a theory of objects
"...external objects and facts about them define the realm of
Reality simulators get interesting once they are used not just
to replicate a current, "here-now" sensory environment, but to
create sensory environments simulating existence at distant
places, perhaps at past times. This occurs when a "here-now"
cap is cut loose from its collector devices (the artificial
eyes, artificial ears, and so forth) and made to display data
received from distant locations, or data which has been gathered
in the past and stored for later retrieval.
In the "here-now" mode, the artificial sensory environment is
indistinguishable from the natural one. Likewise, in the more
advanced "here-then," "there-now" and "there-then" modes there
will be no clues provided, within the synthetic experience,
which would lead the user to suspect that this experience was
synthetic. His life will be as rich, as textured, and as
convincing as our ownnot "virtual" in any sense of concern
Whom should it concern?
Perhaps the last man on earth not plugged into a reality
simulator, who would want to enunciate a view of things
according to which all the others are leading "unreal" lives
compared to his own, and according to which he alone is in touch
with the real world. This view of things, which is packed inside
the adjective "virtual," almost always takes the form of a
theory of objects.
A theory of objects maintains that the best all-around
explanation for the occurrence of sensations is the existence of
a world of external things, like tables and chairs, which are
the ultimate causes of those sensations.1
These external objects and facts about them define the realm of
the real, and must be distinguished from pseudo-objects to which
we might (wrongly) impute real existence on the basis of
machine-generated sensory data provided by reality simulators.
The latter may be illusory; the former not.
External objects don't negotiate. They simply are: silent,
stolid, and sufficient-unto-themselves. The mountain doesn't
disappear when we turn our backs on it; it exists whether or not
we know it, or like it. Likewise for the constituent parts of
tables, chairs, and mountains, which in the last analysis are
protons, and electrons, and neutrons, and the like. These things
are the ultimate building blocks of the universe, and enjoy an
inert, no-nonsense, bedrock existence in terms of which all
events and processes in the universe are to be explained, and in
terms of which illusion is separable from reality, as chaff is
from grain. What's real becomes a question of which objects
exist, and which do not. Things at the bottom of things: that's
what a theory of objects is ultimately about.
The last man on earth not plugged in to a reality simulator has
the lowdown on things at the bottom of things, and that's what
makes his experience "real," and the experiences of all the
others "derivative." He knows that everyone else is in a
machinea man-made machinethe operation of which is
analyzable in terms of the properties and interactions of
certain specifiable objects. Helmets and wires and neurons
first, forces and molecules next, and lastly, the fundamental
particles of the nuclear physicist. What may pass for convincing
perceptual experiences for subjects strapped into reality
simulators can be explained in terms of the interactions of a
very great number of independently-real particles. That's what
is really going on, even if it's only the last man on earth who
It may be lonesome at the ontological top, but our man is
convinced, and proud. Reality is his alone.
He stalks up and down the corridors of the mausoleum in which
the "synthies" lie prone, watching their toes twitch through the
tiny quartz windows, and feeling a contempt born of high
Meanwhile, back on the pseudo-ranch, people are having a ball. A
Casper Milquetoast gets to play private eye, apparently for
real, and nuns are spared the inconveniences of the convent as
they become enlightened. Nerds cast themselves as quarterbacks,
and jocks get to be rocket scientists. Things sometimes fall
upwards, and people can fly.
That is not to say that events are chaotic, or without
explanations, within the "synthetic" environments created by
reality simulators. Effects have causes, and processes spin
themselves out in accordance with physical laws. Science works
perfectly well within synthetic environments. Regularities are
perceived in terms of certain repetitive observations; that is
to say, certain sensations occur. Theories are proposed which,
if true, would explain why these observations and not others
were made, and are accepted if additional observations occur
which are predicted on the basis of the theory. These theories
may well postulate that certain objects exist, and sooner or
later, particularly in the case of well-tested,
universally-accepted theories, commonsense may regard these
theoretical objects as enjoying real, bedrock existence, and as
constituting a court of last appeal in which alone questions
concerning the ultimately real nature of things are to be
Even within the reality simulator, we will seek solace from the
view that the world really is the way it would have to be in
order that the occurrence of current sensory data be explained,
even if those data are generated by machines we control.
A theory of objects provides equal comfort within the reality
chamber as it does outside the chamber. And so, our inclination
towards a theory of objects, in defense of a current world view,
fails in itself to give us any hints as to which side of the
wall we might be on.
1The classic enunciation of this view is owed to the English
philosopher John Locke. See An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, first published in 1690.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.