If Thoughts Define Reality: What About AI?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 14. June 2024 in Essay

Reality        Credit: learnmindpower.com


According to Wikipedia reality can be defined as follows: On one side we have philosophy that looks at the relationship between the human mind and reality. On the other side science describes reality as the real world whereby the scientists’ approach is defined by observation and experiments of real-world issues. What ends up in textbooks is what an ‘invisible college’ of scientists has agreed upon. However, with recent developments of AI and its highly popular ChatGPT, this historically  grown uniformity of opinion has become widely challenged. The definition of reality is under scrutiny with various ideas and concepts being discussed. Historically humans always maintained control over their destiny and perceived reality.

A Scientific View as presented by Donald Hoffmann

According to an interview with Quanta Magazine, The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality | Quanta Magazine, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, Professor at the University of California, has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain.  He concludes that  human perceptions of an independent reality are all illusions, and that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses. Answering questions about the nature of reality and disentangling the observer from the observed is an endeavour that reaches the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. One will find researchers trying to understand how a three-pound lump of grey matter, obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics, can lead to a conscious experience also referred to as the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Conversely, there are quantum physicists, marvelling at the strange fact that quantum experiments do not define objects localized in space until we come along to observe them. Experiments show that the intuitive assumption that particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, produces wrong answers. Hence, according to Hoffmann, reality is not defined by our mind and the world around us cannot be defined by our thoughts.

The Neuroscience View

In neuroscience It is widely accepted that consciousness and reality are intertwined. Some researchers have argued that the quantum world is influenced by human consciousness, giving our minds an agency and a place in the ontology of the universe. Hence, in their view, reality is indeed defined by our minds. In the near future we will see brain organoids displaying dynamics that resemble the complex activity patterns indicative of consciousness in humans. Brain organoids are tiny, lab-grown bundles of neurons derived from human stem cells that display various properties of the developing human brain. In medicine they provide computational, biological models which enable us to research conditions that affect brain development. There is still much to be discovered about how the brain bootstraps itself into existence from its underlying genetic instructions and about how – once built –  its circuitry supports the complex activity patterns which define brain functionality. Organoids provide a window to the developing neural circuitry that can be observed and manipulated. A question that looms large as this research continues is whether brain organoids can be ‘conscious.’ After all, they are made up of the same basic material as human brains—neurons and synapses—rather than the silicon logic gates of AI-systems used for the algorithmic design of artificial neural networks.  If one stimulates a conscious brain with a pulse of energy, the electrical echo will reverberate in complex patterns. If the same brain would be unconscious no echo could be observed. As brain organoids show similar characteristics compared to those observed in conscious human brains, we will have to reconsider what criteria we might have to apply to define consciousness and its relation to reality as something made rather than born.

A  Philosophical View

Most individuals tend to agree that thinking is a useful exercise. But the question of what ‘useful’ means appears to have different interpretations and definitions. In one definition, the content of the thought represents something useful. Thus, having the thought itself is useful, not just its content. The most common example as to how having a thought could be useful is learning new words. For example, a child that wants something tasty and hears the word ‘ice cream’ remembers that others said the word before, with the result that ice cream was being served. Sometimes later the child recalls this experience and tries to recreate it with his own voice. By remembering the sounds and bringing them into his mind, the child realizes that it has the chance to relive the experience while it has learned how to imitate the individual phonemes. Hence, creating new thoughts suggests that modelling the world is not a passive reception and recording of stimuli, but an active process of willing and shaping one’s perceived world to what one wants it to be. This is why our mind, in focusing solely on useful experiences, assumes that causation is more important than correlation. From this assumption one can conclude that the mind prefers causation up to the point when one realizes that he or she is unable to control the outcome of the problem to be addressed. As a result of failing to find utility in one’s plans, one has to update them by defining a new intent, either erasing the prior one or adjusting it for the problem to be solved. This basically is the same process a child goes through when learning new words. The goal of this reiterative process is to maintain control over one’s destiny. Why even make plans? Why make predictions? Why think at all, if one is not able to control the world to meet our needs? As a consequence, we are building an intent-centred structure of thoughts. Our mind builds an image of the world as we want it to be. This is the power of the human will, exerting itself and fashioning reality based on our own views and desires.

How AI defines Reality

The exponential growth of computer performance has created a so-called Digital Reality (DR), a generic term which differentiates between Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality and the Metaverse. Augmented Reality (AR) adds to one’s field of vision but does not obscure what one can see and hear. For example, in an AR environment, a shopper in a large store unfamiliar with the layout, could enter and be guided to the location of the items he or she is looking for. Information on price, colour options and remaining stock can be displayed as well. Virtual Reality (VR) cuts out the physical world while one is immersed in an artificial semi-controlled environment. With our ability to see and hear  VR offers the possibility to interact with an AI created avatar. During this interaction one can manipulate and possibly assess the consequences of the actions performed. Mixed Reality (MR) is a combination of AR and VR. It aims to create a seamless blend of the reality of a person’s senses overlayed with an AR/VR combination that is context-relevant addressing the goals or expectations of the user. MR requires complex hardware and sensors that can recognise the user’s physical movements such as hand gestures. The Metaverse (MV), a term originally introduced by Facebook (Now Meta), extends MR by mounting headsets or binoculars, equipped with multiple small 2D screens close to one’s eyes. Software applications, combined with high-performance  built-in microprocessors, provide the user with new forms of mixed or augmented reality, with potential applications such as high-impact gaming, simulating operations for medical training or visual guidance for the maintenance of machines used in production. As DR applications and  the technologies used are steadily improved, the driving force behind this development is the monetization of user generated data which the Big-Tech companies can utilize to financially control one of the most powerful segments of our economy. The price we pay might be the loss of reality due to the manipulation of our behaviour.


Historically new technologies have always been closely linked to human evolution and our basic instinct for survival. They have provided the resource for dealing with the fundamental challenges posed by reality – such as providing food or shelter or to form social communities with common interests against a hostile outside environment. Hence, Darwin’s evolutionary theory on the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is likely to remain the reflection point for human defined reality versus AI supported virtuality. Following human’s view of reality and usefulness, we can disregard  the overhyped ‘doom or bust’ stories provided by some news-hungry media companies.

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