Publication 4765

Edelman S. (2011) Regarding reality: Some consequences of two incapacities. Frontiers in Psychology 2: 44. Fulltext at
By what empirical means can a person determine whether he or she is presently awake or dreaming? Any conceivable test addressing this question, which is a special case of the classical metaphysical doubting of reality, must be statistical (for the same reason that empirical science is, as noted by Hume) Subjecting the experienced reality to any kind of statistical test (for instance, a test for bizarreness) requires, however, that a set of baseline measurements be available. In a dream, or in a simulation, any such baseline data would be vulnerable to tampering by the same processes that give rise to the experienced reality, making the outcome of a reality test impossible to trust. Moreover, standard cryptographic defenses against such tampering cannot be relied upon, because of the potentially unlimited reach of reality modification within a dream, which may range from the integrity of the verification keys to the declared outcome of the entire process. In the face of this double predicament, the rational course of action is to take reality at face value. The predicament also has some intriguing corollaries. In particular, even the most revealing insight that a person may gain into the ultimate nature of reality (for instance, by attaining enlightenment in the Buddhist sense) is ultimately unreliable, for the reasons just mentioned. At the same time, to adhere to this principle, one has to be aware of it, which may not be possible in various states of reduced or altered cognitive function such as dreaming or religious experience. Thus, a subjectively enlightened person may still lack the one truly important piece of the puzzle concerning his or her existence.


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