Friday, March 28, 2008

None of Us is Real

What can we really know about reality? Is it ever the case that we know any perfect truth about anything real? We are constantly revising our opinions of what is true. Our memories of experiences almost always include information that we did not actually see, hear, touch, smell, or feel. That is because human cognition depends on what some semanticists call frames. A frame is a knowledge structure that schematizes or idealizes experience. The vocabulary and expressions of our language tend to evoke frames by naming parts of them. Similarly, frames tend to shape the language we use by evoking other words associated with a frame.

One of the founders of frame semantics, Charles Fillmore, had a couple of stock sentences to illustrate the power of frames. Consider these two sentences:
1. John spent four hours on land.
2. John spent four hours on the ground.
The expressions "land" and "ground" mean roughly the same thing here, but they evoke different frames of reference. The first sentence suggests a maritime frame of reference, where "land" evokes the thought of being on water. The second sentence suggests a aerial frame of reference, where "ground" evokes the thought of being in the air. We build the meanings of words from references to schematized memories that contain a far more information than the mere words themselves convey. That is how human cognition works. It fills in details about our experiences that go beyond raw perceptions. Quite often, the details that schematized knowledge supply us with are wrong, so we are constantly updating our beliefs about what is true. The smartest among us are best at discarding expectations that prove false upon further scrutiny.

Another good example of frame-based thinking is to consider how we characterize people. Suppose that we witness an event where John considers buying something but refuses to pay because the price is too high for him. That objective event might be characterized in two different ways:
3. John was being thrifty.
4. John was being stingy.
There is no way to determine the absolute truth of those two sentences. They both tell us that John refused to spend money, but the frames associated with the words add different information. The "thrifty" frame characterizes John's act as a good thing in that he avoided unnecessary expense. The "stingy" frame characterizes John's act as a bad thing in that rejected a trivial expense that would have benefited someone else. So the use of those two words to characterize the same objective event tells you a lot more about the event (or the speaker's perception of it) than just the content of what John did. The vocabulary situates the event in a context.

Now, coming back to the epistemological question of how we come to know reality, we can understand why it is that nothing we believe is truly real. All knowledge exists relative to these internalized schemas that build a kind of virtual reality in our heads. We constantly test and revise those mental models, but we never actually get everything perfect. We are always gaining new experiences and trying to fit them into our mental models. We do this so unconsciously that we sometimes trick ourselves into believing that knowledge can be absolute and finite. There is an end to what we can discover if we can just stop having to revise our flawed expectations.

People are the most important things in our lives, and we ought to ask ourselves whether anybody is really real, even ourselves. Have you ever done anything that you didn't expect of yourself? Everyone does. We are constantly changing and updating our models of ourselves, not just others. The people that we know best are those whose behavior we can predict the best. But we can never predict anyone's behavior perfectly. To know someone well is just to have a very complex model of that person. But the amount of incorrect knowledge is greater for those we know best than for those we don't know very much at all, because there are more expectations that we can get wrong about our intimate acquaintances. In the end, none of us is real. We are only a collection of schemata living in a virtual reality of our own making.

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