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The Three Holograms

Nicholas Palisade finds the whole truth visible in a small cell.

The room is empty, except for a small desk in the center with a pair of wire cutters on it, the chair you’re sitting on, and a set of wires that emerge through a single hole in the wall behind you. The wires feed across the floor, then up into the back of your skull at the brain stem.

All you know is this simple room. It’s all you can remember. You glance at the wire cutters from time to time, curious of their purpose, never really correlating the cutters with the set of wires attached to the back of your head. All the objects of the room are simply features of your reality. You feel safe here. You live out your days contently, never leaving the room, and never experiencing anything out of the ordinary – until one day you’re visited by a holographic projection of a being physically similar to yourself. This being calls himself ‘the Idealist’.

What the Idealist tells you stuns your mind. He reveals that the year is 2212, and that you’re part of a hi-tech experiment designed to solve the problem of consciousness once and for all. Then he says enigmatically, “The wires funneling through the wall are as much a part of your mentally-projected reality as the walls and the desk are. But these wires feed into your brain to generate that perception of reality!”

“What does that mean?” you ask.

The Idealist smiles, and says, “It means that those so-called physical components, the wires that project your mental reality into you, and so are entirely responsible for the creation of your experience, are as much a part of that mental reality as the thoughts in your head. All that exists here is entirely mental.”

“But, what does that mean?”

The Idealist chuckles merrily, “It means that there is no direct evidence in your experience of any connection to a physical realm, simply because what you would call your mind’s physical connection to the so-called physical world is just as much a part of your experience as the chair you’re sitting on. What you are experiencing now is a purely mental reality.”

Pleased by your joyous visitor, you laugh – but your laughter is interrupted when the Idealist suddenly becomes grave, danger looming in his voice. He intones, “I must warn you – I am not the only holographic being who will visit you today. Two more holograms are on their way. Their messages will be fallacious. However, the final hologram’s message is by far the most misguided. I warn you, no matter what he tells you, don’t listen. If you listen, it might cost you your life.”

Grateful to have learned that your existence is no more real than the dreams you dream at night, you smile, and thank the Idealist for the warning about the other two holograms. His holographic form flickers and disappears, and you are left alone to think about what has transpired.

Some time later a new hologram appears in the center of the room. He calls himself ‘the Dualist’. He asks you to summarize what the earlier hologram told you. Rather cheerfully, you proclaim, “He said that those wires funneling through the wall and into my brain generate my experience of reality, and that they’re as much a part of that mentally-generated perception as anything else in this room. He told me that, in fact, everything is mental.”

The Dualist scoffs: “Oh no, no, no! Don’t be fooled by such nonsense – those wires are physical! But you are correct in believing that they generate your experiences, and the reality they generate is mental, not physical.”

Confused, you turn your head and look at the wires feeding in from the hole in the wall. “So those wires aren’t mental, they’re physical? But everything else in the room is mental?”

The Dualist scoffs again, even more animatedly: “No, no! What has he done to you? Everything that you can see is physical – but the thoughts you’re thinking, and the pain you feel when you pinch your arm – those are mental states. Such inner experiences exist in a realm that is separate and tucked away from the objects in this room. Those mental states are even tucked away from your physical body.”

Even more confused, you frown. You liked it more when you thought the chair and the walls, and even the wires themselves, were mentally generated. “So, do the wires cause the pain in my arm when I pinch myself?” you ask. “Or what about that feeling of pressure where my behind meets the chair?”

“Well, that depends on your interpretation of your experiences,” says the Dualist. “Some dualists will tell you that the mental realm of the experiences themselves is entirely separate from the physical world. Other dualists may concede that the physical world effects the inner, mental one.” Your frown hardens as yet more confusion hurts your head. “Well, I really must be off now,” concludes the Dualist, and with nothing further to add, he disappears.

You wait alone in the room for several more hours. During this time you contemplate what a peculiar view of the world the Dualist had. Wondering to yourself, you ask, ‘How is it that the wires cause my mentally-projected reality, yet they are not part of that mental reality? They can’t be, unless the Idealist is right. After all, if the so-called physical cause of my mental reality is actually a part of my mental reality, then there really is no direct connection to anything physical at all! But if what the Dualist said was true, the wires must be separate from the mental reality they project. And yet I can see and feel them. There they are, funneling in through that hole in the wall…’

Just then the third holograph appears in the room. He’s larger than the first two, and much more commanding. He calls himself ‘the Materialist’. Speaking with the force of ten men, he asks you to summarize what the previous two visitors have said.

“Well, the first visitor called himself the Idealist,” you tell the Materialist. “He said that the physical components that allow for my mental reality are as much a part of that mental reality as anything else, and so everything I perceive in this room must ultimately be mental.” The Materialist says nothing, remaining as still as can be. Rather intimidated, you continue, “Next came the Dualist. What he said was kind of confusing. He said that everything in this room is physical, except for my thoughts and feelings. He said those exist in a realm separate from the physical.”

The Materialist starts speaking, his voice every bit as commanding as before: “What those visitors told you was all lies. In truth, everything is physical.”



With a queasy look on your face you pinch yourself right above the elbow, and ask him, “But what about that peculiar pain in my arm? What about that pain could possibly be physical?”

The Materialist walks around the table and points to the wires on the floor, flowing down from the hole in the wall. “Don’t you see these?” he asks.

You look down to the wires, and then up at the Materialist, confused again. “I don’t understand,” you say weakly.

“That ‘world of experience’ you speak of is really just a set of electrical wires, and the electrical data pulsing along them. But not these wires. The wires inside your head are the ones that count!” he booms.

“No!” you say, “No, I don’t believe you. I knew your message would be fallacious. The Idealist warned me!”

The Materialist continues, “I know this is hard to accept, but everything about your experience of the world is entirely explainable in terms of your brain’s activity – so much so that, in fact, nothing actually exists in your head except for brain cells and their biological cables, and their electrical pulses. You’re only a machine.” He smiles.

You raise your voice: “No! That can’t be right! When I pinch my arm, there’s a pain. There is something beyond the wire, there is something more! It’s real, it is, I feel it, I feel it! Surely you must know what I’m talking about?!”

The Materialist scratches his holographic chin and answers, “If you don’t believe me, take up those wire cutters and snip these wires. If I’m telling the truth, you will see after you cut the wires that nothing will have physically changed about the room – except for the damage done to the wires themselves.”

You ponder this for a moment, then ask, “How do you know? How do you know that to be true?”

He answers, “Because I have witnessed others’ wires being cut. Go on. Just cut the wires, and you’ll find out whether this reality is purely a physical one.”

You remember that the Idealist told you not to listen to the Materialist, for he is the most misguided. And yet the Materialist is trying to support his claim with evidence. He’s offering something more than the Idealist did – he is actually offering proof of his claim.

“Alright,” you say to the Materialist, “I’ll cut those wires; and if nothing changes I will know that what you’re telling me must be true.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re coming around.”

After grabbing the wire cutters, you stand. You raise the cutters up behind your head, and take one final breath. Just as the cutters squeeze the wires, you remember that the Idealist also told you that if you listen to the Materialist, it might cost you your life. Then the wire cutters clamp together.

© Nicholas Palisade 2010

Nicholas Palisade is studying Philosophy at the University of Utah.

• With special thanks to John Searle, for insisting that the peculiar pain in your arm is every bit as real as the planets in orbit.

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