What is real?

On desert sand, we see ripples and wave patterns emerge. Are these real? Simple computer models show how these ripples emerge. Some make a case that the parts (sand grains) are real and fundamental, but the waves emerging are a higher-order phenomenon, not exactly real. Yet the ripples are not merely a desert mirage.

Scientists, philosophers, artists, Buddhists, Vendantins, are interested in defining what is real and what is illusory, what are the fundamental parts, and what “wholes” emerge from the parts.

Water is made up of parts, molecules, but wetness and pressure are collective properties. In a bird flock or any life form, whole patterns emerge that are more than the sum of the parts. From a bug’s eye view, we may only see the parts, yet also see much detail that a bird’s-eye view could not see.

Simple models of emergence and self-organization cast light on these issues. As we play with simple models of emerging life patterns, we will ask these big questions, including:

Is the whole more than the sum of the parts? Are the emerging patterns less real than the parts?  What is most essential in generating life patterns?

What matters?

In computer modeling and in art, retaining what is important and discarding the rest, is called “abstraction.” The most useful model of a pattern often uses the simplest rules of interaction between parts to generate the pattern. Likewise, abstract art strips down a subject to the essentials, asking “what matters?”

The artist, scientist, Buddhist or Advaita Vedantin who asks “What is real?” is also after the question “What matters?” If something is just an illusion, or impermanent, it might best be discarded. We pursue these questions with game models, art and stories. However, there are entire philosophies devoted to the same questions. Below are a few provocative quotations.

Photo: 1969, wind ripples in Southwest Afghanistan, by Kempf EK  (public domain). Painting: Ivan Kliun (about 1914), The Clockmaker (public domain where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less).