In my personal interests, I tend to lean closer to psychotherapy and psychology, but I’ve learned a number of important lessons from the neurosciences. I think the most important lesson can be summarized like this: we do not experience “reality itself” but an essentialized distillation of reality, constructed by our subjectively-conditioned brain, from selectively limited sensory data, organized around limiting principles (eg, self-preservation). In a manner of speaking, rather than experiencing “reality itself,” what we experience is something more comparable to a virtual reality, a low-resolution copy of the objective original.
Eric Steinhart, in his short book On Nietzsche, compares the relationship between reality itself and our conscious experience to the city of Chicago and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture. Kapoor’s Cloud Gate is a giant, bean-shaped mirror in Chicago, reflecting the city in its warped surface. Comparing the “city itself” to the reflection in the sculpture, one would recognize some continuity, but of course also note that the city reflected in the Cloud Gate’s mirrored surface looks more like a funhouse-mirror reflection of Chicago than the “city itself.” So too, Steinhart notes, with “reality itself” and our neurologically-constructed experience thereof.
Interestingly, there’s a fairly dualistic aspect to all this: there are, in a sense, two “realities”; one is the reality we regularly experience, and the other is the reality from which the reality we experience is derived. Indeed, there may be little to no evidence to suggest that we can bridge that gap and experience “reality itself,” rather than our distilled experience thereof. At best, we seem only to be able to tentatively verify “consensus realities,” experiences we share with our fellow human beings — and even then, those realities can diverge dramatically, sometimes even violently. I’m reminded of William James, who once opined that we should refer to our shared reality not as a “universe,” but a “pluriverse,” to acknowledge just how widely our experiences can vary and even contradict one another’s.
Oddly, however, despite this dualism, there seems to be a touch of monism involved, as well — in that, we as conscious, neurological beings are not aliens to our environments; but that we grow out of our environments, as Alan Watts put it, like apples from a tree or waves from the ocean. There is an odd dualism to our relationship with “reality itself,” but it doesn’t seem to be because we’re ontological strangers to that reality. Though, of course, that leaves the question of whence this dualism unsolved, and the ramifications of this dualist-monist hybrid of a situation unarticulated. For instance, lost in the dualism of our experience, some materialists have treated concepts like “affective response” and “value judgments” as superfluous to nature — emotion is a uniquely-human imposition upon the natural order of logic. And yet the very nature that created what we consider “logic” also created what we consider mere “emotion”; the same universe that created the seemingly and even coldly neutral causal web of nature, in all its disastrous beauty, also created our subjective sensations of “beauty” and “disaster.” Monistic reality created this dualistic thing we call consciousness; and it is through this dualistic thing we call consciousness that we intimate anything about that monistic reality.
I’ve encountered few people, philosophers or otherwise, who have really explored this oddity — that a unified reality would give rise to such an internally-fractured animal as humans — but some have. For instance, Thomas Metzinger, in his books The Ego Tunnel and Being No One, explores how conscious experience may in fact be fundamentally the same as dreaming; the only difference being that the brain constructs experience from external sensory data during consciousness, while during dream states the brain constructs experience from memories and other pre-existing internal data. Indeed, Metzinger goes so far as to argue that our sense of being a discrete “self” ultimately separable from the world around our “selves” may in fact be nothing more than an illusion created by our quasi-dualistic consciousness. Moreover, Alfred North Whitehead described the universe itself as a singular “organism,” one which not only created nature, but humans; and one that not only created this supposedly-neutral natural world, but all the mental and emotional responses humans have in their encounters with it. For Whitehead, emotion — and even values, in some way — are just as much a part of nature as gravity and inertia. Additionally, Slavoj Zizek, in his book Less Than Nothing, explores the ramifications of a nature that would produce humans who experience the world in the same way Kapoor’s Cloud Gate reflects the city of Chicago. Zizek concludes that perhaps this fracture between “reality itself” and reality as we experience it is not uniquely isolated to humans, but runs through nature itself; perhaps, he suggests, nature created such internally-fractured animals as humans because there is something fundamentally broken and thus incomplete about existence itself, not just our experience thereof.
Suffice it to say, the world is a complicated place; and humans, being a part of that world, are no different. But I’m grateful for research fields like neuroscience, which not only illuminate avenues of thought I’ve never noticed or even seen before, but which formulate questions I never would have thought to ask, never would have thought one could ask. Life is strange — and so are we — and the more we learn, the stranger it all seems to become.
- William James, A Pluralistic Universe (1908)
- Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Bradford Book, 2004); The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (Basic Books, 2009)
- Eric Steinhart, On Nietzsche (Cengage Learning, 1999)
- Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (Harvard University Press, 2014)
- Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Vintage, 2011)
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1927–1928; Free Press, 2010)
- Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Verso, 2012)