In episode forty of Thoughts, I talk about the one thing we all perceive yet all perceive differently: reality. I go over how much we know or could know about reality, along with how our minds construct the reality we all personally experience. Enjoy!
What starts as something almost too simple to even think about, reality is so secretly perplexing that doing a deep dive into what we know will leave one floored. The truth is, we know very little about how we are here. The Big Bang theory is still the best possible take on how our CURRENT reality came to be, but it does little to explain how something can come from nothing. Or how our laws of physics sustain themselves in the matrix of our seemingly unbounded universe. String theory is a set of attempts to model the four known fundamental interactions—gravitation, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force—together in one theory. String theory is thusly a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings, and describes how these strings propagate through space and interact with each other.
But this, just like the Big Bang, is a theory, and these theories simply do not work the same way answers do; the way we would want them to. They are debated rigorously and to no current end, as we simply cannot know the answers to these things. ‘Why can we not know the answers to these things?’ I hear you ask. The reason is because we can’t perform the necessary testing to get the answers we seek. We are but merely physical, three-dimensional primates with minds evolved through survival and suspended linearly by time. It makes certain testing completely impossible. Our greatest strength against all these odds and obstacles, are our abilities to apply math to concepts. Then to simply have the creativity to imagine possibilities within the rules of the universe we know. A fun philosophical theory that fits these perimeters is: Last Thursdayism. It’s the proposition that the universe began to exist last Thursday, with the appearance of age and history leading to where we are now. Last Thurdayism was used as a response to claims of young-earth creationism that the Earth was created to look old, that, by the same logic, the world might have begun last Thursday. It’s a claim that can’t be disproved but also can’t be proved, like a God of the gaps situation.
Solipsism, for those who don’t know, follows the beginning of my Being Alone thought piece. It is the philosophical idea that ONLY one’s mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind. Sleep deprivation and the disorder of schizophrenia muddy individuals’ perception of reality. When one is not sure if something is a hallucination of the mind, or if it is physically real, the best bet is to not act on what you see, assuming nothing is real. That can lead to dangerous situations though and of course is never recommended, but if you ever feel like you can’t tell what is real and what is illusory, I personally urge you to seek professional help or seek a shelter where one can properly assess or care for you.
Now with that being said, it may sound crazy to suggest that everything we currently experience IS actually an illusion! I mean, wouldn’t that spit in the face of my previous statement? Not quite. Cognitive scientist Anil Seth proposes (in the TED Talk: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality,) that every brain lives in an entire reality that it has created for itself. With all the signals our brains receive from our senses and all the prior experiences it has organized into expectations, each of our brains construct a coherent image of reality. To quote Anil Seth, the brain constructs a “multisensory, panoramic 3D, fully immersive inner movie,” for us to perceive. Seth then uses optical illusions and classic experiments to underscore the point that “we don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in,” in a process hardly different from that which we casually call hallucination. As hard as it is to comprehend, we are all always hallucinating. “It’s just when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call ‘reality.’” And as for what, exactly, constitutes the “we,” our brains do a good deal of work to construct that too.
The concept is one to galvanize the curiosity of anyone with even a mild interest in mind-bending subjects, like myself. He leaves us with implications of his and others’ research to consider, one being, “just as we can misperceive the world, we can misperceive ourselves”; and another being, “our individual inner universe is just one way of being conscious, and even human consciousness generally is a tiny region in a vast space of possible consciousnesses.” It is said generally that ‘our loved ones know us better than we know ourselves,’ like the other saying, ‘the closer you look, the less you see.’ As we can all imagine, reality would look very different from the multiple eyes of a fly. We know infrared vision exists, hinting at an entire world we simply cannot see with the naked human eye. What would the world around us look like if we had eyes on the sides of our head instead of directly in front, or if we had multiple optical cones instead of two specialized ones? What even is reality if there’s no one way to see it? It’s like our individual sense of self. We imagine it as one solid thing, but in reality our consciousness’ are more like a cloud of mini consciousnesses coalescing to make it seem like one coherent self. Same with the universe. It has no one visual state, and it is mostly made up of anti matter, something we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.
So all in all, reality is as complete of a mystery as anything else we find mysterious. The ocean floor, what lies beneath Jupiter’s clouds, gravitational time dilation, the afterlife, human consciousness, or secrets our loved ones hold, these things, especially the questions we don’t even have the imagination to ask, will be the things forever at the deep end of the pool of experience. Should we as a species continue to make progress, chipping away at individual questions and find better hypotheses, we would all be better for it, but we should accept that there will be things that can never be answered like the origins of reality itself. Either way, we are all still here to live our life, so let’s do what we can with this mystery by just loving as many others as we can. Thank you as always for being here. I love you all, and until next time, keep on thinking. Good bye.