Building a Reality Model

We enter our new world with a fairly well developed sense of touch and being touched, but are subject to several new needs. The need for attention to link us to our former world has already been discussed, but we now also suffer the discomforts of hunger and a wet diaper that has turned cold. Our innate response to cry is met with a two-fold benefit, as both the discomfort is resolved, and also the warm touch that we crave is again experienced. Most of the rest of the time is spent in sleep.

But there are periods in time in which we are awake and conscious, and some mental activity does takes place. The store of experiences held in our memory is very limited, and provide little source to escape the discomfort of boredom. We can't reflect, or philosophize, or fantasize, or play any of the kind of mental games to keep our minds occupied, something which will only come later on in life once we have stored more experiences. Later on, once our memory has expanded due to life's many offered events, we can even write fantastic stories within our brain, denoting activities not limited by physical constraints.

Fortunately, the infant is blessed with several new senses to complement that of touch, senses that provide information satisfying its developing mind's thirst for stimulation, and escape from boredom. Chief among these is the new sense of sight, each eye being sensitive to electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum, and presenting a two-dimensional pattern to individual, pixel-like, receptors that comprise its retinas. These planar images are interpreted by the mind as possessing an entirely new (to us) characteristic of distance, with distance height and distance width of a similar nature, and combining to enclose a palette of tiny bit-map stimuli. Initially, we are most sensitive to the colors red, white, and black, but the overall array has little meaning, much as a Jackson Pollack painting we may encounter in later life. But, like a Pollack painting, it does stimulate the mind, and mitigate the discomfort of boredom. A mobile mounted above our crib provides a similar benefit. All this becomes an introduction to our sensation of space, and, as these sensations do not remain the same, a vague sensation of time also makes its appearance.

Now a process begins that gradually parses these meaningless images into subsets of importance. Perhaps the most significant is that of the infant mother's face, which initially occupies just a small portion of our visual palette, but then grows larger (as she nears us), perhaps accompanied by sounds that are comforting. This image then gives way to the wonderful experience of being touched and fed, this whole image/effect experience being stored in our largely vacuous memories, for later recall and anticipation. A raft of other images coagulate as well, our bottle, the table on which it is mounted, the blanket that is essential for our comfort, and even our own hand, which at this point still seems disembodied. Our Jason Pollack painting begins to parse into meaningful items that have some impact upon us and our expectations. We begin to see a pattern of separate objects emerging, and their participation in the space concept that we have formed. And, while these objects may eventually be judged distinct from one another, they are of varying importance with many ignored, just as a chess player pays no attention to some uninvolved distant pawn when his king is in trouble.

It should be noted that while the visual feelings of height and width emerge quite naturally from our visual data, the feeling of a depth as a similar kind of thing is not at all obvious. We actually form two, slightly different, planar visual images, different only because the eyes are not exactly collocated. Our mind now derives a somewhat richer result, but there seems to be no reason why this slight modification should, at least at first, create the impression of depth as a similar entity to height and width. This all changes once our sense of touch comes into play, as we then closely correlate the depth distance, known to be similar to height and width, with the richer visual image presented by using both our eyes. This correlation becomes so tight, that even closing one eye does not change our interpretation, as the mind automatically performs a correction on what we see. A painting of railroad tracks receding toward the horizon, if judged for what it really is, would be a vertical, trapezoidal tower. But the mind will not have it so, once such tracks have become part of our experience.

The idea of subtracting, from an image, a particular item that is part of us, such as our hand, is of overwhelming importance. At first this item, and its random motions, are no different from any other. But then, as our hand, for example, comes in contact with something else, perhaps our own body, a touch response is generated in our mind, which makes our hand take on a special role. We may then innately record the mental activity associated with that experience, and, in fact, cause, through recall, that mental activity to repeat, causing our hand to engage in a similar motion. In fact, the touch response may not even be necessary, as the visual response of our moving hand may alone provide an adequate memory pairing. This ability to seemingly exercise some control over our actions by means of composing or recalling certain mental states generates in us a feeling of self-awareness and Free Will, a controversial first-person experience that will be one of the cornerstones of our lives. This notion that we have some control of events is also a very comforting survival thought. It is the beginning of our realization that many effects have apparent causes, and our attempt to simplify life by making such associations whenever possible. Our thirst to understand is really a reflection of the fact that understanding necessarily precedes control. We want to reject the fact that we may simply be helpless bobbing corks on a vast ocean.

As we now mature day by day and week by week, thousands of new experiences are presented to us, and processed with reference to those that preceded them. Mostly we build up our store of cause and effect relations, and learn to group those that behave in a similar way into larger packages. Thus different things that fall, for example, teach us the concept of falling. Concepts of bigger and smaller also emerge, as do enumerable others. While many such cause-effect relations become self evident as the weeks and months pass on, perhaps the dominant such relation involves our care giver, generally our mother. We quickly learn which actions on our part will result in our mother's smile and warm response, and which will instead cause her to respond in a way that makes us feel disconnected from her, and all alone. Our overall innate driving force is to feel comfortable and secure, not only as an infant, but also in later life. Things get more complex as we mature, however, since comfort (happiness) and security are often forced to compromise, such as the situation faced by a race car driver.

As we continually gather data, both on our own and from our care-givers, we begin to form a model of how reality behaves, a model that explains our past experiences, and is also able to develop accurate expectations of what lies ahead. We are most comfortable when some new experience is explained by our reality model that is in place. When this doesn't happen, our discomfort drives us to alter our model such that this new experience is now included. As infants and young children, this model does not get very complex, not even including any real knowledge of death. As we get older, that model is subject to continual change and gets much more cumbersome. Sometimes a model change is to our liking, if, for example, our bedtime hour is increased, and at other times quite devastating, such as if our care giver suddenly and permanently leaves the picture.

In general, we feel in greater control with a deeper understanding when the model is not too complex, and it is the aim of all the sciences to provide theories that are maximally inclusive of what reality offers. For example, physicists have for years sought a Unified Field Theory to define, in one gulp, all of the forces around us. On the other hand, we find unthinkable the complete nullification of a reality model that has comfortably served us for years, and may even question our sanity in such a situation. This is the sad situation faced by our orbiting victim in the previous story.

To be happy, we must have an accurate model of those aspects of reality that directly impact us, and we can accept a bit more confusion about things oblique to our lives. Few of us insist upon forming a clear understanding of Einstein's contributions. Nevertheless, we experience some feeling of joy in understanding something new, and perhaps tweaking our reality model a bit, even when this new knowledge has no direct bearing upon our activities. An awake mind is always active, interpreting its sensor inputs and scanning its memory for new ideas to ponder. Just as when we were infants first decoding the information thrust upon us, our minds crave a new excitement that can move it further away from becoming bored. This excitement wears off after awhile, and our minds are then again ripe for some new issue, some new potential source of excitement, just as when we were infants. In general, as life introduces its events into our lives, it seems that our mind's attitude of joy or sadness is often quite transitory, with our mind continually seeking temporary upward bumps, and learning to cope with bumps that go the other way. The reality model that is developed is largely an ever increasing table of causes and their effects, derived from the external environment that we have experienced, as well as what our growing ability to reason can provide. These table entries are accompanied by the feelings that they impart.

The model for most children is quite comfortable, as our mother and/or father are there to provide the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and relief from pain. But we become keenly aware that we are evolving toward adults ourselves, ultimately reaching a time when there will be no care-giver to support us. The world holds so much that we don't yet understand but that is important, such as how the excitement of a make-believe story can be captured by scribbles on some sheets of paper, or how we can hear grandma talk, though we know that she is far away? Some children will ponder such mysteries, made aware that some "big" people made all this possible, and dream that they might someday join them in that understanding. Many others will simply accept these realities, much as they accept the daily rising of the sun, and find their challenges in other ways. Aware that daddy and/or mommy have to work in order for things to be alright sets an example for us, emphasizing the fact that we have no real ability to be alright without them. It is apparent that the world functions through the actions of the "big" people, and that we must eventually take our role in this scenario, with the world becoming our care-giver provided we contribute our part. There is much more needed to add to our reality model before we can be fully happy and secure.

We reach the point where our learning and model growth process takes on a more structured and disciplined approach by our introduction to formal schooling, both in academic endeavors and matters of religion or faith. Such schooling alerts us to the vast richness of what the world has to offer to excite our minds. It also aims to prepare us for being able to take our place and make our contribution to a world that must welcome us once our parents no longer function in that role. But the basic primal tools that govern our reality model growth remain the same as when we were infants. We accumulate sensor data, either on our own or else dictated as axiomatic dogma by parents or teachers. We interpret this data relative to our current model of cause/effects/feelings, and make adjustments as needed.

For example, if we have just come to understand Newton's Laws, that could cause the effect our now understanding the past and future motion of the planets. Our reality model is now appended to include Newton's Equations. And when, as particles approach the speed of light, these equations break down, we may make the effort to engage Einstein's work, and improve our reality model even more. Of course, there are times when no simple model adjustment emerges to explain some reality event, such as the dilemma created by Quantum Physics. Competing theories often emerge in an attempt to satisfy something new, the one conditionally accepted being that which best satisfies Occam's Razor, an approach attributed to a 15th century monk. His suggestion is to accept that theory which is robust and least violates our current model, at least until something better comes along.

This overall kind of model building now takes place for the rest of our lives, with no fundamental change in how our mind operates in its quest to be comfortable, secure, and excited (or free from boredom). Certain things are accepted as axioms devoid of any rational proof, our gold standard in deciding what to believe. Some axioms seem irrefutable, such as the Peano Axiom that every cardinal number has a successor. Others are almost as certain, as the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. Yet others, such as belief in certain religious dogma, have much weaker human evidence to support them and are accepted as a matter of faith, often strongly linked to what we are taught to believe as children. This does not mean that such dogma are necessarily fallacious, as there may be unproven insights that provide alternate paths to what is true. But such beliefs do violate the doctrine of Occam's Razor, which asks us to accept that which seems most reasonable when contradictory explanations are presented. In short, axioms require no proof, but serve as starting points upon which our reality model is to flourish.

Rules of Inference build upon the axioms to vastly extend our range of beliefs, and enrich our reality model. One Rule of Inference is the Rule of Substitution, which allows us to conclude that the number 5 has a successor, given the Peano Axiom noted above. Rules of Inference are self-evident, and this process of starting with a foundation of beliefs and then deriving new beliefs is the essence of rational deduction and reasoning. As each belief is documented in our memory, it can be used, along with the axioms and other beliefs, to validate, or perhaps defeat, new conjectures. In this way, a, hopefully, orderly model of realty is constructed as we age, one that is consistent with past experiences, and useful for guiding our expectations, allowing us to exercise some control over our lives, supposedly through implementing our Free Will.

Mention has been made of our feelings regarding comfort and security, and the roles that they seem to play as we try to build a model of reality that best serves our psyche, while constrained to recognize elements of our model that we wish were different. But these two feelings are just a small but important example of the qualia, a much larger set that also includes joy, lust, love, anger, free will, understanding, passion, pain, fear, etc. The qualia are all first order experiences, feelings that are invisible to the outside world, and seemingly something that separates us from inanimate objects. Being nonmaterial, the source of the qualia is largely a mystery, and there will be much further discussion of this topic in later writings.

The above discussion describes a process experienced by almost all humans in their adjustment to the reality in which they are imbedded. All humans recognize that there is very much that they do not know, and are content to set aside certain subjects in favor of others that attract their attention. Often this is due to their belief that they are basically unskilled in certain areas, such as their ability to draw or carry a tune, or to delve into the intricacies of mathematics or science. Whether or not such a belief is justified, it does stifle any progress in such areas.

Many individuals find a particular pleasure in attempting to understand the essence of the world and universe around them, and even to gain some understanding of such mysteries as consciousness, free will, God, space and time, etc. They try to find answers to questions that may well lie outside the scope of current human capability, succeeding sometimes in making new inroads on simpler issues within our reach. Often this opens a Pandora's Box of new questions, and new confusions regarding their model of reality. But they continue to plunge ahead, innately convinced that this process will ultimately converge to an overall understanding that is both simple and beautiful, enjoying to their very depth the journey that they are on. They will never reach that goal of course, and that is a good thing, for it is the journey, and its occasional victories, that offer the real joy. How boring it would be to know everything, and to have a perfect model of reality. Can our anthropomorphic God really have any fun, with no uncertainties and thus no victories in His experience?

These explorers tackle the uncommon questions that normally have little direct impact on our lives, and are largely ignored by most people, who find greater satisfaction in pursuing other issues. They take to heart the little Gilbert and Sullivan ditty cited in the Introduction, and cherish the journey that it invites.