Hiding in plain sight: what is reality?

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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.
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Ideas to inspire: the self

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Photo by Christian Weidinger

Life goes on pretty much the same in every person’s life. I mean, since the day we’re born until the day we die, despite all the different and virtually infinite number of paths that each one might take, from the most successful to the least, from the richest to the poorest (whatever the definition of these words), we all have this special thing in common: self-awareness. A unique capacity that give us a sense of self and an inner voice which are fruits of millions of years of evolutionary pressure that shaped the mind and created consciouness in the process. Scholars believe that consciousness itself evolves and several degrees of complexity exist in the universe, with humans probably occupying a top place in this process.
It is in this plane of consciousness where the inner voice exists, the same place where thoughts and feelings arise at each waking moment, letting us experience the world on a subjective way, ponder and question about our past, present and future. An internal monologue that gives us a sense of free will and control of the story of our lives. The sense of self is a necessary and most important part of our human experience, ingrained in our minds and allowing us the conscious experience of the outside world, as if we are the main actor of our own reality. But there is a baggage that comes with that sense of self and that most humans can relate to but probably have never thought of, which is related with our close relationship, even a sense of ownership, to our thoughts and feelings. After all, aren’t I my mind? Aren’t I what arises from it? Isn’t my personality and behaviors constructed by the mind itself and therefore who I am? It definitely feels like it, don’t you agree? At least most of my lifetime I’ve felt like I am me! And let’s be honest, that hasn’t always been pleasant, to believe that I was certain thoughts that I’ve had in the past, that they were made by me. I mean I think I am a good guy, but I had my doubts along the road. A couple of examples of my confusion about who I am (or who I was – there is some debate about the linearity of the “self”) were 1) my growing uncertainty about my religious convictions and ideologies at a certain age (how can an honorable catholic young man, respected by the community, start having doubts about his own God, eventually becoming a convict atheist?), 2) my adolescent phase of sexual discovery, when I became a victim of the conflicts between biology and social conventions/symbols (am I weird because I don’t like what others like, or what societies says I should like?), 3) my moral code conflicting with my thoughts, like the wicked desire of wanting someone hurt for whatever reason, when I know it’s not in accordance with my own morals (should I feel guilty because of that? Is it a sign that I am a bad person? Or is it jusy the limbic system taking control during a stressful situation?); and the list of examples could continue further on but, hopefully, you can personally relate to those examples to attest my point. And my point is to show you that we are, normally, deeply attached to our feelings and thoughts to the point of feeling no differences between the ‘I’ and the ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’, and that can bring a serious amount of unhappiness, self-doubt and confusion to our lives. But the twist here, which is the idea I wanted to share with you, is not that there exists, after all, a fundamental separation of the self and the thoughts/feelings to solve our problems. Instead, the twist is even more groundbreaking: there is actually no such thing as a self at all, because the self is an illusion. You must be thinking “wow, this guy is just nuts and just wasted my time”. Well, I might be nuts to some extent (but who isn’t), however in what regards the idea of “illusion of the self”, that was not my creation or invention but, instead, a blossoming and mind-blowing idea being discussed and debated among philosophy and psychology academics that dedicate their time studying the mind and its best kept secrete, the consciousness. Since consciousness became a serious subject of study in that milieu, a growing body of evidence has been suggesting that the self is probably an illusion, naturally selected by evolution for not-so-obvious reasons (it’s been suggested that it brought tremendous benefits as a survival tool, mainly as the ‘social relations’ part of the brain). But on a modern and developing world, where natural selection is no longer affecting us, with all the progresses in science, medicine and the technological development, the collateral damages of a set of psychological traits that were selected thousands of years ago (the challenges we face today are totally different then the ones our ancestors faced during millions of years of evolutionary pressure) are nowadays very present and affecting each and every one of us, and it is truly illuminating when you discover that such new ideas are being theorized and researched by scientists around the world. And the beautiful thing about such mind-opening ideas is that they are so controversial and ahead of their time at their very beginning (see natural selection in Darwin’s epoch) but when that threshold is reached, after long deliberations, fortuitous debates and scientific corroboration, and society accepts it as true, we have reached a step further in our collective evolution . Following an emerging new theory, being on the forefront of its intellectual acceptance and starting to look at life through its lens is truly life-changing and liberating. As we add this new idea to our universe and it becomes more integrated into the patterns of our own perception, affecting our cultural worldview and restructuring our psychology, a new sense of the world will reveal itself.

PS: I didn’t go into the description of the theory because I am not an expert on the field and that wasn’t the objective of this post, but I would be glad to leave you with a couple of suggestions for you to dive deeper into the subject. First, you can start by a Google search (always a good start) about “illusion of self” and then go with the great book “Waking Up” by the prominent neuroscientist Sam Harris, which will give you some insight on the topic. I can also recommend the online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” in Coursera, where the illusion of the self is very well explained (supported by peer-reviewed scientific articles) and you will be introduced to a new emerging theory of the mind, the modular mind. And with that I think you will be very well served and, hopefully, the seed will be planted.