Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Arthur T. Johnson

What is “real world”?

My students used to talk often about the “real world.” “The real world,” they would say, “would be a lot different from the life that they had as engineering students. It would be a lot tougher when working a job, having a family to support, and having to worry about all the restrictions that come with living in a less-structured environment.” A lot tougher, indeed.

When I would hear them say such things, I responded by telling them that “real world” is any situation in which they happen to find themselves. When they are in school, real world is the life of a student, with all of its responsibilities and benefits. When they graduate, real world for them would change, and they would have to adjust to the new conditions in which they find themselves then.

The academic milieu was certainly real world for me as long as I was a faculty member teaching at the university, and there were expectations to be met, as well as advantages over other real worlds out there. When I was at home on my farm, my real world was considerably different [13]. I was responsible for the welfare of our cows, sheep, and poultry animals. I was expected to grow plants and trees, and to take care of them so they bore fruit. I had to cut, rake, bale hay, and bring it safely into the barn. I had to maintain and fix my machinery so that it could be used for all the jobs that needed to be done. My real world at home was a lot different from my real world at school, but both were my real worlds. I have written before about some of my real world experiences [9], [12].

But it’s the philosophical nature of the concept of “real world” that is intriguing to me. The whole idea of “real world” is centered on the perspective of the individual who is making the judgment. Rather than “real world” being a fixed set of circumstances, “real world” is highly dependent on the condition of the person as experienced by that person. “Real world,” then, is a relational attribute of the consciousness of the individual.

I read somewhere [5] that the path to self-awareness began when the first single-celled organism developed the containment provided by a cell membrane. The single-celled organism needs to keep track of what is “inside” and what is “outside” its cell membrane. This gives rise to the multicellular organism’s rudimentary sense of “self.” Once the membrane has evolved with ion channels meant to distinguish by electrical means between what is inside and what is outside, the evolutionary process eventually leads to individual self-awareness. The separation afforded by the membrane allows the cell to sense and control conditions inside the membrane and to sense conditions outside that were imposed on the cell and often required reaction. There was a “self” and there was “other.” From this simple beginning, senses led to awareness, and consciousness and intelligence gradually developed from this rudimentary sensing as an evolutionary trait [3], [11]. 

Becoming increasingly aware of one’s own condition and, likewise, of the conditions of other individuals nearby gives a survival advantage to the individual with superior predictive capabilities. What followed is that groups of individuals, including animals, plants, and microbes, began cooperative behavior, and this gave a strong evolutionary advantage to members of those groups [6]. Cooperation with others meant that no individual member had to carry the full burden by itself. Examples of cooperative behavior leading to improved survivability are the hunting and caring actions of early hominids, the successes of dogs befriending humans [14], plants sending out chemical warnings of insect attacks on other neighboring plants, pathogenic microbes that signal related microbes when it is safe to show themselves and avoid deadly immune responses [10], and biofilms, whereby certain microbes provide a protected environment for others like them [10]. In fact, all multicellular organisms, including human beings, are cooperative assemblies of many specialized cells, each performing different functions necessary to the survival of the whole assemblage. Human consciousness is still very much a mystery, but it is something central for our species to observe and understand our entire environment.

Ramsey [4] was a brilliant philosopher of the early 20th century, who saw the heavens and realized that they are observable because we can see them and understand what we are looking at. It is doubtful whether any other species has this same degree of understanding. He went further and made the point that humans are the source of the universe instead of the other way around. Without humans to see and comprehend the heavens, would they still exist? Perhaps it can be argued that the universe would still be there, but there would be no recognized acknowledgment of its existence. 

This brings to mind the age-old riddle about whether or not a tree crashing in a forest makes a sound if there is no one there to hear it. The sound will not exist as long as a sound is defined as something that a human can hear. Likewise, it could be argued that the universe does not exist if there is no human to comprehend what is being seen.

This suggests the philosophical concept of solipsism, the theory that everything is centered on the awareness of a person. Only those things that are known to an individual can truly be known. Everything else could be illusional. We can only be sure of what we ourselves know. We cannot know what we are not aware of. For instance, there are electromagnetic wavelengths that can be sensed by bees (ultraviolet), but not by us. Also, our environments are permeated by signals used by cell phones and WiFi networks; yet, if we acknowledge that they exist, it is only because we know that they must be there for our gadgets to work the way they do. There are also sounds that we cannot hear because our ears have a limited frequency range. Unless we can measure (sense) these different wavelengths or sounds in some indirect manner, we are totally unaware that they exist. Further, we can imagine what someone else may be experiencing at a certain time, but we cannot know for sure unless we are actually there to experience it ourselves. Our acknowledgment of existence depends on being able to sense it. And our whole paradigm of knowledge depends on being able to observe and measure what we then assume to exist [7]. It is just this very reason that virtual reality is so convincing [2]. It is also the reason that people are so vulnerable to misinformation, fake images, completely false video, audio, and texts generated slickly enough to fool the naïve or unquestioning receiver of that information. 

It can be all a matter of scale [7]. The most real things we have are those that we see and feel every day. It is to the credit of our species (humans) that we have developed methods to see and measure things that exist outside the dimensions of our lives. Without these methods, objects at other scales would not be known (for sure) to exist. We could perhaps imagine a vast universe outside of our world, or imagine huge numbers of infinitesimally-small particles that make up the matter of our world. But, we cannot know either of these unless we experience them somehow. Our field of knowledge depends on the accuracy of our ability to sense things. This is the limitation that Descartes tried to circumvent when he proposed that a whole field of logic can be built on the foundational statement that “I think, therefore I exist.” There is no other sensing or measurement necessary for logical derivations based on this statement.

This egocentric look at what we take as believable and factual is not uncommon to the many fields of science. Many fields of knowledge use models to summarize what is known about the field and to be able to predict outcomes not included in the foundational set of data that forms the basis for the model. These models, including those formulated and used by engineers, are mostly created to summarize salient aspects of known characteristics about a phenomenon. These are postpriory models, based on measurements already collected. However, the scientific method depends on the formation of hypotheses that can be tested against observations. These hypotheses are, in fact, intellectual stabs at reality as the scientist believes it will be confirmed (or refuted) to be. Physicists, in particular, often formulate a model and then search for supporting observations. Indeed, it has been said that Einstein’s belief in the symmetry of the universe was necessary for his theories of relativity. He was also noted for his thought experiments that led to virtual understandings of the interactions of time, space, light, and gravity. Reality existed first in his mind and then was extended to the physical world around him.

Although Einstein believed that there was a reality that existed independently of human observation, physicist Hugh Everett III changed everything when he theorized that there exist many concurrent realities in multiple dimensions [15]; humans can only perceive one reality from among many that are postulated to exist out there. Physicists are now even trying to determine if the reality of space and time variables actually emerge from some, more fundamental state [1].

Also well known as a thought experiment in the field of quantum mechanics is the case of Shrödinger’s cat. A living cat is placed into a steel chamber along with a hammer, a vial of hydrocyanic acid and a very small amount of radioactive substance. When the radioactive substance decays during the test period, it trips the hammer, which will then break the vial of poisonous gas and cause the cat to die. Is the cat in the chamber alive or dead?

The answer given is that the cat is both alive and dead. If that seems impossible, then that is supposed to help explain that quantum particles can exist in two states simultaneously. This explanation is still lost on me. I am more of a concrete thinker, and all I can say is that the state of the cat depends on when the door is opened to observe it. My reality depends on human observation.

Werner Heisenberg stated his famous uncertainty principle that we cannot know both the position and speed of a particle, such as a photon or electron, with perfect accuracy; the more we know about the particle’s position, the less we know about its speed, and vice versa [15]. Again, this principle applies at the quantum level. But, to illustrate how little that applies to the macro world, there is a joke that goes.

Heisenberg was driving his car when a police officer pulled him over for speeding. “You were going 60 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone,” said the officer. Heisenberg replied: “Now you’ve done it. You told me how fast I was going, so now I’ll never be able to figure out where I am.”

Imagine how improbable that type of exchange would be if anyone else but Heisenberg would have been the speeder.

Looking at any situation in reverse can, nevertheless, bring additional insight [8]. There was a discussion that I heard on public radio a while ago. The topic of conversation for the panel was critical race theory, an explanation about the institutional inclusion of racism in our society. One panelist remarked that if racism had not existed, then there would be no race. That is quite a statement when considered thoughtfully. We usually just assume that racism is the result of racial differences. But the above observation is a different way of looking at the issue. There are so many different traits among people, and skin color is just one of them, but there is no special attention given to any of them without some prior notice. If we had not drawn attention to skin color as the defining characteristic of a human being, then it would have faded into the background of all the other differences among us. Again, the way a person looks at an issue defines reality for that individual.  

Although it seems to be against all of our beliefs, realizing that the reality that each of us experiences is highly dependent on our state of mind can also temper our attitude toward absolutes. “Real world” is whatever it is, or can be imagined to be. After all, we have our own expectations about our circumstances. Whereas we may be able to shape our own circumstances to some extent, we must have the capacity to deal with them, whatever they are.

References

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  9. A. T. Johnson, “There’s nothing like real experience I,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 28–30, Jul./Aug. 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.embs.org/pulse/articles/theres-nothing-like-real-experience-i/, doi: 10.1109/MPULS.2019.2937242.
  10. A. T. Johnson, Biology for Engineers, 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL, USA: Taylor & Francis, 2019.
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  12. A. T. Johnson, “There is nothing like real experience II,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 29–30, Nov./Dec. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.embs.org/pulse/articles/theres-nothing-like-real-experience-ii/, doi: 10.1109/MPULS.2020.3036200.
  13. A. T. Johnson, Greetings From SweetAire Farm: A Lifetime of Stories. Pittsburgh, PA, USA: Dorrance, 2022.
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