Hiding in plain sight: what is reality?

Photo by Tinou Bau

Everyday you wake up, open your eyes, and a world of shapes and colors come rushing in, everything in your room looks exactly the same as last time you’ve checked, or maybe your cat moved something around while you were sleeping, but your room still looks familiar. You go outside, not much has changed, your car is still the same, the tree in your front yard is still the same dark green cypress, the houses around didn’t change much from last night. The world, as you perceive it through your senses, doesn’t change much from day to day, allowing you to construct a consistent reality, based on your perceptions and beliefs, that you assume as true. An external world that you are confident that exists independently of you perceiving it, with the same qualities/properties that you attribute to it. The external reality you conceive is made of shapes and colors, scents and motions, textures and tastes and sensations. But have you ever stopped to question about if all of that you interact with, the inputs that you receive from the world around you, represents the ‘true’ reality? Or is it maybe an incomplete representation of reality?

Let’s take a red apple in front of you, for example. You can grab it, look at its round shape, feel its smooth texture, examine its red color and grab a bite and taste its sweetness. It truly feels like an apple to you in every sense, but are you experiencing the ‘real’ apple itself? Or just some properties that you attribute to what you describe as an apple? If you ask someone else who sees and feels the apple, they surely will agree with you in the description. But as soon as you start to look in more detail, doubts can begin to arise. Color might change and different shades of red might appear depending on the light being reflected, or the absence of light will dramatically change the color to dark. For a color blind person the color, in the same conditions of light, will look different, for a dog as well, and there’s no reason to believe that the color you see is anymore real than the color another person or animal sees. The color is, therefore, not something which is inherent in the apple, but something that depends upon it and the observer and the way light reflects on it. The same can be applied to other senses, like texture. The apple looks and feels smooth and even on its surface, but through magnification, with a microscope let’s say, we can see roughness that is imperceptible to the naked eye.

Bertrand Russel (1872-1970), a British philosopher, calls “sense-data” to the things that are immediately known in sensation, like colors, smells, hardness, etc. A ‘sense-datum’ is that of which we are aware, and the awareness itself is the ‘sensation’. Therefore, if you are to know anything about the apple, it must be by means of the sense-data associated with the apple, but the apple isn’t the sense-data. But what does the ‘real’ apple looks like? If my belief that I’m seeing the real properties of what I call a ‘red apple’ is wrong, what is there after all? Am I misinterpreting the nature of my perceptions?

As far as misinterpreting perceptions is concerned, that is not new to us. We used to believe that the Earth was flat and that it was at the center of the Universe. Galileo, who helped us deal with some misconceptions of our place in the physical Universe, once said:

“I think that tastes, odors, colors and so on reside in consciousness. Hence, if the living creature is removed, all these qualities would be annihilated.”

Let’s keep our attention focused on the sense of vision. About 1/3 of the brain’s cortex participates in the visual process. When we open our eyes, billions of neurons engage and the snapshot of the world taken at each moment by the eye is just the very initial part of that process. Most of it involves the creation of the shapes, colors and motions you see, the construction of literally everything you see. For example, visual illusions of movement or shapes that we love looking at just for fun (ex. illusions 1 and 2) are, in fact, an indication of that construction process. But neuroscientists go further and claim that we ‘reconstruct’ reality. That means that the process of vision reconstructs an accurate view of things that would exist even if there was nobody to see. It is accepted that seeing more accurately has an adaptive advantage, evolutionarily speaking, and, therefore, we are the descendants of those who saw more accurately. Vision is accurate and the idea is that accurate perceptions are fitter perceptions (fitness is defined, in evolutionary biology, as reproductive success and reflects how well an organism is adapted to its environment). But visual accuracy doesn’t necessarily mean that you are perceiving reality as it is. Evolution is driven by fitness, as described by mathematical equations that describe it, and not by reality. We have hardwired tricks and hacks that were ‘created’ during the evolutionary process to keep us alive. Evolution has shaped us with perceptual symbols: if you see a snake don’t get near it, if you hear a stream of water in the middle of the desert run to it, if you hear someone crying, go check it; that are designed to keep us safe as an individual and as a species. But that doesn’t give us any indication about if we’re seeing reality as it is.

Now, you can say that you agree with all that, but we’ve already started to unveil the true reality. Physics tell us that the physical world is almost empty space, that all comes down to atomic particles bouncing around and interacting with each other. But Science describing the physical world is like someone looking at a computer desktop and exploring its interface, trying to understand the reality of the computer. And if you try to magnify and look in more detail at the pixel level, you still never left the user’s interface. We’re naturally inclined to think that perception is like a window on reality as it is, but the theory of evolution is telling us another completely different thing. ‘Our reality’ is more like a 3D desktop that is designed to hide the complexity of reality away and guide adaptive behavior. Space-time as you understand it is just your desktop.

If we take any given object, as the red apple, of the sort that is supposed to be known by the senses, what the senses immediately give us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but merely certain sense-data which depend upon the interaction between us and the object. What we see is just an incomplete representation of reality, that is hidden from us and that, perhaps, we still lack the cognitive and processing capacity to address and describe. There is something that continues to exist when there is nobody to see, but it is not space-time and physical objects. When you have the experience of interacting with what you describe as an apple, you’re interacting with reality, but reality itself is nothing like an apple. Likewise, and this is to kick things up, when you have the perception that you describe as a brain, you’re interacting with reality, but reality is nothing like a brain. And that reality, whatever it looks like, is the source of cause and effect in the world, something that underlies our perceptual experiences.

This can have important implications on the mystery of consciousness. An interesting idea is that, maybe, reality is an interacting network of conscious entities that influence each others conscious experiences. Possibilities are still open and probably the next breakthrough in evolution will be the capacity to understand and describe consciousness and its underlying mechanisms, hopefully awarding us with new insights on the true nature of reality that lies beyond our limited perceptions.

Suggested readings:

  1. Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy
  2. Hoffman, Donald. Human Vision as a Reality Engine
  3. Edge. 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT? True Perceptions are Fitter Perception, by Donald Hoffman.

2 thoughts on “Hiding in plain sight: what is reality?

  1. Very interesting concept on the nature of reality. I’ve written something somewhat along these lines myself. That reality is an illusion and that it is just our perception. Each individual has their own version of reality at a given moment. Now if you and I are at the same place at the same time, we are sharing in the reality of that moment but are experiencing it in a slightly different way due to our individual experience up to that moment. Now once we were to go our separate ways, our realities change. You have a certain reality while I’m experiencing another reality. Quantum theory has some studies out that would lead one to believe that reality only exist when it is being observed. Your post brings up some new questions. Thank you for the insight. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for you reply Chris. It’s always good to have a feed back from people who are interested in the subject. I agree with you, each and every one of us has its own subjective reality that is the result of one life history. When I’m with you in the same room we are sharing the same external space (the kind of reality I question about on my post), yet experiencing it differently. In fact, at the level of our relationship, my perception of you in my reality is different from your perception of yourself in yours, and vices versa. But regarding the external reality, we are blind to our own blindness, and I believe that a higher degree of understanding of the processes underlying the construction of reality at the level of the mind will enable us to move further on this discussion. Keep in touch. Cheers!


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