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Ralph Waldo Emerson vs. The Simulation Hypothesis

Ralph Waldo Emerson vs. The Simulation Hypothesis
Generated by Stable Diffusion 2.1. Prompt "ralph waldo emerson, background nebula, digital art, trending on artstation hq".

Is the world real? Or is what we experience as the world a projection onto our mind of images and sensations by a more powerful being? And what does it mean for us one way or another?

Ralph Waldo Emerson weighs in and thinks basically "not much." He thinks whether or not the world is actually "out there," we should be enjoying and contemplating our experience of it, not digging into the mechanical workings of that experience.

He begins the "Idealism" section of an essay titled Nature by setting up the problem as follows:

A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether this end be not the Final Cause of the Universe; and whether nature outwardly exists.

Immediately following, he goes on to say that "Yeah, there's nothing to say our experience of the world is anything but some powerful being, "God," tricking us with pretty lights."

It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World, that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade.

And then in the next sentence, basically sums up his perspective on the issue, which is "As long as I can't tell the difference, I don't think it matters."

In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul?

He actually uses some really beautiful language to expand on that opinion:

The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end, — deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space, — or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man? Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.

Emerson goes on to talk about how culture inclines man to favor the spiritual, the Ideal, the unseen, over that which appears physically embodied in the world. He gives the examples of physicists and astronomers who favor theoretical purity over observation. He gives the example of religion, which tells its followers to worship the unseen and the inevitable, at the expense of the tangible and the here and now. He thinks this is too far in one direction.

But I own there is something ungrateful in expanding too curiously the particulars of the general proposition, that all culture tends to imbue us with idealism. I have no hostility to nature, but a child's love to it. I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons. Let us speak her fair. I do not wish to fling stones at my beautiful mother, nor soil my gentle nest.

He doesn't want to "soil [his] gentle nest." As if to say "Look, I know there might be more to it than this. And maybe this isn't exactly what it looks like, even! But it's our home. I'd like to respect that."

He has one section that really leans into the power of Ideas and how it can make man feel powerful and above the World.

[Doubting the existence of matter] fastens the attention upon immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, upon Ideas; and in their presence, we feel that the outward circumstance is a dream and a shade. Whilst we wait in this Olympus of gods, we think of nature as an appendix to the soul. We ascend into their region, and know that these are the thoughts of the Supreme Being. "These are they who were set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When he prepared the heavens, they were there; when he established the clouds above, when he strengthened the fountains of the deep. Then they were by him, as one brought up with him. Of them took he counsel."

He seems to be saying that having the ability to contemplate the idea that the world is simply an idea lets one's thoughts move above the "material plane" into one where our world is simply one of many possible worlds; a collection of concepts among many possible concepts. Being able to contemplate this possibility unlocks the meta-game, so to speak.

So while we shouldn't completely disregard our experience of the world around us, it's intellectually beneficial to entertain the idea that it is simply a projection. Because then we can start to think of what else might it be possible to project. If the foundation of the universe is in fact Ideas rather than Matter, then so many more configurations and concepts are possible. Are real.

But then he ends the essay with

Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul. Therefore the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet. It respects the end too much, to immerse itself in the means.

Which I think is the most important quote in the piece as far as understanding Emerson's perspective.

He's wrapping up his perspective on Idealism, the point of the whole piece, in a nutshell. He's saying that regardless the mechanism behind our experience of nature, it has been put there for our enjoyment and contemplation. It would be a waste to spend too much time worrying about how it has been rendered. "The soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet. It respects the end too much, to immerse itself in the means."