The Real Real
Reading 2 - Sea of Tranquility
4 - Bad Chickens / 2401
5 - Last Book Tour on Earth / 2203
In the fall of 1990, Dr. Phil Neujahr strode to the front of my Intro to Philosophy class at Oglethorpe University, looked at the 15 or so of us gathered in front of him and asked us to consider, just for a moment, that our head was not on our shoulders, but was instead in a vat of fluid with electrodes attached, feeding our brain with electrical stimulations that made us think and feel everything around us. He asked us to consider, for a moment, what it meant when we said something was real.
I couldn’t help but think about Dr. Neujahr years later when I watched this scene from the seminal sci-fi film The Matrix:
And in this section of Sea of Tranquility the “simulation hypothesis” (sometimes called the “brain in a vat”) reappears in section 4 - “Bad Chickens.” The idea seems to me to be even more poignant in the future that Mandel envisions. If you live on the moon in a colony that simulates life on earth, complete with fake light and planned rain, potted trees and lab made meat, then where would you draw the line between “real” and “fake.” What is “fake” would very much be a part of your lived experience, and even if it was simulated, the rain would still be wet.
I hear people talk a lot about wanting to have “authentic” experiences. A nice restaurant like il Palio is considered somehow more authentic than Olive Garden. But they’re both in North Carolina, not Tuscany, so how “authentically” Italian are they? And why do we talk about having authentic experiences that are somehow considered separate from our normal, regular experience?
If I am having an experience isn’t it by very definition authentic? And going back to the original question, how do we know what real is anyway? Or as Mandel puts it: “(i)f we were living in a simulation, how would we know it was a simulation?” As a side note, I found it hilarious that 2401 Gaspery thinks about that basic question of philosophy while on a trolley, the home of another famous basic philosophy question. Yes, I am a nerd.
This section of the book came with lots of questions to ponder. Here are a few I would love for you to think about, and share answers to if so inspired.
1. Mandel says that a “pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.” Is that how Covid felt for you? How so? If you experience of the pandemic was different, how was it different?
2. Talia tells Gaspery that “bureaucracy is an organism, and the prime goal of every organism is self-protection. Bureaucracy exists to protect itself.” Do you agree? Why or why not? Do you have any examples to support your thoughts?
3. Olive at one point asks “(w)hat if it always is the end of the world?” We as humans have a tendency to place ourselves at the center of history. It seems to me that one of the things that links human cultures across time and place is a shared sense that the world is ending at any moment. Do you think Olive is right? Do you think that worrying that the end is nigh is part of what it means to be human?
Alright. We have a few (very) short chapters left and we will be done with Sea of Tranquility. Next week we will talk about the end of this book, and introduce our next one.
Until then, stay real. Whatever that means.
For next week:
6 - Mirella and Vincent / file corruption
7 - Remittance / 1918, 1990, 2008
8 - Anomaly
Generic Comment: It was sad to read about the fake reality on the moon to make people feel more at home. Some day, the younger people would no longer remember the earth and the fake may seem real. However, to those who "migrated" from earth to the moon colony, their new reality was a pale imitation of what they thought was real.
End of World: Yes. I think that each generation questions this, especially in light of the continuation of wars and pestilence. And, frankly, just because the world still exists does not mean that one day it really will be the end of the world (defined as our planet).