2. Consciousness and Reality


We don't know what matter is anymore than we know what mind is.

Christian de Quincy,
The Paradox of Consciousness

Reality is not what it seems to be,
nor is it otherwise.

Tibetan Buddhist teaching


If there is anything about which we feel sure, it is that the world we experience is real. We can see, touch and hear it. We can lift heavy and solid objects; hurt ourselves, if we're not careful, against their unyielding immobility. It seems undeniable that out there, around us, independent and apart from us, stands a physical world, utterly real, solid and tangible.

But all is not what it seems.

First, the apparently solid table in front me is, it turns out, far from solid.

And second,we assume that we are directly experiencing the world around; that the colors we see and the sounds we hear are there, around us, just as we experience them. But even an elementary study of the processes of perception show that in this, too, we are much mistaken.

All that I see, hear, taste, touch, smell and feel has been created from the data fed to me by my sensory organs. All I ever know of the world around are the images produced in the mind. I think I am seeing the tree "out there", in the world around me. But all that I am actually experiencing is the image created in the mind.

This simple fact is very hard to grasp. It runs totally counter to all our experience. There seems nothing more certain than the fact that I am seeing the world as it is, around me. But however nonsensical it may sound, this is the conclusion we are forced to make.

Dreaming the World

The world we experience around us is no more "out there" than are our dreams.

However real it may seem, it is, in the final analysis, all in the mind. We never experience the physical world directly; all we ever know is the image of the world generated in our awareness. And that image is no more “out there” than are the images of our dreams.

Illusory Realities

We may find it hard to come to terms with the fact that our normal waking experience of reality is a manifestation within the mind, but in many other instances we readily accept that we create our experiences. [Creating Illusions]

Virtual Reality

The entire concept of virtual reality is founded on the understanding that the brain is a reality generator as much as an information processor. [Virtual Reality]

In all these instances of illusory or artificial realities we readily accept that the confusing or abnormal perception stems from the way the brain creates our experience of reality. Yet when it comes to our normal waking experience, the base state in which these so-called "illusions" occur, we adopt the opposite position. We feel that we are experiencing the world as it is, "out there" in front of us. But how could the illusory perception be an image in our mind, yet the world in which the illusion occurs be the physical world around us?

Seeing what isn't there

Many other creations of the mind we dismiss as hallucinations. These are typically experiences which occur under the influence of drugs, and during illness, extreme fatigue or stress. For one reason or another the electro-chemical processes are modified in some way, leading the brain to generate a different different image of reality. One may perceive unusual colors or patterns, perceive time and space differently, or experience some other "non-ordinary" manifestation in consciousness.

We call such images "hallucinations" because they do not concur with our normal experience of reality, or with the reality that other people experience. We say we are seeing things that are not really there. But, surprising as it may at first seem, this is what we are doing all the time. Even in normal, everyday perception, the kind we all agree upon, we are seeing things that are not really there. Color, sound, smell, and all the other qualities of experience are not qualities of the physical world; they exist only in the mind.

The fact that we create our experience of reality does not imply that there is no underlying reality. When a tree falls in the forest, there is a specific event that is happening in the physical world. There is something that gives rise to my perception, and to your perception -- and to the perception of a bird sitting on one of its branches. But we know nothing of that event directly. All we know are the experiences created in our minds.

Maya

Conversely, it would be wrong to relegate our experience to the world of illusion. It is very real, the only reality we know. If I kick a boulder my foot hurts. The solidness of the stone is real in my experience; so is the pain.

The illusion comes when we confuse the image in our mind with the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke of this as "maya". Often translated as "illusion", the word is better understood as "delusion". I suffer a delusion when I believe that the manifestations in my mind are the external world. I deceive myself when I think that the tree I see is the tree itself.

A Computer Analogy

As a contemporary analogy, we might liken the situation to the image created on a comnputer screen. Within the central processor of the computer are numerous bits of information, encoded as electronic states in the circuitary of the chips. Software in the computer processes this data, putting it into a form that when sent to the monitor causes it to light the screen in particular ways. The image that is created may be derived from the data in the central processor, but it is not the same as the data. The computer is not producing some faithful imitation of an image held in memory. All there is is code; microscopic electronic switches that are either “on'; or “off”. There is no color or light in the computer code, and the spatial layout of the data on the chip bears very little resemblance to the layout of the final image.

[More parallels with the image on a computer screen]

The Two Realities

It is important to distinguish between two ways in which we use the word "reality". There is the reality we experience, our image of reality; and there is the underlying reality that we never know directly, but which is the source of our experience.

In Indian philosophy these two realities are sometimes referred to as the Absolute and the Relative. The Absolute is the underlying reality. It does not change according to who is experiencing it. It is, as it is, an independent reality. The Relative is the reality we observe, the reality generated in our minds. There is just one Absolute; but there are numerous relative realities, each relative to a particular experiencer at a particular point in space and time.

Other times they are spoken of as the unmanifest and manifest levels of reality.

Species-Specific Realities

How we construct our image of the world is determined by our sensory organs and nervous system. Most human beings have very similar sensory organs -- my eye, for example, is virtually identical to yours -- and the neural processing of the sensory data follows very similar pathways. We receive the same data, analyze it in the same way, and so create very similar pictures of reality -- unless, that is, a person is color-blind, near-sighted, or tone deaf, in which case we make allowances for our different perceptions

The fact that we seldom disagree on our experience of reality reinforces our assumption that we are seeing reality as it is. But if we could communicate with other creatures we would find our naive assumption severely shaken. Dogs, for example, hear higher frequencies of sound than we do, and their noses detect a far wider range of molecules. If we could put ourselves in a dog's mind we would find a somewhat different perception of reality.

[How other species experience reality.]

From Plato

The realization that we do not experience reality as it is, but only a picture of reality constructed in the mind, is not new. In The Republic, Plato argued that the objects we perceive are not the ultimate reality, but more like a shadow of reality. He illustrated this with his analogy of "The Cave".

Although Plato believed the real world was a world of ideas and eternal perfect forms, his story is still pertinent to our own experience. Most of us assume that the sights and sounds we perceive are the "real world". When science inform us that we are not seeing reality as it is, but merely the images that manifests in our minds, we shrug in disbelief. How can that be? How can the world that I experience so clearly as "out there", be just an image in the mind?

To Kant

The notion that reality is "all in the mind" resurfaces repeatedly in modern philosophy. The person who is generally regarded has having made the greatest contributions in this area was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Building on the work of Berkeley and Locke, Kant drew a clear distinction between our perception of reality and the actual object of perception. His key insight was the realization that all we ever know are the structures generated in our minds; the world that gives rise to this perception, what he termed "the thing-in-itself", remains forever unknowable.

All we can ever know, propsed Kant, is how reality appears to us -- what he referred to as the phenomenon of our experience, "that which appears to be". The underlying reality he called the noumenon, a Greek word meaning “that which is apprehended", the thing perceived.

Kant's statement that the noumenon is forever unknowable should be interpreted as forever inexperiencable. The mind is forever barred from a direct knowing of the thing-in-itself. This does not imply that we cannot understand it, or form concepts about it, which is what modern science sets out to do.

Because all we ever know is the product of the mind operating on the raw sensory data, Kant reasoned thatour experience is as much a reflection of the nature of the mind as it is of the physical world. This led him to one of his boldest, and at that time most astonishing, conclusions of all. Time and space, he argued, are not inherent qualities of the physical world; they are a reflection of the way the mind operates, the perceptual framework within which our entire experience of the world is constructed.

It seems absolutely obvious to us that time and space are real and fundamental qualities of the physical world, entirely independent of my or your consciousness -- as obvious as it seemed to people five hundred years ago that the sun moves round the earth. This, said Kant, is only because we cannot see the world any other way. The human mind is so constituted that it is forced to impose the framework of space and time on the raw sensory data in order to make any sense of it all. We are forever constrained to construct our experience within these dimensions -- much as a computer is forever constrained to present its data in the two-dimensional format of the monitor. It is law of perception rather than a law of physics.

It may have been an astonishing claim at the time -- and probably still undeniable that the world we experience extends out there around us -- but we shall see shortly that it is a realization that contemporary physics is also coming round to accepting.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Kant's work was that he came to these conclusions without any of our contemporary scientific knowledge of the world, or any understanding of the physiology of of perception. Had he known what we know now, his conclusions would have been so obvious as to be totally unremarkable.

At the time, Kant's arguments were a watershed in Western thinking. They were, as Kant himself saw, the equivalent of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy. Whereas Copernicus had effectively turned the physical universe inside out, showing that the movements of the stars are determined by the movement of the earth, Kant had turned the epistemological world inside out. We are not passive experiencers of the world; we are the creators of the world we experience. He had put the self firmly at the center of things.

Knowing and Seeing

Our tacit assumption that we perceive the world as it is, has become so deeply ingrained that it is very hard indeed to appreciate that our image of reality is a construction within our own mind. Even when we intellectually accept the fact, as eventually we must, it is still extremely difficult not to see the image we have created as "out there".

In fact, we will probably always see it this way. But that is not to say it is not possible to see it otherwise. It may be that spiritual adepts who have made a deep personal investigation into the nature of the mind, explored the workings of their own consciousness, and witnessed the arising of experience, have come to see it that way. Throughout the mystical and spiritual literature of the world are examples of individuals who have claimed that the whole world is within them rather thant around them, as most of us experience.

The ardent materialist might assume that these are the ravings of a mind deranged by too much meditation. It is far more likely that they are coming from people who have experienced first-hand that the entire universe -- everything we know from the cells in our bodies to the distant twinkling stars -- exists within the mind, not the other way around. Far from suffering from an illusion, a person in this state is knowing the phenomenal reality for what it is. It is we who are under an illusion when we believe that the world we see around us is “out there” around us, rather than within us.

The Key

Even though most of us are probably far from such advanced states of consciousness, it is important that we do not become seduced by our daily experience into false beliefs about the true nature of things. We may still see the sun going down, but we know reality is different, and take this into account in our considerations of the cosmos.

The difference with the Kantian Revolution (let's follow tradition and name it after one its founding fathers) is that the shift in metaparadigm is not yet complete. All the pieces are in place -- just as all the relevant pieces of the Copernican Revolution were in place by the early seventeenth century -- but they have not yet been put together into a coherent model, and the implications have still to sink in.

The foundation stone of the emerging metaparadigm is the distinction between the phenomenon, the reality generated in the mind, and the unknowable reality, or noumenon, that underlies it. When this distinction is clear, many anomalies and apparently intractable problems across a broad spectrum of human endeavor either dissolve or take on an entirely different nature.

The "hard problem" of how consciousness arises from matter is turned inside out So is the question of the location of the self. The distinction throws new light on Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and the wave-particle paradox in quantum mechanics. It also offers a new perspective on many spiritual teachings. Religion and science may not be as antithetically opposed as many believe; the new model suggests an alternative, and far more enlightening, meaning to God.

But the ramifications are not just academic or philosophical. They have very practical implications for how we live our lives. The current materialistic worldview may have worked fairly well in the physical sciences, but is failing us abysmally in human affairs. Many of the crises now facing humanity -- ecological, economic and social -- boil down to a crisis in worldview.

Any crisis, personal, professional political or planetary, is a sign that the old way is no longer working. What is no longer working today is the mode of consciousness that takes the material world we experience to be the fundamental reality. This belief system turns out to be at the root of many of our problems and is now ruining our lives both globally and personally. It lies at the heart of our greed, self-centeredness and generally unsustainable behavior, and is the reason so many of us fail so miserably in our personal relationships. In fact, as the Buddha showed some two-and-a-half thousand years ago, it lies at the root of all our suffering.