Photo by Joshua Earle

How we view reality is largely determined by science today. The statement doesn’t mean only that, through engineering and technology, science reconfigures our natural environment and, along with it, our experience of being in the world. It also means that science determines how the concept of reality itself gets defined. We can illustrate this in short order by considering an illusion called the oddball effect:

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, [Eagleman] explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass…
The best example of this is the so-called oddball effect — an optical illusion that Eagleman had shown me in his lab. It consisted of a series of simple images flashing on a computer screen. Most of the time, the same picture was repeated again and again: a plain brown shoe. But every so often a flower would appear instead. To my mind, the change was a matter of timing as well as of content: the flower would stay onscreen much longer than the shoe. But Eagleman insisted that all the pictures appeared for the same length of time. The only difference was the degree of attention that I paid to them. The shoe, by its third or fourth appearance, barely made an impression. The flower, more rare, lingered and blossomed, like those childhood summers. (Science and technology journalist Burkhard Bilger in his New Yorker profile of David Eagleman, “The Possibilian”)

The objectively considered state of affairs is that the flower appears for the same length of time as the shoe. According to the prevailing conceptual terminology, this constitutes the reality. In contrast, what is not real, the “optical illusion,” is the effect that the experiment produces in the subject: the flower seems to linger for a longer period of time. Since what the subject experiences doesn’t conform to what we deemed real, we say that what he experiences is only an illusion. Truth is objective. In contrast, falsity is experienced subjectively; it is what does not conform to the state of affairs as objectively determined. But how do matters stand with this “degree of attention” that he pays the flowers as against the shoes? Is it itself something illusory, or does it determine its own experienced reality? Is there a sense in which experience is itself real even when it turns out to be mistaken when measured against an objective state of affairs?

To complicate matters, consider the fact that we virtually never experience time objectively. We attend a particularly arduous meeting. Time drags on: “Will the hour ever be up?” Afterwards, the drive home takes forty minutes. It more or less seems to us that it took that long, but only more or less. That evening, we go to a wonderful soirée. We dance, dine, engage in intelligent conversation. The evening seems to slip by: “Gosh, is that the time already? The night seems to have just begun!” We qualify our observation with “seems to” because we consider that it isn’t consonant with reality that time went by so quickly. And objectively speaking it of course didn’t. The meeting lasted only an hour but seemed to last two and a half hours; the party lasted two and a half hours but seemed to last only an hour. What we experienced the time as doesn’t change the reality one bit.

But can we actually decouple time from experience? Or do we do so only theoretically? We certainly wouldn’t deny that time can be measured, and that it can thereby be rendered objective. But does it follow from that that what we experience time as is on the order of an optical illusion? Is that a fair characterization of our normal experience of time (life itself as we live it)? Or is it rather the case that by using such terminology we’re unfairly degrading subjectivity — and, moreover, that this devaluing is largely a function of the theoretical-scientific way in which time is being considered here? As I’ve noted before, a crucial step of the scientific method, what veritably sets it going, is the discounting of personal consciousness, the elimination of the so-called “psychological factors.” It sees subjective experience merely as a source of error. It’s not surprising, then, that science would consider time as if consciousness weren’t involved with it.

But who can doubt that time, that reality itself, “goes on” even if nobody is experiencing it? Geological processes need time in which to occur. We have determined the age of our planet to be around four and a half billion years. The Milky Way is a little over thirteen billion years. The entire universe nearly fourteen billion. But these are determinations already made from within an experience of time. What time could be if nothing experiences it is a question we will leave open for now. Here, we merely want to consider time as a way of approaching the problem of reality.

The way reality was viewed when we considered the oddball effect conformed to a conceptual and methodological model which we can refer to as the correspondence theory of truth. We develop a proposition and compare it to an objectively considered state of affairs. Then we say that the proposition is either true or false; it either matches up with reality or fails to do so. But not only is this not the only way toward truth, it itself is rooted in a more fundamental aspect of reality as something that is not determined but revealed. Correspondence is merely a modification — indeed it is only possible on the basis — of an initial revelation of truth that does not involve objectivity or correspondence (a matching up, syncing) at all.

What is the outcome of the “correspondence” way of considering reality when we consider that our experience of time never precisely matches what we are calling “real time”? Objective determinations of time usually become relevant only for specific purposes. We have an early appointment and therefore keep glancing at our watch. As we go about our morning business, we hurry if we see that we’re running late. Otherwise, we notice that we have time to spare and slow down. If we’re training for a race, we use a stopwatch to measure our speed. But the runner doesn’t experience time the way the stopwatch does (assuming the watch could experience time). Mostly we’re not explicitly thinking about time at all, much less measuring it; we’re absorbed in actually doing something with that time. Again: What does it mean that we virtually never experience time objectively? Does that make our experience of time a constant illusion? Does only measuring it reveal time’s true nature?

Within a theoretical context (or a practical one rooted in it), this talk of “subjective illusion” is certainly helpful. However, when we step outside this context still bearing all of this theoretical terminology in our heads, we can easily forget that the scientific point of view isn’t natural. It is highly artificial (i.e., theoretical), based on an as if. Science sees the world as if all the psychological factors had been removed, as if no personal consciousness were present, as if the scientist himself or herself weren’t an essential part of the phenomenon or system actually being investigated, as if the object weren’t actually a content of his or her consciousness. In switching over from first person experience to third person investigation, the world appears as if it were primarily and essentially an object of investigation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very worldliness of the world recedes from view when nature gets seen in this theoretical-scientific light.

So what happens when we take the objective point of view too far, when we apply it outside of a scientific context and try to turn the scientific way of considering things into a total worldview encompassing all of reality (as reductionists try to do)? Not only spiritual confusion but a kind of shrinking and desiccation of reality ensues. Science can legitimately supplement, correct, extend, and deepen our understanding of reality, but it shouldn’t seek to replace our subjective experience of the world, which is real on its own terms and in its own way, with an entirely objective one in an attempt to render subjectivity illusory (a fiction, as Dennett calls it) in favor of a reality that has essentially been turned into an object of investigation and/or calculation. The problem with that way of thinking is it makes our experience, and therefore the life we live, less than real. Can it be, on the contrary, that reality is first and foremost what is actually experienced, and that it is only from out of the reality of that experience that the possibility of objectively determining it gets realized?

If time is really only what is objectively measured, and if, meanwhile, our experience of time is not just occasionally but essentially and constantly subjective, what can that mean but that our normal experience of time is an illusion — that is, not just when we experience the oddball effect but in general? It seems to follow that it is not just that our experience of time seems to warp and disfigure time but that experience itself warps and disfigures reality. For it is not just time that we experience subjectively but also space, also motion, also matter. Experience itself seems to be an illusion when compared with what is objectively real. Reality, meanwhile, seems to be what is never actually experienced by anyone. Nobody goes through life objectively experiencing time, space or anything else.

Of course, when, as a Christian, I bring God into the picture, then I can say that God knows reality perfectly, but then we are talking about a perfect consciousness of reality. I think of God as mind rather than body.

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