Reality check

Reality this, reality that.  Who reality cares?

We have to care, if we are trying to understand ourselves.

Over the last few weeks we talked about the reality that never changes, matter and energy.  There’s the reality that is shared by all life, things that are born, and then die.  There’s the reality of people, brought to you by the same people who like to make love, and war.  And there’s the reality of yourself, the stuff that only you can know, like your inner thoughts.

Is there a handy or easy way to keep these straight so that I don’t have to go muddling about trying to remember what belongs where?  Let’s try this exercise.

Pretend we are studying your dreams.  And someone asks you, are your dreams real?  Of course they are, to you.  Are your dreams real to all people?  Here’s the test; make yourself disappear.  It’s only a thought experiment, so you can disappear to a luxury island where there’s beautiful servants waiting upon your every whim.  What happens to YOUR dreams though, relative to everyone else?  Of course you don’t care, because you’re getting your feet rubbed on that pristine beach.  But for the rest of us, your dreams are gone, long gone.  They aren’t real to us, because they disappeared when you disappeared.

What about dreams in general, are they real?  Since we’re talking about general dreams, what we’re saying is this; do dreams only exist in people?  Let’s find out and send all people to that same luxury island (it’s a big island) so that all other life is now devoid of people.  Now some of the animals may have dream-like stages, but since they can’t talk we won’t ever know if they are dreaming.  So dreams are only “real” in the sense that people are real.  Dreams in general represent a reality that is only common to people.

What about life and death?  Is it real?  It’s real as long as we are looking at things that live.  Take away all life, and you have something that looks like the moon.  There is no life on the moon, and there is no death.  Life and death, then, are only as real as the living things they represent.

And this is how to determine the degree of “realness” of anything we study.  Take yourself away, if it still exists, it’s more real than you.  Take people away, and if it still exists, it’s even “realer.”  Take all life away, and if it still exists, it’s as real as it gets.

Thanks for coming along.  Now let’s get real.  Let’s only study things that are real.



Is that really you?

Are you real?  Have you thought about it?

In these last few weeks, we talked about how matter and energy are real.  Well, there’s a good chance you are made of matter and energy.  I think I’m mostly dark matter but that’s mostly in my stomach.

You are also alive, and as a member of all things living you are real in the sense that life is real.  You are alive, right?

Since you’re reading this, it’s also likely that you are a person.  Last week we noticed how there are lots of things that people do that are unique to people, and not life in general.  So, as a people, you are also real.  Isn’t it great to be a human?

There’s one more reality.  It’s all you.  Totally.  Don’t believe me?  Then try this on for size.  Are you alone?  Check.  The NSA doesn’t count, but it doesn’t hurt to cover up your camera!  OK, now cough.  Once is enough.  You were the only person to hear you cough.  Was that cough real?

As a people, we know that people cough.  But that’s in general.  Your specific one-time-only cough came, and went.  We don’t have the technology to bring it back, even if you wanted.  My point is that your cough is real, only to you.

Ever have a dream?  Of course you have.  Sleep researchers are pretty sure everyone dreams regularly.  Did you ever remember a dream?  Probably, the odds are good on this one because it depends on when you wake from a sleep cycle.  Did anyone else ever have the exact same dream?  Of course not.  Yet, is your dream real?  Yes, but only to you.

And this is the last sort of reality.  It’s the reality of you.  You form your own little universe where what you experience, what you feel, what you think, is all real.  It’s real only to you.  The extent that you can get others to believe in YOUR reality is a testament to your powers of persuasion, like when you share your dreams.  But it’s still only your reality.

There you have it.  Many realities.  Now that we know this, we can be aware of which reality we are working in as we try to understand behavior.  There’s a handy way to keep them straight, but that’s for next week.

See you then.  Sweet dreams!



Real People

Let’s get real, people.  Literally.  We are people, and we are real, aren’t we?

Last few weeks we touched on the reality of matter and energy.  That’s the most basic kind of reality, because it’s been around for billions of years (almost 14!) and will be around for billions more.

The next level of reality was that of life itself.  Life is real.  It better be, because I hate to try and understand stuff that’s not real.  Now for the next level up.

People.  Humans.  Humanity.  Homo sapiens.  You and me.  We’re real, right?  We’re real because we’re alive, so we represent life, and we argued that life was real.  But there is also the possibility that there is a reality that is unique to people.  I’m fairly sure that there are a few things that we as people can do that other life can’t.  Making a very complex society for one.  Writing, and sometimes reading, for another.  How about regular cooking, or planning a dinner party?  What about this great internet thing?

It’s a higher level of reality.  The internet is real, because it’s here, and we’re using it.  It’s not easy to measure or put in a box because it’s a higher kind of reality.  In this reality, we are looking at things that are common to all people.  The internet is common to all people, or it soon will be!

What else is real, for people?  War, famine, hate, greed, slavery, duplicity, manipulation, demagoguery, and so many other disagreeable behaviors.  There is also idealism, love, cooperation, and art.  None of these, in a consistent, organized form, exists anywhere else but in the human world.

That’s really cool.  Really.  Or should I say, Reality.

Stay tuned.  There’s more.


Kind of Reality

Did you know that what we’re studying isn’t real?  Really!

Behavior, that is.  Not real, that is.  It’s kind of real, but not real at the same time.  Hold on a minute, I think I need to eat something.

That’s better – I have a clear head finally.  Garlic pesto pasta does the trick.  And it’s a good place to start our discussion.  My plate of pasta is real.  It’s real in the sense that I can touch it, weigh it, smell it, taste it (YUM!), and in all other ways document its properties such that other people can verify my measurements.  So if you were my guest (Come on over! You can bring the ice cream!) you could repeat my measurements and come to the same numbers – or close anyway.  We could take photographs and look at them years later, and still agree that what we see was, in fact, real.

This is physical reality.  It’s the best kind of reality, because it’s the kind that can hit you in the face if you’re not careful.  Well, best may not be the best word, but it is best because we can’t argue that my pasta wasn’t real.  The same goes for my stove, Parmesan cheese, and garlic.  They are real, physically real.

Can you guess what the other types of reality are?  Go ahead, we need something to talk about while we sip the last dregs of wine and have some of that ice cream.  Here are some hints.  The stove in my example is going to be real for a long long time.  The garlic and cheese, on the other hand, are only going to exist for a short time.

So send in those guesses!  In the meantime, I’m going downstairs for some of that pasta.  I firmly believe that a person can’t have too much garlic.  Unfortunately for my coworkers, I think they disagree!


How big? What big?

Want to know how big I am?  Don’t snicker, this is a clean column!

How big am I?  What does this mean?  Big as in height from head to heel?  Or my weight?  Perhaps you’d rather know my mass, or the distance around my waist.  Lots of questions, but they all pertain to our subject of the day.  Why do we even care?

It’s all about precision.  Precision in measurement, and precision in communication.  How can I know that you know what I mean to say, if I also know that you don’t know exactly which form of the word I know is what I meant?  I can’t!

There is a great debate in our nation (the USA) still raging on about using Imperial versus metric units.  We are one of the last holdouts using the Imperial system.  Is it a good or bad thing?  We already know that it’s not as precise as metric, but does that make it bad?

As students of behavior we know that there is no bad or good; labels like this simply impose our own value judgments on the decisions of others.  We don’t want that to happen.  However, we must realize that every decision comes with benefits, and costs.  It’s up to us to figure out what those benefits and costs are.  And that will help us understand why the USA is still Imperial.

First off, the Imperial system is more ambiguous than metric.  Weight and mass can be the same thing, but they really are not.  Volume and weights share the same names as well – I can have an ounce of sugar, and an ounce of water.  For that matter, I could also take a tablespoon of sugar and water mixed.  It sounds intuitively nice, but exactly how much is that?

Second, the Imperial system likes to make the use of fractions and strangely related limits.  For instance, 3 teaspoons make a tablespoon.  2 Tablespoons make an ounce.  8 ounces make a cup, and 2 cups make a pint.  2 pints make a quart, and 4 quarts make a gallon.  A US gallon, that is.  Quick, how much water is 1 quart, 1 cup, and 3 tablespoons?  This isn’t a problem in metric world.

Third, it costs time, money, and aggravation to migrate from any system to another.  The USA is a large place, and the cost of transitioning everyone over from Imperial to metric is going to be much larger than it was for any other nation on Earth.  That said, there is also a cost to not changing over.  NASA had a mission to Mars where the lander was supposed to gently maneuver over its landing site, then touch down.  In the metric units that they used, everything worked out beautifully.  Unfortunately, the subcontractor was using Imperial units and somewhere along the way someone didn’t convert all the numbers correctly.  As a result the poor lander thought it was much higher above the surface than it really was.  It did not survive the impact.

Fourth, there is also a cost to making things too precise.  Do you cook, making things from scratch?  If the recipe asks for a tablespoon of water do you take the time to find the right spoon, measure out the water precisely, and then put it into the mix?  Or do you find a big spoon, throw some water on it and toss it in?  Maybe you don’t even need a spoon?  For 99% of the time it doesn’t matter if you put in 12 milliliters or 18 milliliters.  Most recipes are pretty forgiving.  So telling you that you need 15 milliliters all the time can get pretty annoying, especially when you don’t have to be so exact.

Fifth, there is a certain joy that comes with being different.  Hey you, you drive in kilometers?  I drive in miles!  Take that!

You may think that from the above I’m very pro-metric, and I am, but only for reasons of precision.  And being precise is what will drive our ultimate decision to become metric.  At the same time, however, there is a lot to be said for imprecision.  Fractions are more intuitively easy to use, and both the inch and the foot supposedly derived from naturally anthropomorphic sources.

Which do you choose?