You sit down with your cup of coffee, feeling, on your fingertips, the cool ceramic handle of the mug. The delicious coffee aroma engulfs you. You feel the steam rising up to your face, heating up your skin, and the soft plushness of the armchair beneath you. When you take your first sip, it tastes warm and comforting. The entire experience seems . . . real.
But is it?
You’re tasting, smelling, and feeling your surroundings, which seems like enough to validate that it’s real. But first we have to define “real.” Real suggests something constant, something that’s the same for everyone. Though, you can never be sure that your experience drinking that cup of coffee is the same as it would be for someone else. Our senses’ job is to gather information, which our brains then interpret to give us an overview of what’s happening. We use this information to navigate, survive in, and enjoy our world. Of course, each person’s senses interpret the world a little differently, adding a unique flavor, and this is where it gets tricky.
How can you be sure that your red isn’t someone else’s blue?
Conscious experience isn’t something we can confirm, only assume. Everyone has different genetic makeups and past environments, giving rise to variations in consciousness.
But let’s think about what that coffee, armchair, and ceramic mug are even composed of – particles, which are basically just information, like the 0’s and 1’s of a computer. These particles project the world we experience, but without the observer, they wouldn’t have any value.
Likewise, without any players, the world in a role-playing video game would just be information; there would be no one to interpret the coding of the game, and the world, essentially, would not exist.
Quantum particles are the coding of our world; they’re symbols that project a certain reality when there’s a consciousness to give value to them.
Humans add another layer to consciousness through the cultures we create. If there’s one thing that all cultures share, it’s that they’re composed of symbols. An important aspect of culture is language – and what is language? Squiggles and sounds that we make sense of in order to communicate ideas. But when I say “flower,” you might imagine a lily, whereas I imagine a rose. Words are symbols, and often inefficient ones as well. They’re not constant; there’s no guarantee that each word will communicate the exact idea that you’re thinking of.
Just as there’s no guarantee that we’re interpreting the particles around us – the symbols the universe decided on – the same as other people do.
Cultures have no value outside of the humans who uphold them. We uphold cultures by collectively believing in their value. Money, for example, is just a symbol for having access to resources. We collectively agree to give this symbol – money – power, allowing the economic system to continue.
Through culture, we craft our own realities and live in them as if they’re real. But it’s hard to say what is real, considering the subjectivity of experience. The universe is information. Culture is information. There are layers of reality that we choose to believe in or not – and simulating our own realities is what makes us distinctly human.
I guess you could say it’s only real if you make it real.