Friday, June 01, 2012

Me, myself and I

When I was a child I mentally wound myself into knots wondering how I could be sure that the world was not an illusion specially prepared to trick me. I think this profound suspicion that the world was not as I experienced it came out of being brought up in a part of the country that is all dales, vales and valleys.

Growing up in such territory made it natural to wonder what was happening in the next valley over, especially as what was happening there was completely hidden. Perhaps if I had been brought up in Norfolk or Iowa I would not have been prey to such thoughts. And I was the catspaw, the prey of that idea as I have clear memories of filling long car journeys racking my puny childhood brain for a way to pierce the illusion.

I had very clear ideas about the way I was being fooled. Someone or something was maintaining a bubble of earthly being around me. Beyond the edges of the bubble the real world could be seen in all its fantastic wonder. I was a big reader of SF (especially PKD) while this perception was taking hold, I'm sure one fed the other, and I was convinced that things were more advanced than they seemed and I was being kept back.

Driving up hills I wondered if our speed would outrun the efforts of whoever was behind the illusion to maintain it. Perhaps I would see a great flap of countryside slide into place just as we topped a hill, trees shuddering as the landscape settled like a vast green wave. But they never slipped up. Or, if they did, I never noticed.

When I started to learn about philosophy I sought out thinkers who had subjected the idea to more rigorous thought than I could ever manage. Strawson, Wittgenstein's private language argument and G E Moore's Defence of Common Sense were candles in my darkness. For a while, at least.

But then, I realised, I did not need a defence against the solipsism they were battling. I had no doubt that other people existed and were real. My desire was to pierce the illusion, to catch out the illusionists so they had to show me what was really going on. I've racked my brains for a way to do this but no simple way presents itself.

If this were a computer simulation then I can imagine that it would be possible to show up the limits inherent in such a deterministic system. It might take time, a lifetime at least, to spot the places were the algorithms run dry and the world's variety is shown up to be finite.

Smarter people than me have considered the question of whether we are living in a simulation. The most famous paper dealing with it makes some good points but does not convince me, not least because the three alternatives it proposes do not seem mutually exclusive. I still wonder and want to believe.

The forceful idea that I'm missing something profound has returned with vigor recently. More than ever I feel like Ragel Gumm, set down in a world that makes a kind of sense but is also one that feels like there is a greater sense to be had, if I could but just grasp its tail and pull. Then again, maybe it's just middle age, when ambition is replaced by regret and lots of things in life stop making sense.

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