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BOOK REVIEW: Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff

Reality: A Very Short IntroductionReality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one has an inquisitive nature and finds oneself with a bit of time on one’s hands, one is likely to question reality eventually. What is reality? What does it mean to be real? (Yeah, just like Morpheus’s “How do you define ‘real?’”) How could we know if we weren’t in the reality we think we are? Does it matter? i.e. If we aren’t in the reality we think we are, do we have any other choice than to behave as if we are—in other words is there any hope of escaping whatever unreality our consciousness exists in?

Does the quantum world not make a lick of sense relative to the world as we know it because the ancestors who are simulating us never expected us to get far enough to investigate that scale before we crashed? And now, like the writers and directors of an unexpectedly popular and long-lived TV show, they have to find a way to cobble some convincing story together because their overlords aren’t willing to scrap a perfectly functional simulation as it’s churning out huge amounts of data. Of course most people quickly dismiss such possibilities as sci-fi, but—then again—that dismissal is what one would do if one was programmed to be psychologically pained by the idea that the lunatic shouting and running naked through the streets may have found freedom, while you–who appears to be fully successful in living life—are an automaton, a slave pure and simple?

Philosopher Jan Westerhoff provides a brief survey of the many ways reality has been questioned over time and what evidence proponents cite—or, if not evidence per se, what inexplicable phenomena at least make the possibility seem feasible. The book consists of just four chapters. The first chapter offers a context by discussing dreams and simulations. Dreams are one of humanity’s first sources of doubt about reality. This was most famously summed up by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s quote “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that societies eventually develop a capacity to run extremely advanced simulations that would feel very real, and, furthermore, the proliferation of such simulations would make it much more likely that we are in one than in a real world.

The next three chapters examine three subjects where reality is taken for granted, but which each face challenges. The author starts with the most basic component of reality, matter. If you ask someone how they know the world is real, they might just knock on wood or kick a stone. Of course, that response only goes so far because there are a lot of entities we consider real that aren’t made of matter (e.g. is an economic recession real?) and so it’s definitely not a complete way of looking at the topic. There’s also the fact that all this hard and solid stuff we experience is mostly empty space. In this chapter, Westerhoff spends much of his time examining the basics of quantum mechanics, and the quantum strangeness that has put it in the minds of many that the world is probably not what we think it to be.

Chapter three explores the reality of a person. This is where people have the hardest time questioning reality, because most of us are quite certain that we exist. Descartes statement of: “I think, therefore, I am” nicely sums it up. But is there a place associated with personhood, or is it an emergent property? If it has a point of origin, where is it? Westerhoff describes the famous rubber hand experiment that shows that the connection between mind and body is more illusory than we think. He discusses many of the syndromes that challenge our intuitive beliefs about what it means to be a person, e.g. Cotard syndrome, in which individuals firmly believe that they don’t exist. (Note: this topic—at least the scientific dimension—is covered in detail in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Chapter four explores whether time is really what we think it is, and what it feels like to us. A lot of this chapter takes up findings about free will. A famous study in the neurosciences showed that before people make a decision at a conscious level, there is activation of subconscious parts of the brain such that what feels like a decision freely and consciously made is actually already made before the consciousness ever becomes aware of it. This study, now overwhelmingly validated by replication, presents a major challenge to our notion of free will—which isn’t to suggest we’re necessarily being fed a decision from some mysterious elsewhere but if some combination of our limbic and enteric nervous systems are making decisions without conscious input, then what is the nature of freedom in free will?

The book has an interesting Conclusion that gives the reader a map to consider the various ways reality might exist (or not.) This isn’t a dichotomous question—i.e. it’s not necessarily a matter of the world is real or it’s not. Instead, it can be thought of more as a continuum between everything is real and nothing is real with various way-points in between such as “I am all that is real” or “Everything is real, but me” and various ways of considering how some of the world might be real while some of it is not. Among the latter models, the relevant factor maybe consciousness (i.e. conscious may be unreal or maybe it’s the only thing that’s real.)

There are a number of graphics used to support the text, most of these are photographs and artworks, but some are diagrams. There is a “References and Further Readings” section in this book that is more substantial than most of the ones I’ve seen in AVSI (A Very Short Introduction) series books. It’s organized by chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. I think the author does a great job in a small space of introducing various conceptions of reality. He draws on well-known works of film and literature to help clarify issues, and provides many thought-provoking ideas. It’s readable and doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae.

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