Criteria for being real

David Chalmers in his new book: : Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, takes the philosophical stance of virtual realism.

As I understand it, virtual realism is the thesis that virtual reality is genuine reality, with emphasis especially on the view that virtual objects are real and not an illusion. In general, “realism” is the word philosophers use for the view that something is real.

Chalmers, David J.. Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (p. 106). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

I generally agree with this view, with some qualifications which will become apparent. But saying something is real raises the question, one that might also pertain to our recent discussions on things like wave function realism, what do we mean by “real”? And what criteria to we use to determine if something is real?

Chalmers discusses five ways of thinking about what is real:

  • existence
  • causal power
  • mind-independence
  • non-illusoriness
  • genuineness

Existence is probably the first thing anyone thinks about for saying whether something is real or not. If it exists, then it’s real. If not, then it isn’t. Chalmers uses Joe Biden as an example of a person who exists, in comparison to Santa Claus, who doesn’t. But this really just moves the difficulty from what is real to what exists.

Causal power is the criteria I often reach for. Something is real if it can affect and be affected by other real things, if it is part of the causal chain in its environment. Apparently this is often called the Eleatic dictum after a character in Plato’s dialogue The Sophist. Joe Biden has causal powers in the world. Santa Claus doesn’t. (Although the stories about him do.) Chalmers notes that there could be real things without causal powers, such as a forgotten dream, but he acknowledges this criteria as a sufficient condition for concluding something is real. (I could quibble about the forgotten dream example, since it’s very unlikely to have had zero causal effects in the brain.)

Mind-independence follows Philip K. Dick’s proposal that, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” If everyone stopped believing in Santa Claus, there would be nothing left. But if everyone stopped believe in Joe Biden, there’s still be the man there. Although this isn’t air tight. If I stop believing in Santa, but the imagery of him remains everywhere, there’s still something out there.

And it’s interesting to ponder what really remains of Joe Biden if everyone, including Biden himself, stops believing in him. How much of what Biden means to us would really remain? Certainly his causal power in the world would be greatly diminished. It shows that a lot more of our reality than we like to admit is a social and psychological construction.

Still, if something exists independent of all minds, it remains a useful point in determining whether it’s real. Note that this is true even if minds were originally involved in its construction. The Great Pyramids are real even though their architects are long gone.

Non-illusoriness focuses on whether something is as it seems. Something is real when it’s as it seems. It’s illusory when it’s not as it seems. The boundary between this one and the next seems a big fuzzy to me.

Genuineness gets at our use of language. Chalmers cites philosopher J.L. Austin as noting that often discussions about what is real or not are ambiguous. We need to look at how the word “real” is typically used. In this view, it’s meaningless to say X is real, or X is not real. It invites the question, “A real what?”, a real person, object, idea, or something else?

I really like this point, as it gets at the fact that most debates about realism are definitional disputes about the item under consideration. It also clarifies the discussion. So, Santa Claus is not a real person, but he is a real character, and as a character meets the criteria above (even mind independence when we remember that there are lots of physical images of him).

Chalmers qualifies his support for this criteria a bit, noting that it’s perfectly legitimate for a child to ask whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny are real. But I think when we consider the context of those questions, there’s always an implied what there, in this case of a being of some type in the world, not whether they are real characters in fictional accounts.

Chalmers points out that often things in virtual worlds meet all these criteria, as long as we consider the context. This makes sense when we remember what the word “virtual” originally meant having all the virtues of something. I work in IT where we regularly work with virtual servers, virtual network routers, virtual desktops, and many other things. These entities are real servers, network routers, and desktops, at least for what “server”, “router”, and “desktop” mean for typical users. (This web page probably loaded from a virtual server.)

In the same sense, a virtual library or virtual book is a real library or book. On the other hand, a virtual cat is not a real cat, at least not in the sense of being a biological DNA based system. Although conceptually the day may come where there is a virtual cat that has virtual biology, virtual DNA, etc. At that point the cat will arguably be real within the context of the virtual world it’s in. It won’t be a real cat from the perspective of outside the virtual world, but within it, it may exist, have causal powers, be mind-independent, and genuinely be what it seems within the context of that world.

All of which is to say, that what is real is context dependent.

What do you think of these criteria for realness? Too inclusive? Not inclusive enough? Or are we putting too much emphasis on the label “real”?

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46 thoughts on “Criteria for being real

      1. Exactly. As you suggested, it’s definitional and contextual. As with that tree falling in the forest, once terms are defined, the question is easily answered. Virtually real; physically real; conceptually real,… it all depends on what you mean.

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  1. Causality is problematic unless you believe in God. Everything participates in a chain of causality so nothing causes anything else by itself. Did Joe Biden cause something or was it really his fifth grade history teacher?

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      1. Who or what is Joe Biden? An ever-changing set of atoms and molecules that existed before he was born and will exist after he is dead. During the before and the after, Joe Biden can’t cause anything. So what makes it possible for him to cause anything now? Is Joe Biden emergent from the atoms and molecules and can cause something independently from them?

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        1. If by “strong materialist, reductionist position” you mean an eliminative reductionist one, I agree. But you can be a reductionist who accepts weak emergence without being an eliminativist. Along those lines, depending on our goals, we can describe Biden’s causal dynamics at different levels of description, from interacting quantum fields, to biological processes, to the geopolitical leader. All are valid, at least unless we take the eliminativst view.

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          1. Good question. I usually think of weak emergence as the fact that it’s productive for us to switch models as we scale up in levels of organization. But that makes it relative to minds, particularly human minds. Alien or AI minds might have different points where they need to switch models.

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          2. More like undecided. It seems to pass the causal test, in that something caused the natural sciences to coalesce into physics, chemistry, geology, biology, etc. But it flubs the mind-independence test.

            The universe likes to ruin our little categories with edge cases.

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          3. Ha, yeah. That’s why trying to categorize reality is an impossible proposition. The real-world version of the Object-Oriented Programming Problem — what’s an object and in what hierarchy does it belong? Taxonomy is hard!

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          4. Some terms are just too rich, and yet too fundamental, to be defined. A razor I use is whether a concept can be defined using simpler concepts or only described using examples. The latter are always fuzzy.

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  2. Cause works best for me as test of reality. However what this brings with it is that reality is relative between two things. Two things in dimensions unknown to me could be real to each other but not to me. Furthermore, causality has directionality and time delay, so it follows that what is real to me is only what is in my past; and anything outside the cone centred on me and defined by the speed of light is not real to me, nor me to it.

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    1. I’ve liked the causal test for along time. But if we use it as our only criteria, it does lead to the effects you mention. Chalmers actually points out there could be entities we can never interact with, which he regards as real, but would fail the causal test relative to us. This reminds me of Carlo Rovelli’s relational quantum mechanics interpretation, which says that the only things that are real for any particular entity, are the things it interacts with, and (as I understand it) only during the interaction.

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      1. Yes, I am at the moment watching the 3 hour interview with Rovelli on YouTube (Carlo Rovelli on Consciousness, the Illusion of Time, & Philosophy of Relational Quantum Mechanics, on ‘Theories of Everything’ with interviewer Curt Jaimungal), a bit at a time and I do like what he is saying even if I may be a bit taken in by how well he puts it across.

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  3. I don’t really believe the question of what is “real” is intellectually resolvable, Mike, as I’ve recently noted. One must make a decision about what is real, I think, at the very foundation of one’s worldview, and then work out from there. I can’t see any way around that notion. There is of course a level at which no one can deny that jumping off a tall building would be fatal, and there is another level where the contemplation of what is “real” or “at the bottom” is in the eye of the beholder. And then I think it can be observed that there are multiple definitions consistent with known facts. And this is why this is so fun to explore!

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    1. Definitely! It seems like there is a wide range of what we could choose to regard as real and not real. But as you noted, it’s not unlimited. There are bounds. I can choose to believe I’m a bird, but it’s not going to enable me to fly away. What we can say is that any unobservable reality must be compatible with the parts we can observe.

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  4. You know, it just occurred to me that these discussions about what is or is not real are similar to way people these days say “it’s a thing” or “that’s not a thing.” For example, someone might say “polyamory is a thing.” It’s basically just a way of saying polyamory is a real phenomenon within our current cultural context; not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it is “a thing” and it’s valid in the sense that it’s something people really are doing. On the other hand, somebody might say “that’s not a thing” as a way to call someone out for their B.S. Basically, it’s a way of saying that something is not even a real phenomenon in our current cultural context, so why are we even talking about it?

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    1. Funny, I asked someone just this week if something “was a thing”, specifically about a policy within our organization. I think you’re right that it does often refer to a pragmatic version of whether something is real. But it could also refer to whether natural selection “is a thing” within a particular simulation, or something long those lines.

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  5. I think about this a lot, so I’ll just tell you where I am.

    I go with Dennett in saying Patterns are real. Patterns are abstractions, and abstractions are “real” independent of minds.

    Only physical things “exist”, and their existence is established by their interactions. If they don’t interact, they don’t exist. An existing thing is identified or recognized by the (real!) patterns of interaction it participates in.

    Causation is about interactions. An existing thing “causes” the results of its interactions. So only existing things have causal power.

    Illusion happens when we have a (real!) pattern recognition unit (perhaps a unitracker a la Millikan) which is erroneously triggered, suggesting that something exists (by its pattern of interactions) when it actually doesn’t. People like Anil Seth and Donald Hoffman like to say that even non-erroneous triggering is controlled hallucination or illusion, but they are (perhaps unknowingly) referring to the fact that a pattern recognition unit can be triggered by a subset of the potential interactions of an existing thing.

    The discussion of “genuineness” is new to me, but as it involves language and competing concepts, I will say that we individually associate words with unitrackers, i.e., pattern recognition units. My unitracker for “duck” will trigger on recognition of a specific pattern of interactions (“looks like a duck”,”sounds like a duck”, etc.), while your unitracker will likely use similar criteria but may have slight differences. (Hotdog=sandwich?)

    Re: virtual reality, by the above criteria I think I mostly agree w/ Chalmers. Virtual patterns are real, and things in virtual reality exist to the extent they interact with other things. A virtual cat exists with respect to the things it interacts with, which may or may not include you. It’s interactions may be sufficient to trigger the “cat” unitracker, but probably along with a context system which places it in the virtual world, as opposed to the physical world, or a fictional world.

    *
    [I think we’re pretty close]

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    1. Thanks James. Definitely sounds like we are.

      One part we might vary on: in your view, do things exist before or after the interaction? Or only during the interaction? My view is that the interaction enables us to know about their existence, but doesn’t create it. And they continue to exist between the interactions. (This is one of the points I diverge from RQM on.)

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        1. The distinction between ESR and OSR (caveat: as I understand it) doesn’t quite align with that. OSR says that the relational properties are all there is. ESR says that all we can know are the relationships, but is agnostic on intrinsic properties in things that don’t interact.

          That seems separate from the question of whether those relations exist before or after the interactions. Although there may be aspects of either side I’m missing that make it relevant.

          I do consider myself an ESRist, mainly because I can’t see how we can establish that the intrinsic stuff isn’t there. But that seems operationally equivalent to an OSR view. Except in metaphysical arguments.

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    1. You may be able to virtually burn a virtual book. You could also burn the hardware the virtual book is stored on.

      I think they all exist. It’s worth noting that, in the absence of some form of dualism, your imagination is a physical process. So imaginary things physically exist, but only as patterns in the brain. Of course, if we’re in a simulation, then “physical” is physical relative to that environment.

      If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a photon. (Old physics joke.)

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  6. Real for whom and when? Santa Claus is not real for me. It was real for my grandson Allan when Allan was seven years old. I dressed as Santa Claus. Allan did not recognize me as his grandfather. Allan danced with Santa Claus, touched him, saw him, and talked to him. Santa Claus was real for Allan at the time. 🙂

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    1. That’s getting into our perception of reality rather than reality itself. The criteria in the post assumes we know enough to apply them. But there’s no guarantee we do, even when we think we do, even if we’ve thought we have for some time.

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  7. Where do dreams fit in this discussion? A thing? Yes, but they cannot be seen or observed. They cannot even be accurately described. Often they disappear. Causation? Sometimes, maybe, for some people.More like ghosts. I like Dick’s definition. However, dreams do go away – sometimes. And sometimes they haunt a person, like a ghost can.

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    1. It seems hard to say that dreams aren’t real. Of course, what we think is happening in them is another matter. They can certainly have causal effects. But most do seem to pass into oblivion. The issue is whether they have non-conscious causal effects. The issue, I think, is we don’t have a good handle on exactly why we dream. It might they’re just us becoming aware of the memory consolidation process our brain goes through during sleep. If so, that certainly has causal effects.

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  8. We don’t know what is real outside of what homosapiens agree is real in our macroscopic context – like a mathematical sum. But if you get into the weeds of microscopic super-position, pansychism (do ants see something different or are even conscious of about what is real) or if a human ingests something entheogenic and experiences that which which opposes a mainly subjective ‘reality’ does that make it anything less real?
    What is ‘real’ or even ‘truth’ can only be measured by our limited means, and become part of our generalised vernacular. It seems more to me just one layer of a gigantious onion of the reality of the Universe.
    Conciousness determines what is real to me. And we don’t know (like the microscopic magic, specifically the unpredictability of particles) of who, what, where and how Conciousness operates in this Universe. There is something much more profound at play here. Good luck to materialists sorting that one out.

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    1. You made me look up “entheogenic”. Thanks!

      Certainly we never have access to anything but our own subjective experience. Anything else is a theory, a model of the world. But there are models which seem to be more reliable and ones that are less reliable. For example, there are certain foods which upset my stomach. The relationship between the experience of those foods and the subsequent experience of stomach issues is pretty consistent and reliable, so the model that I should avoid those foods seems pretty valid, and I would pragmatically say it’s “real.”

      It seems like the beliefs that more reliably predict future experiences have a greater claim to be real than the ones that are less reliable. In the end, it’s all we ever have to work with.

      Of course, there are a great many models we can’t validate or refute with future experiences, and those tend to be the ones we debate endlessly. 😉

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  9. I sometimes find myself asking the question, “a real what?” when encountering these kinds of debates, and it’s nice to see I’m not the only one. I don’t want to say reality is context dependent—maybe, maybe not…I’m not sure what that would even mean—but the way we talk about it often is. And in ordinary circumstances, we don’t get confused.

    I prefer to look at the question from the other direction: what is non-being?

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    1. What is non-being? Hmmm. At first I thought that was a simple question. But then, to even discuss something’s existence or non-existence is to acknowledge that it exists in some manner, as a concept if nothing else. But it seems like it goes to the same question, a non-existent what?

      Sherlock Holmes exists as a character, but not as a historical figure. But then, historical figures like Julius Caesar, Socrates, or Hypatia are essentially characters to me with a mental asterisk by their name that they were once real people. And it’s hard to say how much the character really represents the original person, or how many liberties were taken in accounts about them. In some cases, we can’t even be sure there really ever was a real person. It seems like it could almost be considered a spectrum from pure character to pure historical figure rather than a binary distinction.

      As always, you give good prompts Tina!

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      1. “A non-existent what?”—good one!

        As for the prompt, I’m afraid I have to give Parmenides the credit on that one.

        So true about the characterizations of varying historical/fictional figures. In the case of Socrates it seemed to be something of a genre to use him as a mouthpiece or character, which makes it hard to see who the real Socrates was.

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        1. Hey, being familiar enough with Parmenides to repeat his points has a lot of value!

          The use of Socrates as a mouthpiece seems resonant with all the pithy quotes that often get misattributed to famous smart people like Albert Einstein or Mark Twain (and probably to religious or semi-religious figures like Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, etc). When someone wants to sell a point, putting in the mouth of a reputed genius or holy person is an easy way to add credibility to it.

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  10. Or, how-about the voice and “being” of a recently deceased person? And conflicting perceptions/interpretations of said person? What, in fact, did that person say and mean? Who, in fact are they? Now that they are gone. Did they exist? Never mind people from thousands of years ago.
    I’m speaking of my father.
    I’ve written 2 novels and 1 non-fiction account of him. Is any of it “real”? Yes, in the sense that one can take a physical book and hit another person with it and inflict pain. But does that make what is written in the book “real”? Did it happen as I tell the tale?
    Are words “real”?
    Specifically: This on-line conversation? If WordPress decides you, “SelfAwarePatterns” are a threat and they delete this discussion – did it happen?
    There are other written differing accounts of who my father was and what he said. Which is “real”?
    Did he exist?
    Yes, there are pictures and letters, documentation. However, before such means, who knows? There is no body, only words and stories.
    Just last night I had a dream in which his presence was there. Does that make him real?
    Is God real?

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    1. Good questions. My own father passed away a few years ago, so I know where you’re coming from. They were certainly real to us, and to anyone who had personal interactions with them. And given how recently they lived, they have likely left many still distinct causal effects in the world. I can look around the room I’m in right now and see things that I inherited from my dad.

      But the farther we get away from them in time, it seems like the less distinct their particular causal impression is on things. Until no one is left alive who knew them, and maybe even the society they lived in doesn’t exist anymore. At that point, for anyone who reads about them, they’re characters with a real-asterisk by their name.

      And to your point, if we know someone lived, but most of what we know about them has been what’s survived through history, then what we know might be very distorted by the selective copying over time. They might have lived, but much of what we know might be so skewed that our idea of the person, our model of them, effectively isn’t of a real person, but an effectively fictional character that evolved from the after effects of someone who once lived.

      For that matter, our model of people alive today might be wrong to varying degrees. How wrong does it have to be to reach the point where the person as we think of them doesn’t exist? I know I’ve interacted with people online before, and built a certain picture of them in my head, and later discovered they were very different from that picture, to the extent the initial version can’t really be said to have existed.

      All of which seems to put the existence or non-existence of any complex thing as more of a spectrum than a necessarily binary distinction.

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