Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi once wrote that one day he dreamt about being a butterfly and upon awakening he wasn't sure, for a brief moment, if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly that dreamt about being a man...
We all have these moments, when we're half asleep and half awake, in which we temporarily are unable to distinguish what's real and what's the dream. I most often have these moments when I try to fall asleep, but then hear some noise that tears me away from dreamland. Sometimes these moments are truly disturbing, albeit just very briefly, fortunately. Zhuangzi, the Chinese philosopher, developed from this butterfly dream a theory about "the transformation of things"; a change in consciousness between reality and illusion. I want to briefly explore this twilight zone between reality and illusion, discuss which is which, and maybe challenge the strictly materialist world-view most of us in the west have been raised with.
You see, there are times when I have doubts about this exclusive focus on the material, and the belief that everything, in the end, can be explained by the laws of nature and the strictly material world they regulate and operate in. And the place of origin for this doubt is, every time, consciousness. Science has gone down the material rabbit hole so deep, that even something as mysterious and intangible as consciousness is explained as something emergent from electro-chemical processes in our brains; thoughts, emotions, reasoning, they are all explained as the result from cause-and-effect driven interactions between tangible material agents. Matter gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is an "emergent property" of complex material interactions.
Well, maybe. But I'm not convinced. Not by a long shot. The first thing to say about this feeble attempt at an explanation is that it's not an explanation at all. In physics there are plenty of emergent properties that come about through the complex interactions of tiny particles. One example is liquid water and its properties; they are an emergent property that arise when countless numbers of H2O molecules come together at moderate temperature and pressure.
Likewise, the properties of solid ice are emergent when water molecules come together at low temperature. Just as the wetness of liquid water would never be predicted from the properties of an individual water molecule, so many scientists believe consciousness is simply an emergent property of the very complex arrangement of matter in the brain.
source: The Irish Times
Again, maybe. But there's a stark difference between explaining fluidity or solidity of water and consciousness as emergent phenomena. The different states of water are well understood and explained by the "hydrogen bonds" that are formed between polar water molecules. There's not even a shadow of an approximation of a similar explanation for consciousness. Also, in that same article, it says something I've written about in the past; when we think we decide to do something, brain activity begins about half a second before we are conscious of deciding to act. This can be interpreted as a confirmation that the physical brain causes change in our consciousness. But it also shows a clear gap between the material change and the change in consciousness, and raises questions about (the existence of) free will. It also doesn't refute the possibility of our material brain acting as a mediator or conduit of consciousness; who's to say whether consciousness is inside our brains or external and merely received through our brains?
Even if we grant that matter gives rise to consciousness, in our dreams, consciousness gives rise to matter! In my dreams I'm perfectly able to throw a solid rock through a solid window, shattering the reflection of my solid face in that window. And in those rare moments between awareness of the physical world, and the dreamy awareness of an illusionary world, I don't know which is which. What's becoming increasingly clear though is that we do not see reality for what it is, asleep or awake.
Our brain is essentially a prediction machine that tries to build a model in our mind of the outside world, by comparing sensory input to what it already knows. "Seeing is believing", is in many cases actually "believing is seeing". But this still assumes the model to be fairly accurate; we need to interact with the physical world through the dimensions of space and time to survive. But recent scientific insights lead us to believe that the model isn't accurate at all; reality is nothing like the world our brains paint in our minds.
To explain why, a comparison with a computer desktop is helpful. The items we see in the 3D world can be compared to the icons you click on the desktop. The icon for your e-mail client is not the program. The icon is just a handy shortcut for you to reach the real program, consisting of a highly complex web of electrical currents that cause bits and bytes to be flipped and manipulated, in order to light up singular pixels in a variety of frequencies that eventually results, in a matter of nano-seconds, in an easily interpreted visual change on the screen.
Physical objects in the "real" world are akin to the icons on your desktop; they are not there to reveal reality, but to obscure the intricate complexities of reality, so we can literally "get a handle on it"... Watch and listen to cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman in the below linked video as he asks "Do we see reality as it is?" No, really, watch it: it may blow you away, as well as your beliefs about reality and consciousness.
Do we see reality as it is? | Donald Hoffman
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