WHAT IS REALITY?
Copyright © 2010, 2015 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
Recently, Michael Shermer -- editor of Skeptic magazine -- held a
debate with Deepak Chopra, bestselling author, mystic, and
champion of the ancient art of Ayurvedic medicine. Shermer had
some follow-up comments, which he posted on his blog,
along with replies from Chopra. Basically, the debate swirled
around the question of whether there really is a physical
universe, or whether it's all basically contained within
consciousness. Shermer took the standard scientific view; Chopra
took the other side. It was all very interesting,
thought-provoking, and civil.
Then came the replies from readers. I was
stunned at how cynical and snarky were some of their comments,
especially with reference to Chopra's ideas. Now, it's one thing
to disagree with him on issues that are not, strictly speaking,
scientific but, instead, philosophical; it's quite another to
launch ad hominem
attacks against his motives. Shermer, to his great credit,
treats Chopra's ideas seriously and fairly, and he makes clear
where he differs philosophically with Chopra without cavalierly
accusing him of being a charlatan.
I chimed in and posted a reply of my own, a
possible solution to this debate that might satisfy the views of
both sides. Below is, more or less, what I wrote. And, yes, this
actually is an answer to the question, "What is reality?" But
fear not! I have a degree in philosophy, so I'll keep you safe
Here we go:
Everything that happens to us in life is witnessed within "consciousness" -- or "awareness" -- and there is no information available to us that exists outside that realm. Further, there appears to be no edge or border to consciousness, so that consciousness isn't embedded inside something else. In short, consciousness, or awareness, is all we've got to go on. Our sensations -- light, sound, touch, plus emotions and thoughts -- constitute all the information we can gather, and we can't escape to some outside realm to acquire more info.
Within consciousness arise thoughts that model aspects of awareness, so that we can map out our experiences and know, for instance, how to get to the grocery store. But most of us, at that point, make an almost unnoticeable error in our thinking: we assume that the grocery store is somehow "out there" beyond consciousness, that it is a permanent thing that exists whether we witness it or not. And we start to think of consciousness as a kind of ethereal gas that floats like a bubble through the physical world. And then we get into all of these weird debates about how consciousness can arise in a physical universe, and how we can know about "the world out there", etc.
But for a moment let's be very, very scientific and very, very strict in our thinking. All we have to go on, as evidence, are the elements of our awareness. We can't get "outside our own consciousness" to gather information from somewhere else. To be strictly scientific, we cannot assert that there is, e.g., a moon out there whether we look at it or not, because we cannot assert that there's an "out there" for the moon to occupy. The strict way to think about the moon, then, would be to say, "When I aim my gaze upward at the proper hour, I will see a mottled white disk that I call 'the moon'." That avoids the unprovable hypothesis of a separate physical world by limiting the observation to what we know of our own awareness.
Again: all I can say for sure is that, when I step outside, I may see the moon in the sky. I cannot assume that there's some sort of permanent thing called "the moon" that exists in some hypothesized realm called "the physical universe" that I have no way of knowing about, much less proving. But I CAN assert, with good evidence, that when I step outside I'll see a sky that's often moon-adorned. This is a statement about the contents of my awareness, and it avoids assumptions about an external reality.
Otherwise, I'd be making the same metaphysical mistake as people who believe that, if they visit Ecuador, they will see an actual equatorial dotted line extending west across that country and out to sea. Or I'd assume that, at the restaurant, I'm supposed to chew on the menu as dinner. I'd be mistaking my symbology for something concrete and separate. The symbol is not a separate reality. It is merely a mapping of an aspect of awareness.
Strangely, given that there is no escape from one's own awareness, it's also not possible ever to be certain that you aren't simply dreaming your entire life, and the rest of us are sophisticated mannequins manifested by your dream.
In that regard, you might demand, "Well, what ABOUT everyone else's awareness? If my consciousness has no boundary, then where's the room for THEIR consciousnesses?" Excellent question! Aside from the imponderable issue of whether you're simply dreaming, is it possible to have billions and billions of separate consciousnesses all contemplating essentially the same awareness data set, except from different perspectives, and without a concrete physical universe to tie those perspectives together? Is there any way to show some commonality within all those separate experiences that doesn't depend on some "physical world" center to which all awarenesses refer?
There's a simple, Occam's Razor-type answer that avoids separate, clashing universes of physical and mental "stuff": Every awareness contains within it the building blocks of every other awareness. Example: I hold up a globe of the Earth. You look at the globe from your side of the room and see the images of Africa and Europe and North America; from my side, I see the Pacific Ocean and Australia and maybe a little printed legend near Antarctica. What I can't see of the globe is there by implication, "unconscious" to me but conscious to you, and vice versa.
It's like an equation that can be written in a million different ways, each version separated from the next by an "equals" sign.
In effect, then, your awareness IS my awareness, but from a different point of view. (If each of us could see all of our viewpoints at the same time, it'd probably be a chaos of white noise. So be grateful for your distinct point of view.) Each awareness is, in my formulation, essentially identical to every other awareness, except that the point of view is translated differently for each perspective.
When Chopra says, "You are the world" (and he's quoting Krishnamurti, so, yes, he does like to borrow freely from others), he probably means "your awareness is all there is ... and so is mine. There is no realm outside of awareness."
Alan Watts put it nicely: "While it's true that the eyes see light because of the sun, it's also true that the sun is light because of the eyes." The sound coming from your stereo only exists when every element of the production of sound is lined up: the electrical power to the amp, the CD being read by the laser, the speakers pumping air in the room, your unplugged ears functioning properly, your brain processing the input data. Any failure anywhere along that chain, and there's no sound. The same is true for all other sensations. And without sensations, we have no data about anything, much less some "physical universe" that we hypothesize based on that sensory data. The thing and our awareness of it arise mutually; they're inseparable; they are, in effect, the same thing.
What are the implications for science? Most days, both sides of this debate can pursue science and technology without a hitch. But this "awareness is primary" viewpoint is to the "physical world is primary" viewpoint as Relativity physics is to Classical physics: just as Newtonian concepts are useful in the local world but break down at cosomological scales, so the idea of a separate physical universe is a useful shorthand, but the larger "one awareness" idea resolves the contradictions about, e.g., Schroedinger's Cat and quantum uncertainty in general and what happened before the Big Bang. (But that's fodder for a whole separate discussion.)
Meanwhile, awareness has the capacity to
model itself, using the techniques of science to create
elaborately accurate maps of a realm that is, when all is said
and done, simply awareness. And science doesn't have to posit a
physical world to conduct its work. What's true about the weight
of the electron or the color of sulphur when it burns is true
whether or not these facts occur inside awareness or inside a
physical universe. (See the last chapter of my book, Are Humans Obsolete?
for a discussion of how science and religion can get along.)
So maybe Chopra and Shermer both have valid points, and the above proposed solution can mediate between them. And we won't have to resort to name-calling.