Do you know what is real?

Do you ever think about consciousness? I mean your own consciousness? How weird it really is? What is it? What powers it? Where does it come from?

Can a simple thought or perception change reality like it can change a dream?

Did you know that the Indigenous culture of Australia teaches that the time you spend dreaming is reality and the time you spend awake is imaginary? This is the complete inverse of western beliefs. Did you know we don’t have any scientific way of proving that they are wrong and westerners are right? What we believe about reality is nothing more than a simple leap of faith.

To a westerner this sounds crazy, but in some non-western cultures it isn’t so crazy.

Time.com did a piece about consciousness stating that the scientific mystery about consciousness is not one problem but two problems, the easy problem and the hard problem.

The Easy Problem:
What is the relationship between conscious thought and subconscious thought, and where do they exist in the brain? For example: Your brain controls your heartbeat and you don’t need to consciously think about it, but you can’t access it and consciously stop your heart from beating. Or where do unique ideas come from when they just POP into your mind? Or do you ever have an old memory just POP into your mind for no apparent reason? Why does this happen when you didn’t consciously request the memory? What power forced the memory into your conscious mind? The question isn’t just why do these things happen but how do they happen and where do they happen. Today no one knows.

The Hard Problem:
Now this is the weird one, so hold on. Is there anyway for you to prove that I am conscious at all? Since you can’t see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling, how do you know I am experiencing the same things that you are? Right now, science cannot prove that the color green looks the same to you as it does to me. What’s even weirder is that you can’t prove scientifically that anyone else is conscious in the same way you are. In other words, you cannot prove that others around you are having the same first person subjective experience you are.

You can’t even be sure that this article existed before you clicked on it and read it. Maybe your subconscious mind is creating it right now as you read. Other people could tell you it was there before you read it, but if you can’t be sure they are even conscious how can you be sure you should believe them?

So all these unknowns about consciousness brought crazier questions to my mind.

So if you can’t be sure anyone but you is actually conscious, how can you be sure of anything? Wouldn’t it then be possible that everything in the world was imaginary like a dream? I’m not saying this is the likely answer, I’m just asking, given what we don’t know about the universe and ourselves, isn’t it possible?

I’ve heard similar ideas expressed before, like the question “If a tree falls in the forest…” and I always thought the question was stupid. But the concept finally sunk in when I listened to this podcast from Steve Pavlina. When I first listened to this podcast, I realized just how little we really know about reality and it made me queasy. It produced a vertigo and loneliness that I can’t describe except to say it wasn’t like the loneliness you feel when your girlfriend dumps you, it was more like the feeling that you might be all alone in the universe.

I got over the loneliness – it lasted about 30 minutes. But these thoughts make me feel both powerful and humbled at the same time. These realizations about consciousness forced me to realize that all the effort I put into being correct could be pointless. At the same time I realized how little I know, I also realized that I could be more powerful than I had ever imagined.

But one thing I do know – is that understanding how little we know about our own minds is a powerful antidote for arrogance. So the next time you think you are absolutely correct about a thing – think again.

Go ahead and tell me what you think. I’d love to know.

20 thoughts on “Do you know what is real?”

  1. Gee, Steve. Thanks for the link to the wired archives. I mean, really, thanks. I wish depositories of information like that didn’t exist for me sometimes (or did it not exist until I looked at it?) LOL!!!

    Sometimes I think it’d be easier if I were more like the Straw Man from the Wizard of Oz — I have a heart, but no brain, and that serves me well.

    But the possibilities are so so awesome to contemplate…

  2. These questions do more to point out the limitations of “scientifically proving” anything, rather than the limitations of reality/metaphysics/humanity.

    The word you are looking for is solipsism. It’s a metaphysical question that’s been kicked around since Plato. There is no answer, but the point is that you ask the question.

    My own opinion is that most heartbreak in the world comes from people acting as if they are the only “real” ones.

  3. The idea of solipsism is one that can’t be answered by social-consensus (empirical science). Instead, each sentient being simply has to take one of the following outlooks:

    One: I’m an “offline” human bio-computer (thus, I create my whole reality, all I can ever know is my own internal wiring, “I think therefor I am,” etc.)

    Two: I’m an “online” human bio-computer, and am connected to the “internet” (i.e. “reality”).

    I take choice #2.

    Since we can observe the capture and processing of “external” information, we’ll assume that each sense connects to a certain network. For instance, our eyes are ports to the “visual realitynet,” our noses to the “olfactory realitynet,” etc. It isn’t that someone who lost both of their eyes “can’t see,” it’s that they have a f**ked up connection to the visual realitynet. Their processing hardware (visual cortex) is assumedly fine, it’s their -connection to “reality”- that’s the trouble.

    If we accept this model, we would then use the idea that “external reality” is all network cables, while “internal reality” is limited to the nervous system of individual human beings. Thus, an individual can “change” external reality (move around the wires), but only be _aware_ of it through their own comprehension (the connections to the wires).

    Easy.

  4. Max,

    I have always chosen 2 as well. But until this year I had never seriously entertained the possibility of #2  #1. Just entertaining the possibility is a bit unnerving.

    And what amazes me even more is that since the decision isn’t based on empirical evidence, it is a leap of faith.

    So wouldn’t that mean that everything you believe about reality is a leap of faith?

  5. Steve,

    Perhaps it’s empirical evidence that’s the “leap of faith,” and what “you believe about reality” is the real truth. Even if it’s not the real truth, it is the _only truth_.

  6. Everything you believe about reality is just that: a leap of faith, founded on sand.

    Underneath empiricism is the Principle of Induction: i.e., the sun rose today, yesterday and last week, therefore it’s going to rise tomorrow. Every time I put salt in warm water it dissolves. Therefore, salt dissolves in water. Simple, unassailable, common-sensical, right?

    But is the P-of-I is really valid? Of course it’s valid! How do you know? Because it’s always worked in the past… oh.

  7. Aristus,

    How could everything you believe about reality to be a leap of faith? It’s a leap of faith in the socially agreed upon reality, yes, but anything and everything you could ever know is contained in your nervous system.

    Think about it. Can a computer ever know something that isn’t on its hard drive? It may have the concept of a hard drive and the fact it can’t know outside information, but THAT information is contained on the hard drive, too! Formal systems, like computers, can never know their whole structure. However, humans are greater than the formal systems we invented. Currently no one knows the extent of human potential — we’re only above halfway through our species evolution, after all.

    If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
    No — the “sound” is literally generated by a nervous system. The famous koan could be translated as, “If a floppy disk is inserted into a computer that’s not turned on, is the information read?” No, of course not.

  8. Max,

    I like the way you think and communicate. You dwell in the arena of ideas and thought, and not as much in the realm of ego and personality. That makes debate and communication much more fun.

    When you begin to get egos out of the way, thinking is incredibly fun.

  9. Well I totally agree, everything you said is pretty much what I always find myself thinking of and really losing myself in. It makes feel like crap sometimes knowing how thin our knowledge really is and how much our society drowns in it from day to day. I was experiencing that lonely feeling when I decided to google, how do I know this is real? I got the link to your web first. I also think that saying “no one knows” the answer can be an understatement. How do you know what other people know or don’t know? If its possible that we all see green in a different way than can you imagine the secrets other people may be holdings in their minds. There’s a lot of people in the world, I think.

  10. I think I can solve all the confusion. That is, if you have the ability to comprehend what I’m about to tell you –

    Everything exists.

    No, not just what you think exists, exists. Everything that you can and can not think of exists. Where is it that you exist right now? Relative existence is pointless to infinity. Where does the number 1 exist in comparison to all the other numbers? It’s just a number that is relative to the others, part of the infinite whole.

  11. We have to embrace this rules:
    1) There is no absolute truth
    2) Everything is based on the human perception
    3) Everthing may or may not exist
    4) Anything may be everything or anything or nothing
    5) Language cannot define because language is not truth
    6) What I am writing may or may not be true
    * I am a fifteen year old who calls this the Avalonian theory of Perceptionism.

  12. i am 15 but i was 12 when i thought of this and when i did i had like a butterflies in my stomach and i just stood still it was pretty ****ed. Ever since then i have never felt it before. I was also not able to ask someone this with out me thinking it would offend them by saying they dont exist. Anyways the article was cool i had already thought of the majority of it but it was wierd that day when it happened.

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