Believing Is Seeing
One of the first books that really staggered my mind and made me look at reality in a whole new way was Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats, a mostly-now-forgotten comedic science fiction novel by Gene Deweese and Robert Coulson.
It was 1977. I was 13 years old.
The story takes place at a World Science Fiction Convention in Australia. Earth is caught in the crossfire between two warring galactic civilizations. Aliens from both sides have infiltrated the convention, seeking to establish first contact. Their presumption is that the minds of science fiction fans should be especially open to ET contact due to their “far-out” (remember, this was the ’70s) literary/cinematic tastes. Many of the convention-goers are dressed in elaborate costumes, so the real aliens fit right in. Nobody takes their contact efforts or their “war story” seriously.
I don’t own a copy of the book, and it’s long out of print, so I can only paraphrase how I remember the big climax unfolding:
A giant alien battle-cruiser descends from the clouds to hover over the convention center. Thousands of science fiction fans spill into the street. They watch the enormous ship approach in awed silence.
Then, a lone voice in the crowd: “Fake!”
“Totally fake!” somebody echoes. “I can almost see the strings!”
“Must be a publicity stunt for a new movie.”
“If that’s the best they can do, forget it!”
The street erupts in mocking laughter, hooting, and back-slapping mirth.
Aboard the spaceship, emergency lights strobe, control panels fail, the walls begin to buckle.
“I’ve seen better special effects on Saturday morning cartoons!”
An engine explodes. The cruiser rocks in the sky.
“They’re wasting our time!” someone shouts. “Free beer in the hospitality suite!”
A collective Whooooop! and the crowd turns like a school of fish to flow back into the hotel. Party time!
The crippled spaceship gives a final shudder, then winks out of existence.
We’ve all heard the old saying “seeing is believing.” This was its antimatter twin, “believing is seeing” — or “not believing” in this case, but it’s the same thing. It turns out exposure to speculative fiction made SciFi fans more, not less, skeptical regarding real-world claims. They saw only what they believed was possible under the circumstances — Hollywood special effects.
And “real reality” conformed to their expectations.
My mind was blown. Then and there I stopped believing in any “common sense” one-for-one correspondence between perception and reality. Reality wasn’t simply “out there” in some objective sense. My brain was somehow constructing reality, or at least my experience of it, and that experience was to a large extent a product of what I believed to be possible.
And “what I believed to be possible” was something I could control — implying that reality itself might be controllable, too, just like in the book, if I was sufficiently mindful of my beliefs.
As a small town 13 year old in the ’70s, I had stumbled on the master key to the New Age:
We create our own reality.
The Theory of Constructed Reality
But that’s just science fiction, right?
Maybe not. Compare my ’70s SciFi revelation to this excerpt from neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barret’s How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, published in 2017:
The theory of constructed emotion is… a radically different view of what it means to be a human being. This view is consistent with the latest research in neuroscience… and it has deep implications for how you live your life.
You are not a reactive animal wired to respond to events in the world. When it comes to your experiences and perceptions, you… are an architect of your experience.
… Most of us think of the outside world as physically separate from ourselves. Events happen “out there” in the world, and you react to them “in here” in your brain. In the theory of constructed emotion, however, the dividing line between brain and world is permeable, perhaps nonexistent. Your brain’s core systems combine in various ways to construct your perceptions, memories, thoughts, feelings, and other mental states.
Lisa Feldman Barrett stresses throughout How Emotions Are Made that it’s not only emotions that our brains construct. It’s everything we perceive — everything a brain-wielding human being knows, or even can know, about the world.
The latest research in neuroscience confirms the speculations of a 40 year old science fiction novel:
We create our own reality.
What’s New Is Old
Most striking to me is how closely both 40 year old science fiction and the latest research in neuroscience echo a 2,500 year old spiritual teaching.
Here’s Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim, writing in The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World:
We usually think of “mind” and “world” existing independently of each other. If someone asks where our mind is, most of us would point to either our head or our heart, but not to a tree or the sky. We perceive a clear boundary between what goes on inside our minds and what happens in the outside world… According to the Buddha’s teaching, however, the boundary between the mind and the world is actually thin, porous, and ultimately illusory… The world depends on our minds in order to exist, just as our minds depend on the world as the subject of our awareness. Put differently, our mind’s awareness can be said to bring the world into being.
Let’s Change the World
As out of control as 21st Century life can appear when viewed through the lens of our social media news feed, if the Buddha, DeWeese/Coulson, and Lisa Feldman Barrett are right, it doesn’t have to be this way.
What if we don’t have to control world economies, or governments, or politicians, or corporations, or religions, or anything “out there” to begin crafting a better world?
What if all we have to control — “in here” — is what we believe to be possible?
What if we chose to believe that equality, justice, freedom and prosperity for all were the only possibilities?
What if we chose to believe prejudice, injustice, fascism and greed simply could not be?
Could reality resist us?
Thanks for reading!