“Get Real” – Litquake & MIL Explore Reality vs Perception

Ceci n’est pas Sleeping Beauty’s Castle

Here in San Francisco, “reality” can be more fluid than elsewhere.  Last night Litquake, our week+ October literary festival, popped up at the Mechanics’ Institute Library for a vibrant and vigorous panel discussion entitled “Get Real: Perception and the Nature of Reality.”
Looking under every stone from particle physics to game theory were Robert Burton, MD, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind; UC Berkeley psychologist and NPR blogger Tania Lombrozo; conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, author of Forged; and game designer Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken.  Their adept moderator, novelist and physicist Ransom Stephens, posed questions which encouraged a wide-ranging investigation.  Some highlights:

  • Stephens launched the quest with a physicist’s working definition — “Reality is a space where things move” — and noted that, perceptually, reality appears entirely different at different scales (vide the 1977 Eames film Powers of Ten).
  • Robert Burton used the double-arrow paradox to illustrate that perception is not only deceptive, but cultural: whether you see both arrows as the same length or as different depends partly on where you grew up, as do many other observations and beliefs.  He depicted the whole concept of reality as convenient more than factual.  He also observed that “language comes after feeling”: In our perpetual quest for purpose and value, we’re most likely to perceive our lives as having meaning when we feel that things (work, love, and other arenas of struggle) are going well.
  • Jane McGonigal debunked the popular idea that gamers are escaping from reality: in the first place, winning points turns out to be less of a motivator than the thrill of pitting one’s smarts and skills against a challenge; and, second, grappling with virtual reality has been shown to sharpen those smarts and skills as well as to boost other measures of health and success.  Far from making people dysfunctional, games can be valuable in treating dysfunctions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Tania Lombrozo, whose specialties include explanation/causation and moral reasoning, probed the mysterious human itch to explain reality.  What use is it?  Why are we so picky about what kinds of explanations satisfy us? — for instance, preferring one that includes a cause-and-effect story (preferably with us humans in the picture) to a simple observation.  She noted that explanations accomplish more than what’s on the surface: “Sometimes you can learn something new just by explaining to yourself.”
  • Jonathon Keats described some of his and others’ conceptual-art explorations, positing the goal as in effect stepping outside of everyday cause-and-effect consensual reality into “purposeful purposelessness” (e.g., the silent ringtone).  In keeping with his latest book’s subtitle, “Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age,” he toured the fuzzy border between art (e.g., drawing a dollar and trading it for a cup of coffee) and forgery (“Would a moron in a hurry mistake this for the real thing?”).

What about reality beyond the handsome book-lined walls of the Mechanics’s Institute Library?

  • Regarding the current 3-ring circus in Washington, Jane McGonigal disputed the common contention “This isn’t a —ing game!”  On the contrary: the problem is that different sets of participants are playing different games with incompatible rules and goals (e.g., winning re-election vs. alleviating poverty), which hugely complicates the challenge of achieving an outcome that’s acceptable to all the players.
  • Tania Lombrozo added that studies have shown that new evidence doesn’t always help contenders move toward agreement or harmony; instead, somewhat paradoxically, it can stiffen their original positions.
  • She also emphasized that there isn’t just one “reality.”  Robert Burton agreed that we are inclined and able, often seamlessly, to integrate multiple realities (e.g., a spiritual and a scientific explanation for an experience or phenomenon), rather than opt for a single consistent set of beliefs reflecting what Ransom Stephens called a Grand Unification Theory of reality.

Much more of interest was said during the panel discussion and Q&A which space prevents including here.  Congratulations to Litquake, MIL Events Director Laura Sheppard, the exceptionally fascinating panelists and moderator, their large and uncommonly astute audience, and MIL staff and volunteers for an outstanding evening!