Whenever I discuss the peculiar nature of being alive, I tend to feel like I am going a bit ‘deeper’ than what the party on the other end expected. I am not sure whether you have had this same feeling my dear reader, but don’t you ever have this sort of epiphany while riding the bus, or driving, while passively watching TV or even while having a conversation with a good friend, when it dawns on you how utterly strange and ridiculous reality is? OK, let me try to clarify myself. First, let us take a look at the situation that we both inevitably find ourselves in.
Lets start with what you must be doing right now; you are this ape-like thing, looking at a screen with light patterns shining into your eyes. You have somehow learned to read English, and through some sort of mechanism in your brain, you are able to automatically put all these symbols into a coherent message and understand it, as if I was speaking to you. There is this voice, in your head that is telling ‘You’ what thoughts I had in my brain, many hours, days or even years after I had them myself. I mean, this might as well be called “post-telepathic communication”. Of course, you have no idea how you are actually reading these words. Can you somehow turn off your brain, in such a way as to stop reading the next word I am going to say? No. It appears that you can’t really help yourself. Your mind, is somehow just operating without any direct control.
OK, so why does this matter so much? I mean, it’s obvious that your brain (or maybe just You?) happen to do lots of things automatically. I mean, you fall asleep without knowing, you get hungry, thirsty and feel things without really having any direct control. You should be aware that most of what you do, is pretty much outside of your control. So what? Well, let’s dig a little deeper…
Now, let me see if I can point out something else about your direct experience that might give you some pause. Well, as a matter of fact, we know that every color you see is an illusion. This isn’t some fancy, overly intellectual observation that I am trying to make, but is a pretty straightforward observation that you can check. We know (and by we, I mean the scientific community…) that colors are simply an interpretation of different electromagnetic wavelengths that happen to enter into your eyes. In simpler terms, when you look at your hands right now, what you are actually seeing are light rays being reflected from your hand, to your eyes. The changes in these light rays (some being absorbed, some diffracted and others reflected) define what colors you actually see. Additionally, since you only have three different photoreceptor cells in your retina (detecting red, green and blue), you only see what is within what is called the ‘Visible’ part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is of course only a tiny part of the whole thing. A way to understand this, is to imagine an animal that can’t see all the colors that we can.
A dog for example cannot distinguish between green, yellow or red objects based on their color. This is because they only have two color sensitive cells in their retina (yellow and blue), and hence their ‘Visible’ part of the electromagnetic spectrum is even smaller than ours. Great, we now know that humans only see a small part of what there is to ‘See’ and dogs see even less of that. We can even imagine a human-like alien on some other planet that is able to see through walls, because it can detect electromagnetic waves that can penetrate through such solid objects. If that alien can see say, 80% of the electromagnetic spectrum, then we are effectively blind compared to that alien. I mean, we see less than one millionth of a percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, hence the alien would be seeing the world billions of times more accurately than how we see it. If the alien tried to explain to us how the world actually looks like, it would be like trying to explain to a blind person what the Milky Way looks like. Now that you are (hopefully) mulling over these ideas, let me see if I can explain to you why even the alien is not seeing the world in a way that is nearly accurate. Even if the alien could see 100% of the electromagnetic spectrum, every color that it sees, will still be an illusion.
This is because colors are only a particular way that our brains have evolved to interpret the stimuli that is given by the environment. In other words, there is nothing inherently ‘red’ about a particular wavelength of light. What you see as the color red is simply a way that your brain reacts to the signal given by the photoreceptor cells in your retina. It could have just as well evolved a certain feeling associated with that impulse. In that case, humans might feel colors instead of see them. This thought experiment can be extended to sounds as well. Sounds are also waves that stimulate the brain to ‘hear’ things. In this case, the wavelength of sound changes the way your ear drum behaves, which appears to us as a certain note. The brain could have evolved to ‘see’ sounds and hence, the world would look completely different. When you really think about it, it appears that there are an endless number of ways to detect and process stimuli and each way is just as valid as the others. It appears that we, as medium sized apes, are able to generate an illusion of the world, through a model of it in our consciousness. Everything you see, hear, smell, touch is a model of whatever stimulation you are getting from the environment. Reality as you see it is closer to a dream than what is actually out there.
The point I am trying to make here my wonderful curious reader, is that not only are you unable to see the world the way it is, you cant really fathom how it actually is (and neither can I…). What we are looking at, what You are, is some kind of information processing machine that creates models of some external thing. To get what I am saying, just stop reading and take a moment to look around your room. Now do it again, and this time try to be aware of everything around you as only being mere models of things, similar to what you would see in a video game. If you are still finding it hard to understand what I am saying, then imagine a red apple rotating in the middle of the screen. You know that the apple does not actually exist. You know that you are generating the color, shape and movement of that apple in your mind. Well, that apple is just as ‘real’ as the actual screen you are looking at. The only difference is that the stimulation that generated that apple did not come from something external to you, but rather something internal.
So, where are we now? Unless I lost you (from boredom, or some other reason unknown to me…), it would seem that the world as we see it is a model, created by our brains, that could be called an illusion. Why an illusion? Well, because it does not represent whatever we call reality in any significant way. As the information processing being that you are, you are undoubtedly wondering what you can possible do with this realization? So what if we can’t see reality for what it actually is? Who cares if we are just information processing, ape-like beings flying through an illusion we call the cosmos? Well, I don’t know, I am just some guy writing my thoughts on the Internet. But since you’re still reading, I think I can give you some sort of reward for going down this far down the rabbit hole.
Well, these thought matter because it affects every aspect of your life. If you are able to truly realize the nature of what it is like to Be you, then you will also be able to look at the world in a completely different way. Suddenly, colors become interesting again. How weird they are when you observe them carefully. Looking at a tree now becomes like looking at a different object. I mean, the tree isn’t really green, and brown and tall. That is simply an image that you have created in your mind. When you really pay attention to the tree, really look at it, it does indeed appear to be full of character. You start to realize how strange it is that you so easily recognize messages within text, or words when a family member moves their mouth. When you sit and have a chat with a friend, you start to notice how they actually look, and what they are actually saying, instead of what you assume they are saying. When you really start to pay attention to your mind and your surroundings, to the very moment you are alive, then you get a glimpse how the world actually is, there and then, not what it was like in the past or how you anticipate it to be in the future. You might actually just get to Be in the Now.
You can listen to/download audio version of this post below: