Archive for April 5th, 2009

The Brain and Reality

Ever wonder what an ant or a bat experiences as reality?   The bat is blind, but uses sonar to give it a map of the world that works very well for flying, feeding and surviving.  How does the world feel — what kind of world does that bad experience?  We can imagine the sonar map being turned into a visual map because, as visual creatures, that’s what we relate to.  The bat, however, cannot even imagine the sense of sight, any more than we could imagine a new sense that would suddenly reveal to us facets of this reality that we cannot perceive.  To the bat, the world is not a visible one.

Meanwhile an ant or a fly experiences a tiny section of reality, but one that no doubt seems to be reality as it can only be.  An ant crawling along Sasha and Malia Obama’s swingset at the White House, and having a famous first daughter show mercy by moving the ant away rather than squishing it, experiences nothing special.  The ant doesn’t even conceive of or perceive reality that way.  Whether flying in the oval office or in the room of a south side Chicago crack dealer, the fly is oblivious to what us would be major differences in reality.

Simply, we get the reality our brain is able to give us.   Limited by the brain, most people (and no doubt animals) assume that they experience the reality that matters.   True, we know there are subatomic particles and things too tiny to see, and that we are on a speck of dust in the universe.  But we can build instruments try to to uncover the secrets of that which we cannot see, and assume that this is enough.  Anything outside our brains capacity to perceive or imagine is by definition irrelevant.

Yet if a bat or an ant or a fly can have existences so limited that they could be utterly oblivious to the great forces of history around them, might not our brain also have limits?  Just as the fly wouldn’t notice the limits — they would be outside its conceptual and perceptual capacity — we might not notice ours.   Any imagination of something outside our brain’s limits is created by the brain — and thus takes the form of things we can comprehend.

Scientists, for instance, have become convinced that our theories of the universe cannot function unless they postulate some form of “dark matter,” which may make up over three fourths of mass in the universe.  Yet what could this be like?  We can’t conceive of it, our instruments only notice its impact by noting a disconnect between our evidence and our theories about the cosmos.  Quantum mechanics postulates processes and situations that are completely at odds with our understanding of how the world works.  Quantum tunnelling, non-locality, the simulatenous nature of all space-time, paradoxes galore…we don’t know what to do with them.   To take them seriously simply leads us to see the world as far more bizarre than we’ve imagined.  Many physicists don’t want to have science used for such rampant speculation, so they take they view ‘shut up and calculate.’  Don’t worry about the implications of the theory; it works, so use it!

In a post last September, I wrote on whether or not the universe is a hologram, pointing to research in both physics and on the brain.  The brain seems to have capacities that are inexplicable, and we seem to be only conscious of part of what the brain can do.   Moreover, once you open up to theories from quantum physics and other “out there” ideas, it’s not impossible to see the brain as part of a larger unit, a kind of collective soul if you will.  All of this sounds weird given that we perceive reality as distinct units with us as distinct individuals.  But that’s what the brain gives us for our world.   If we have a collective linked nature, it is to our experience what sight is to the bat’s.   It’s not in the realm of our experience.

This kind of thinking, of course, is not new.  Over 2500 years ago Plato’s Allegory of the Cave posited similar ideas — if you spent your life in a cave and never experienced true reality, you’d consider the cave to be reality as it is.  Bishop Berkeley considered material reality a “persuasive illusion;” all we have is interpretations of experience.   But with modern studies of the brain, it becomes increasingly clear that we are creatures in world with distinct limits on how we can perceive and interpret this world.   We wear blinders, we see only a small sliver of reality, with no way of knowing how indicative that which we perceive is of the whole.

And, of course, that works.  Just as the bat doesn’t need to see the color red, or an ant doesn’t care about whose house it occupies, we can live our lives and go about existence without having to think about what may be outside that which our brains allow us to perceive.   Most of us do.

Yet I doubt the bat can truly reflect on the possibility of its limits.   Even dogs, which science says can use reason (it appears a number of animals are capable of using reason — that human arrogance is being pushed aside), probably don’t have our mental capacity to question our understandings of the world in which we find ourselves.   The brain tells us what bits about reality we need to know to operate as humans ; it might also contain secrets about the reality beyond us that for whatever reason we are unable to access (except, perhaps, through instinct).   Perhaps the difference between us and ants is matched by the difference between us and other entities, who can perceive our acts, but of whom we are generally oblivious.

To discover this, we might explore dreams, meditations, and other ways to stretch our brain’s experience.   Some have used psychadelic drugs to do this, but frankly, that would scare the hell out of me so I stay far away from those.   I find it comforting to realize that the brain is setting these limits.  It frees me from thinking I need to correctly figure out the world; that capacity is beyond me.  It allows me to focus instead on doing what seems to work in the world, and then considering how that might be reflected in a greater reality.

What works in the world is what brings happiness.  Greed, envy, anger, and hate do not work, they may bring success, but rarely do they get associated with joy.  Forgiveness, love, tolerance, community, family and even temperment seem to work much better.   Perhaps those hold a key to figuring out what’s on the other side.  And who knows — scientists say we only use about ten percent of our brain or less, maybe we do have the capacity to experience reality more fully.   For me, that’s enough to keep learning and exploring that part of existence as well.   Moreover, it’s playful.  By going with what seems to work rather than needing to know precisely what’s true, one avoids dogma and instead can have fun with ideas and possibilities.