The Paranoid Universe

7 Jul

About a week ago, while reading Philip K. Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint, I was dredged up from the depths of borderline-incoherent science fiction by one of my younger cousins asking me:

“Is that book about drugs?”

“No,” I replied, not bothering to inquire as to why his thoughts immediately jumped to drugs from the word ‘joint,’ when elbows, knees, and large pieces of meat cooked whole could have been equally applicable to the word.  “It’s about a man who doesn’t know if the universe is real or not.”

We discussed time travel paradoxes for a few more minutes before he left me to finish the book.  I promptly forgot about the conversation until this morning.

In Boston for OCON 2009, I’m attending a course on the psychologist James J. Gibson’s theory of perception.  It’s an extraordinarily radical conception of the universe, and so discounted by many psychologists today: basically, Gibson believed that there was a real world, and that people could experience it.

Crazy, right?

Most normal people recognize this intuitively, but let’s be honest– academics and so-called intellectuals aren’t exactly normal people.

Gibson’s idea is formally called Direct Realism, but also occasionally Naïve Realism (probably by the academics) and Common Sense Realism (probably by the rest of us).  He states that the senses provide us with direct knowledge and experience of the external world.  This is as opposed to the notion that the world only exists in our own consciousness.  Not sure what you personally think?  Here’s a simple grade-school test:

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to witness it, did it really make a sound?

Gibson says– Of course it does!

Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, has his doubts.

My cousin was more perceptive than he probably realized when trying to analyze the title of my book.  Drugs are “mind-altering,” producing new sensations or a new a state of consciousness.  What’s happening in your mind becomes primary– the things you see or hear or feel that don’t really exist in the external world.

PKD’s novels are all about altered consciousness.  One fan website’s home page, for example, bears the phrase: “Reality is a point of view.”  And protagonist Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint, for example, lives in a place where the universe is held together by neatly lettered strips of paper; and, if you look really, reallyhard at an object, you can see down to its molecular structure.

I might enjoy torturing my brain with PKD’s particular brand of “paranoid fiction,” and many people enjoy the recreational use of “mind-expanding” drugs, but really: wouldn’t you rather live in Gibson’s universe?


One Response to “The Paranoid Universe”


  1. Life or Death Academics « The Scattering - July 10, 2009

    […] About The Paranoid Universe […]

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