­ty is real, and you’re liable to be regard­ed as nev­er tru­ly hav­ing left the fresh­man dorm. But that ques­tion has received, and con­tin­ues to receive, con­sid­er­a­tion from actu­al sci­en­tists. The Big Think video above assem­bles sev­en of them to explain how they think about it, and how they see its rel­e­vance to the enter­prise of human under­stand­ing. For the most part, they seem to agree that, even if we accept that some­thing called “real­i­ty” objec­tive­ly exists, of more imme­di­ate rel­e­vance is the fact that we can’t per­ceive that real­i­ty direct­ly. Any infor­ma­tion we receive about it comes to our brain through our sens­es, and they have their own ways of inter­pret­ing things.

As cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Don­ald Hoff­man puts it, our sens­es are “mak­ing up the tastes, odors, and col­ors that we expe­ri­ence. They’re not prop­er­ties of an objec­tive real­i­ty; they’re actu­al­ly prop­er­ties of our sens­es that they’re fab­ri­cat­ing.” What’s phys­i­cal­ly objec­tive “would con­tin­ue to exist even if there were no crea­tures to per­ceive it.”

There­fore, “col­ors, odors, tastes, and so on are not real in that sense,” yet they are “real expe­ri­ences”; the trick of sep­a­rat­ing what exists in objec­tive real­i­ty from what only exists in our minds as a result of that objec­tive real­i­ty — “the begin­ning of the sci­en­tif­ic method,” as evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Heather Hey­ing describes it — is an even more com­pli­cat­ed endeav­or than it sounds.

“Real­i­ty, for us, is what we can sense with­out sen­so­ry sur­faces, and what we can make sense of with the sig­nals in our brain,” says Sev­en and a Half Lessons About the Brain author Lisa Feld­man Bar­rett in the video just above. “Trapped in its own dark, silent box called your skull,” your brain “has no knowl­edge of what is going on around it in the world, or in the body.” It does receive sig­nals from the sens­es, “which are the out­come of some changes in the world or in the body, but the brain does­n’t know what the changes are.” With only infor­ma­tion about effects, it uses past expe­ri­ence to con­struct guess­es about their caus­es and con­texts. We might also call that func­tion imag­i­na­tion, and no sci­en­tists worth their salt can do with­out a good deal of it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Is Con­scious­ness an Illu­sion? Five Experts in Sci­ence, Reli­gion & Tech­nol­o­gy Explain

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

Are We Liv­ing in a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: A 2‑Hour Debate with Neil Degrasse Tyson, David Chalmers, Lisa Ran­dall, Max Tegmark & More

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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