What’s Reality?

Each of us … well, me … has a belief that the reality that we experience is real. I “know”, because I experience it in all its colours and flavours, smells, sounds and textures, that my reality in my universe is absolutely real. Proving this, however, gets a little tricky. If other people’s reality differs from ours, theirs must therefore be unreal. I have heard reality defined as “shared illusion”. Interesting concept, that.

If one reads Donald Hoffmann’s “Visual Intelligence ” (Hoffman, Donald, Visual Intelligence, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1998) one discovers that our brain creates what we see as we see it. He makes a really convincing case, too. In a nutshell, and if I get this right, everything we “see” is a two-dimensional layer at the surface of the eye, that is then transmitted to the brain via the retina and there and only then interpreted. We are so good and fast at this that we do not perceive the effect, but it’s there. People who are blind from birth do not ever develop this interpretive skill, but the rest of us do. People who regain vision later in life have to learn to see, just as we all do. He gives examples of when this does not work as planned; people who can not see colour in the left half of the range, but can in the right half . This permanent loss was caused by a concussion. How about someone who cannot “see” motion? Seems counter-intuitive, but a woman who had a stroke discovered to her horror, that she could not do simple task such as pouring a cup of coffee because the fluid appeared to be frozen. Cars on the road suddenly became closer without any visual movement, although the sound of motion was normal, as was the feel of something moving on her skin. So she could see things, but she could not see their motion. Doesn’t sound possible, does it? What happens when people don’t see what is right in front of them?

A few days ago my wife Carroll was driving to an appointment. Part of the route crosses a single line railway crossing that we both thought was not in active use. As she approached the track she looked both ways then proceeded to cross it. She just about jumped out of her skin when the engine, a short distance away, blew its whistle. It was moving slowly but steadily towards the level crossing. How could she have missed it? She did not believe that the railway was in active use, so when she looked, although her eye clearly picked up the very large engine, her brain did not process the information. She told me later that, when she thought back to the moment just before the whistle, she had actually “seen” the train in her peripheral vision, but not when she looked directly at it. Her reality did not include the possibility of a train on that track, so the brain ignored the signals from the retina. I am very glad that the engine was moving slowly and sufficiently far away. I almost killed a motorcyclist one day because I did not see him, although he was in plain view. I looked both ways, then pulled out almost directly in front of him. Apparently I was looking for anything the size of a car. Smaller just didn’t get “seen”. Happily he was more road aware than I and was able to avoid me, although he was not happy with my actions.

There are other common examples of this phenomenon. Writers routinely have someone else proofread their material, because they know that after having created the original manuscript and having checked it over several times, they can no longer “see” what they have written on the page. The brain sees what it expects to see, not what is actually there. The discipline of software quality assurance uses this feature of met expectations to help find software errors. Originally, software quality assurance was accomplished by checking the code to see IF there were any errors. This method often failed to find rather obvious errors which showed up later in the process, which meant that they were more expensive and time-consuming to fix. So the mindset – the reality, if you will – was deliberately changed. Now software quality assurance is done by looking at the software with a critical eye. The assumption is that there ARE errors; it is the task of the QA person to find them. This change takes advantage of the human propensity to see what we believe is there. If you believe there are errors, you are much more likely to find them. I used this approach in a contract for the feds some years ago, and it was very successful in finding errors.

It gets even more complicated. How about what we feel? People who have lost parts of their body often complain about “phantom pain”. Chapter 7 of Visual Intelligence makes sense of this phenomenon. Just as we create what we see on the fly, so do we create what we feel. So what we “see” and what we “feel”, everything that we know through our senses is a construct of our brain. All of this makes the concept of “reality” a little suspect. People who have what we refer to as schizophrenia have different realities than the rest of us around them. I have just realized that I hereby categorize myself as “normal”. They hear voices that we don’t, they tell us stories about their reality that we scoff at or listen to while withholding judgment, but to them, their reality is just as real and as compelling as ours is to us. And, like the rest of us, they act within the parameters of their reality, sometimes doing enormous harm to themselves and others. They can be a danger because others don’t share, and don’t understand, their reality. Reread “Horton Hears a Who” with this in the back of your mind. It will give you a new appreciation for those whose reality is different from ours.

Another challenging book, Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop” ,(Hofstadter, Douglas, I am a Strange Loop, Basic Books, New York, NY, 2007) postulates that what we think of as our selves, our mind, is not actually anything at all. He argues that it is an accretion of concepts that start at birth and accumulate throughout our life. He positions us midway on the vast scale of size, from cosmic to quantum physics: “Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages rather than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems – vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful”.

What if I were to propose that everything that I perceive, everything that I know, the entire universe as I understand it, is a creation of my brain, that there is actually nothing out there at all. I have made this all up, including you, my reader? Can you prove me wrong? If you argue that this is not possible because you are reading what I have written and therefore my solo reality is untrue, my counter argument is that this is your solo reality in which I have written something that you are reading and that I only exist in your solo reality. Is this scary to you?

What about the easily refuted argument that everyone knows some specific and obvious concept? The world used to be flat. Everyone knew that . Just look around us. It’s flat, flat, flat. OK, a little hilly and wet in places, but definitely not round. Now we all … or almost all … know that the world is a round ball. (Except for those of us who know that it is round, but flat, like a coin.) But how many of us have been in space to see the earth as a round ball? Only a handful of astronauts, so the rest of us are taking it on faith. Similarly, everyone in France knew that Dreyfuss was guilty of treason, until everyone knew that he was not .

Creationism versus evolution – two strongly held beliefs, of which only one (at best) can be right. Which of these is reality … if either is? I happen to fall on the evolutionary side of this fence, but that is my belief. It doesn’t make it true, just because I believe it. It’s just that the case and evidence for evolution seems to me to make a lot more sense than the case, as I understand it, for creationism. And let’s not even get into intelligent design.

How about a big one – believer versus atheist? To me, one can no more prove the existence of God than one can prove his (her, it’s?) non-existence. In both options, faith is a major factor. But both sides act as if their belief is true, sometimes with wonderful and compassionate results, sometimes with murderous outcomes.

But the real issue is, so what? Whether reality and the universe is a creation only of our own minds, or it is an external reality that we perceive through our admittedly deceptive senses, does it matter? If we are nothing more than accumulations of sub-atomic mindless particles, does it matter? If we are bits of star dust, does it matter? It surely does. If it is our individual creation, then we have a right to have it work exactly the way we want. We need not care for or about others, since they are only our creations. We can live a truly hedonistic life, taking, not giving, enjoying all the material pleasures that the world (that we created) offers. Is this the origin of the American dream? Or we can seek absolute power – I think of Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, who each treated people with contempt in their search for absolute power. We can seek enormous wealth, and many do. We can seek fame, many do and some achieve their 15 minutes of fame, for what it’s worth.

The problem with each of these options is that it seems to me that the practitioners are missing something. If they were not missing something, why would they apparently never achieve what it is they are after – total hedonism, total power, total wealth, vast fame? Since they never stop seeking, it follows that they are never satisfied. To me, that says that these are inadequate goals. So even if it is an artificially created world in which we exist, the way to meet our individual needs is not to try for total anything. It seems to me that a life of giving, of helping others, of making a positive difference in the world, of seeking to better understand the “reality” in which we exist, is ultimately much more satisfying. And isn’t satisfaction what we are all after?

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