Professor Jim Al-Khalili explores how studying the atom forced us to rethink the nature of reality itself. Al-Khalili shows how the world we think we know turns out to be a tiny sliver of an infinitely weirder universe than which we could have conceived.
An Excerpt from Peter Russells 'Science To God' ...
Chapter 4. The Illusion Of Reality
The new metaparadigm is based on the premise that consciousness is a primary quality of reality. And it can be considered primary in two distinct ways. The first I have just outlined: the faculty of consciousness, the capacity for experience, is present in all things. The second way in which consciousness is primary is the fact that we never directly experience the world around us. All we ever know are the contents of consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that appear in the mind. This one fact leads to a radical rethinking of the relationship between consciousness and reality.
The idea that we never experience the physical world directly has intrigued many philosophers. Most notable was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanual Kant, who drew a clear distinction between the forms that appear in the mind–what he called the phenomenon (a Greek word meaning "that which appears to be")–and the world that gives rise to this perception, which he called the noumenon (meaning "that which is apprehended"). All we know, Kant insisted, is the phenomenon. The noumenon, the "thing-in-itself," remains forever beyond our knowing.
A century earlier, the British philosopher, John Locke, had argued that all knowledge is based on perceptions, caused by external objects acting on the senses. But whereas Locke thought that perception was passive, the mind simply reflecting the images received by the senses, Kant proposed that the mind is an active participant in the process, continually shaping our experience of the world. Reality, he saw, is something we each construct for ourselves.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Kant was not suggesting that this reality is the only reality. The Irish theologian, Bishop Berkeley, had argued that we know only our perceptions, and had then concluded that nothing exists apart from our perceptions, –which led him into the difficult position of having to explain what happened to the world when no one was perceiving it. Kant held that there is an underlying reality, but we never know it directly. All we can ever know is how it appears in our minds.
The Image In the Mind
Remarkably, Kant came to these conclusions without any of our current scientific knowledge, or any understanding of the physiology of perception. Today we know a lot more about how the brain constructs its picture of reality.
When I look at a tree, light reflected from the tree forms an image of the tree on the retina of my eye. Photo-sensitive cells in the retina discharge electrons, triggering electro-chemical impulses that travel down the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain. There the data undergoes a complex processing that detects shapes, patterns, colors and movements. The brain then integrates this information into a coherent whole, creating its own reconstruction of external world. Finally, an image of the tree appears in my consciousness. Just how my neural activity gives rise to a conscious experience is the "hard problem" we touched on earlier. But even though we have no idea how an image appears in the mind, it does happen. I have the conscious experience of seeing a tree.
Similar activities take place with the other senses. A vibrating violin string creates pressure waves in the air. These waves stimulate minute hairs in the inner ear, which send electrical impulses on to the brain. As with vision, the raw data are then analyzed and integrated, culminating in the experience of hearing music.
Chemical molecules emanating from the skin of an apple trigger receptors in the nose, leading to the experience of smelling an apple. And cells in the skin send messages to the brain that lead to experiences of touch, pressure, texture and warmth.
In short, all that I perceive–all that I see, hear, taste, touch and smell–has been reconstructed from sensory data. I think I am perceiving the world around me, but all that I am directly aware of are the colors, shapes, sounds and smells that appear in the mind.
Our perception of the world has the very convincing appearance of being "out there" around us, but it is no more "out there" than are our nightly dreams. In our dreams we are aware of sights, sounds and sensations happening around us. We are aware of our bodies. We think and reason. We feel fear, anger, pleasure and love. We experience other people as separate individuals, speaking and interacting with us. The dream appears to be happening "out there" in the world around us. Only when we awaken do we realize that it was all just a dream–a creation in the mind.
When we say "it was all just a dream" we are referring to the fact that the experience was not based on physical reality. It was created from memories, hopes, fears, and other factors. In the waking state, our image of the world is based on sensory information drawn from our physical surroundings. This gives our waking experience a consistency and sense of reality not found in dreams. But the truth is, it is as much a creation of our minds as are our dreams.
Source : Peter Russell
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