How is it to be a gold fish in a bowl? Does the curvature of the bowl distorts its vision enough to prevent it from “knowing” anything out beyond the water in the globe? Can an “intelligent gold fish” make an “estimate” of the world beyond the bowl. What if human beings are in a globe as perception distorting as is the walls of the bowl for the gold fish.













How is it to be a gold fish in a bowl? Does the curvature of the bowl distorts its vision enough to prevent it from “knowing” anything out beyond the water in the globe? Can an “intelligent gold fish” make an “estimate” of the world beyond the bowl. What if human beings are in a globe as perception distorting as is the walls of the bowl for the gold fish.

This brings us to one of fundamental issues regarding the nature of reality. Is what we see and what we hear the ‘real’ stuff out there? If yes, how are you sure. If no, how can you know?

Naïve empiricism states that reality is what we experience through our sensory organs. This proposition has serious flaws in it. It cannot account for issues for the vagaries of our sense organ perception.

Although the only means by which we perceive external world is through our sense organs, are we sure that what we see and hear are the only ‘real things’? Not all.

Perception through sense organs skews the external reality according to the properties of the sense organs. For instance, the world of a dog would be a world of smell, while the world of humans is a world of colour. Furthermore, brain reconstructs the sensory impulse in such a way that we do not necessarily see what is exactly presented before the sense organs. Thus, mostly the external world is a consensual reality we share with fellow human beings by virtue of the similarity in the properties of our sense organs and brain’s ability to reconstruct it. A part of the reasons for violent differences of opinion people have amongst them may be mediated by biologically mediated difference in the properties of perception.

What is the nature of reality narrated by our sciences in such a scenario?

Stephen Hawkins and Leonard Mlodinow give an elegant answer to this conundrum. Hawkins and  Mlodinow advocate a ‘model-based realism’ that resolves all the issues that I had with plain empiricism.

They start by giving the story of a gold fish in a curved globe,. Apparently, a city administrator in Italy had banned owners to keep fish in curved globe, because they thought that gold fish’s vision of the world outside the globe would be highly distorted, according to the town authorities it was cruel to expose the fish to distorted view of the external world. .

Hawkins and Mlodinow ask the critical question on this situation- how are we sure our view of the world is not different from the distorted view of the fish in the globe? What if we are all hard wired to a computer and our reality as we see it is all a software feelings of our sense of reality? How can we decipher and differentiate such a scenario? The answer is that we cannot.

The gold fish can , nonetheless, create physical laws of motion of the objects outside the globe and make mathematical predictions. They all will be correct in that the adjustment would be made for the curved movement of the objects seen through the globe. The mathematical equation needed to describe the movement of objects seen through the globe will be different from that seen from outside, but their fundamental properties would be same. The difference in the physical laws as postulated by the gold fish in the globe from that seen observed the globe would be the adjustment in the equations made for the distortion of the respective vison. Is our physical laws any better than the physical laws of the goldfish? The answer is no. Both give different representation of what they see from different frame of references. This is the crux model based realism of the world.

The model based realism operates in our everyday life too. When we gaze onto something, the clear portion of visual perception is only from a small area of 5.5 mm in the centre of retina called macula, the rest of the images are all badly pixelated blurry image. Further more, there is area in the optic nerve head where optic fibers condense and exit the eye. This area is actually does not have any sensory receptor and form an area of ‘blind spot’ in our field of vision of the size of 7.5 to 5.5 degrees. However, none of us are aware of the ‘dark spot’ in our visual field.  This is because the brain take all these badly processed data together and extrapolate the clarity of macula to whole field so that we are not aware of the areas of blurred images in the periphery of our vision and the blind in the center of our vision.

To give another example given by Hawkings and Mlodinow, suppose you are sitting in a classroom where there is a table and fan. If the reality is only what we see through our eyes,  if you exit the room, the retinal images would have all ceased and it can appear that the table ‘disappeared’. But brain does not allow such ‘discontinuity ‘. It maintains the continued existence of the table for some period of time. Next moment, suppose if the fan fell down and mangled the table, for the student who has maintained the image of the table in his head, the series of events are all well evident and reasoned. On the contrary, if the brain extinguish the image of table when you exit the room- in the absence of continued impulse from the retina- the scenario of ‘fallen fan and the mangled table’ would be incomprehensible. The moment before there was a nice looking table and fan; in the next moment there is the damaged table and the fan. We don’t know what happened in between. In fact, for the idea of causality you need to have a model of table and fan (all empirically disconnected) in your mind from the beginning to the end. Also, all these should emerge from a badly pixelated sensory put with black spots and movement artefacts.

Brain fixes all these and provide a ‘model based re-creation’ of the table half of which you haven’t seen through your eyes, but was reconstructed from bits and pieces of the table and the fan.

This is model based realism in our everyday life.

In other words, our reality is not directly coming from the stimulation of our sensory organs from the external object, but in equal or greater measure from brains re-creation of the sensory inputs. We vouch for the existence of an ‘external reality’ because everyone process the external reality more-or-less in a similar manner, and for a larger part of our external reality there is a ‘consensus’ of how they look. Thus, we have a consensus of what is green or what is yellow. But not a colour blind man. However, more complex objects (concepts) of consensus like morals and ethics have fifty shades of grey. Here people diverge in uncanny ways people cannot comprehend. The almost intractable difference of opinion between conservatives and liberals and between liberals and libertarian is fueled by layers and layers of differences in their models of perception.

Understanding the dynamics of the model based realism is a process critically important to achieve consensus, a process indispensable for civil peace and progress.

Although I am an agnostics , and a great believer of the empirical approach of science, I have a serious doubt regarding the validity empirical information to correctly know the nature of the external reality. Movies like Matrix that demonstrate the scenario of people artificially hard wired to think as if they are living and enjoying life making free decisions was an tool for to express mymisgivings. My own understanding of cognitive neurology is that cognition creates realities that is not quite representative of the external world.

But as I read the first two chapters of the ‘Grant Design’ by Stephen Hawkins and Lenold Mlodinow, I got an answer that connected all the dotes in my question. Our reality is best described as a ‘model-based reality’. It may or may not be correct. We can never know. What is important is it ‘consensual’, without internal contraindication, and be able to enable accurate theoretical prediction. If any of these characteristics fails consistently, it is time to ‘reform’ the model.

Clearly, the gold fish’s model of the Universe would be as accurate as our model of Universe. Only that the equations and the derivations of its predictions would be different from that of ours. Its predictions of the world be as accurate as much as its access to the world around. But yes, perhaps. we are violating its “piscisian rights” in keeping it in a bowl alien from its natural enviornment. Or is it? Won’t it had acquired the neural connections to overcome the visual contours of the bowl? We don’t know.

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