2.c.3 – Do we live in a real or imaginary world?

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February 18, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti


Do we live in a real or imaginary world?

A newborn of a few months brings everything to mouth to study and explore the world around him; when is one year old, grabs and touches everything and it would also be able to put the fingers into a socket; when we grow, our behavior changes: we are still curious, but of new things, the experiences of early childhood are now settled and consolidated; when we are grown, we do no longer need to touch a wall to know that is solid or ice to know that is cold. A good part of the world that we perceive is therefore made by our memories, but the experiences are not but a simple memory: to learn from experience means not only remember the feelings had, but also to have assessed them, associating them with relations such cause and effect, and so on, and these associations and evaluations are undoubtedly the result of our ability to imagine. A part of our world is then made up by our fantasy and proof is the fact that for many centuries we have lived with the conviction that the Earth was the center of the universe and that everything revolves around it, or the that the Earth itself has always been considered flat and not spherical.
When one of our certainties falls, we realize that the world is not like we had imagined, we understand that, at least in part, until that moment we were living in an imaginary world, but on the other hand our imaginary world seemed to us absolutely genuine and consistent, gave no problems, therefore why doubting?
Why look for the real world, complicated and difficult to know in details, when there are hundreds of them more easy to imagine, understand and master? To imagine a reality consistent with our personal experiences can make us save time and efforts in long, complicated or even prohibitive research, and thus allows us to determine how to act with speed, safety and minimum effort. Indeed, sometimes there is the possibility to act the wrong way, but the alternative is not to act in time or not acting at all. How could we live as adults if we had to re-control everything all the times, tasting and touching everything like little children?
The imaginary world that is being built is then a tool for survival that allows to move in a world difficult to understand; it is therefore one of our major evolutionary strategies.
If we consider that:
– the reach of our senses is limited and allows partial, sometimes insufficient, knowledge of the world around us;
– a careful study of the world is long, arduous and sometimes futile, as it doesn’t allows to act promptly;
it seems plausible the hypothesis that nature has designed and selected our mind not to understand the real world, but to imagine an equivalent that is the most suitable possible to meet the demands of daily life. The main purpose is to allow a suitable behavior for survival, using the minimum time and saving energy, according to the principle of a healthy mental economy leading to maximum efficiency.
Biology shows us that experience is based on feelings received from the organs of sense stimulated by the world around us; in this case it is called direct experience and It is certainly the most ancient form. From contacts with parents, friends and teachers, then, we indirectly obtain also the outcome of the experience of the others, acquiring the so-called cultural tradition.
We also know that every experience is a mixture of memories, associations and personal assessments and that the memory of the experience so structured, forms in the mind a model of the same that can be recalled at will. Repeatable experience, accumulating, forms a model of the world that allows us to predict events so that we can enjoy them if positive or avoid them if negative. Learn from one’s experience means then having made a representation of the world and having used the same to determine our future, as we do with a map to determine the route of a journey. This is an automated process started by experience.
It is good to highlight that, once created a good model, this can be used several times and for different purposes; the representation of the world is not so linked to a particular scope, but it is good to a thousand uses and therefore it is appropriate to dedicate to that representation as an activity for its own sake. It is no coincidence that nature exploits this principle by curiosity, that is through an instinct that leads to explore the environment without an immediate practical purpose, and it is still no coincidence that this instinct is deeply rooted in the human soul.
At this point, once understood the origin of mental models is intrinsically linked to the development of appropriate behavior for survival, it should be noted that an error in the model that does not compromise this behavior, may be considered acceptable by our nature. Leading this reasoning to its extreme development, even a model completely wrong but leading to the right behavior can be accepted for survival purposes and be equivalent to the perfectly correct model; after all, it is one more valuable opportunity to find the right way. Finally, if a model is better suited to the development of such a behavior, though more distant from reality, this model will be even better for survival compared to reality.
From the above it follows that there we must not be surprised if the human mind is programmed to satisfy its curiosity with fantasies that have little to do with the real world. What our curiosity seeks is not a true representation of reality, but an equivalent model that leads to maximum effect with the minimum effort.  



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1 Comment to “2.c.3 – Do we live in a real or imaginary world?”

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