The Expansion of Mind

holodeckIn the 18th century Immanuel Kant articulated a magnificent vision of how the human mind keeps us contained within a single worldview. Kant realized that we don’t see the world as it is. Instead we see a world that is created by our minds from a selective harvesting of our experience. We see a phenomenal world in which disparate elements have been carefully selected and arranged to fit together according to the dictates of such constraints as the notions of time, space and causality.

Only experiences and information that fit into our current set of universal categories is allowed to enter into consciousness. Everything else is ignored so that effectively we don’t even experience it. Our minds hold us in a single reality by only allowing us to be conscious of those experiences that fit into our current beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, about reality. In Kant’s own terminology we all maintain what he called a transcendental unity of apperception.

To further articulate this vision I want to invoke yet another science fiction metaphor, the holodeck from the Star Trek universe. In the TV series (and movies) the crew of the Starship Enterprise spend years in deep space exploring the farther reaches of the universe and having adventures. For recreation on these long voyages they had a magnificent device called a holodeck.

The holodeck is a large round room with white walls, ceiling and floor. In actuality it is a computerized virtual reality generator. When programmed with a particular setting – a saloon in a frontier town of the American Old West, a sandy beach in the Bahamas or a festival in a medieval castle– it produces a virtual replica of that reality within its white walls.

One of the amazing thing about the holodeck is that it creates an unlimited world within a limited space. When you are in the frontier town you do not experience the physical constraints of the white walls of the room you are in. And this is not an effect of some kind of trans-dimensional physics that is what allows Dr. Who’s Tardis to be vastly larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The infinite virtual reality of the holodeck is produced by perceptual trickery. The whole time that you are interacting within the virtual world inside the holodeck the program is gently shifting the reality you are in so that you never actually hit any of the walls. You obey the dictates of the virtual phenomenal world that you are in, so even though in actuality are walking in slow circles around the big white room of the holodeck, you experience yourself walking miles across the African Sahara.

The analogy is probably clear. Your mind creates a virtual reality that you exist in not knowing what, if anything, real is behind it. We never see the white walls of the holodeck so as far as we know we are experiencing reality. Imagine if you had been born and lived your whole life in a holodock programed to imitate life today and then one day the computer shut down and you found yourself in a huge white room with white walls. That would be really weird.

There are many modern day philosophers who take this as a good analogy for how we experience reality. I don’t know of any who believe that we are actually living inside something like a holodeck, although Thomas Metzingers conception of the Ego Tunnel is pretty close. What is more common is the belief that reality is simply created from the synaptic snap, crackle and pop in our brains. What is real are the electrochemical connections in our brain and from those the virtual reality of our phenomenal world results.

There are other present day philosophers who would disagree. One group in particular is promoting a view called Speculative Realism that we will discuss in more detail later in the book. They disagree with the view that the real world is one that exists outside of our separate from our experience. In different ways they are promoting the idea that the real world is already available for us to experience. It is just so different from what we think it is that we don’t see it even though we are experiencing it all the time.