It seems to me that an honest search for truth must start with establishing the parameters for reality. Until reality is defined, truth is unverifiable in any meaningful way. So what is real? As I mentioned previously, growing up in a Christian household, my view of truth originated with the Bible, the Word of God. Philosophically, God as presented in the Bible was Absolute Truth. God was the foundation of an Objective Reality external to me. This was a premise that I had never seriously questioned, much less doubted. Why did I think the Bible was the source of truth? In short, someone had told me it was. Many people did, actually. Like any and everything I had ever learned, the idea entered through my senses, was processed by my brain, and ultimately accepted by my mind as truth. The belief was confirmed by intuitive interpretation of experience, which aligned with classical physics. However, intuitive truth can be deceptive: the earth seems flat, physical objects seem solid throughout, air seems void of particles, so forth. As I started foraging into theological and philosophical rabbit holes, I realized that I had accepted many things as true without inspecting them closely or skeptically. It was time for me to do so. And to do so, I first had to establish what I believed to be real. To even examine or analyse a reality external to myself, I first had to gain an understanding of the process by which I perceived the world. (That process itself would seem to be never-ending. My own understanding of the matter is ever-subject to change, so it’s worth time-stamping this writing: December, 2013.)
How do I come to perceive reality? I believe my awareness of Self starts with an apprehension of something external to myself. And that process starts with – and requires – sensory input. So it is through my senses that I compile a view of reality, and through my senses that I acquire a sense of Self that is apart from external stimuli. The relationship between the brain and “mind” is highly speculative, but for my purposes here, I will use the word “mind” to refer to the process of cognitive apprehension that physically occurs in the brain but is mysteriously presented to my “Self” as conscious awareness. It seems to me that existence happens in the mind, as that is where experience is experienced. But it seems that experience cannot happen in the mind without stimulation from the senses first.
This is how Colin Dayan, a humanities professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied solitary confinement in Arizona, explained it. “You no longer know what’s real” she said. “You can’t speak to anyone; you can’t touch anyone: your senses no longer have any outlet. You have delusions and become psychotic. Your mind deteriorates.”
If that is what happens to the mind when exposure to external reality is minimized, despite years of prior exposure to an external reality which could be observed and inhabited to form a foundational understanding of Self, imagine if a mind existed without ever having any exposure of any kind. What this tells me is that senses are critical to the mind; but it is the mind itself that creates the reality of which our consciousness is aware.
My mind receives the input of my senses already indexed and organized within the paradigms of my world view. There is nothing that comes to my conscious awareness devoid of innumerable attached meanings. I cannot hear someone speaking English without automatically, unconsciously, turning those words into meaning. I can’t NOT automatically translate. My brain does it without any conscious assent or even awareness most of the time. This is true for many or most of my interactions with the external world. I cannot process visual stimuli without my brain translating the light signals into a three-dimensional representation of spatial surroundings. When I smell chocolate, I can think of the scent as nothing other than chocolate and all of the associative qualities that chocolate evokes. Everything I comprehend is a product of my mind. It is a reconstruction of reality, complete with meaning and context attached. It is not conscious apprehension direct and unfiltered from my senses.
In his book “Incognito”, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain’s method of process as follows:
“Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. …Your conscious mind is like a newspaper. Your brain buzzes with activity around the clock, and, just like a nation, almost everything transpires locally: small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other groups. Out of these local interactions emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. You’re the last one to hear the information. However, you’re an odd kind of newspaper reader, reading the headline and taking credit for the idea as though you thought of it first. You gleefully say, “I just thought of something!”, when in fact your brain performed an enormous amount of work before your moment of genius struck. …Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control, and the truth is that it’s better this way. Consciousness can take all the credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision making that cranks along in your brain. When it meddles in details it doesn’t understand, the operation runs less effectively. Once you begin deliberating about where your fingers are jumping on the piano keyboard, you can no longer pull off the piece.”
The entire process of sensory acquisition and information processing, both conscious and unconscious, leaves plenty of room for error. I will later discuss just how remarkably imperfect it is. But for now, what’s important to me is that my own flawed acquisition and apprehension is the only version of reality that I have direct access to. Anything that I would designate to be “truth”, including supernatural or spiritual experiences, must enter through this process. It is the only reality I know. In many ways, all of this is just an application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle on a macro scale.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies on the quantum scale and says we can never measure both the speed and direction of a sub-atomic particle with certainty, as our observation (specifically, the act of hitting the particles with light photons) effects the particle being observed. In a macro sense, I am asserting our act of observation effects our perception of what is observed. Uncertainty would seem to extend to the intangible as well, as evidenced by Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum. In “The Information”, author James Gleiss writes:
“Godel found that lurking within PM—and within any consistent system of logic—there must be monsters of a kind hitherto unconceived: statements that can never be proved, and yet can never be disproved. There must be truths, that is, that cannot be proved—and Gödel could prove it. … Within PM, and within any consistent logical system capable of elementary arithmetic, there must always be such accursed statements, true but unprovable. Thus Gödel showed that a consistent formal system must be incomplete; no complete and consistent system can exist. The paradoxes were back, nor were they mere quirks. Now they struck at the core of the enterprise. It was, as Gödel said afterward, an “amazing fact”—“that our logical intuitions (i.e., intuitions concerning such notions as: truth, concept, being, class, etc.) are self-contradictory.” …John von Neumann understood Gödel’s import at once; it stunned him, but he studied it and was persuaded. No sooner did Gödel’s paper appear than von Neumann was presenting it to the mathematics colloquium at Princeton. Incompleteness was real. It meant that mathematics could never be proved free of self-contradiction. And “the important point,” von Neumann said, “is that this is not a philosophical principle or a plausible intellectual attitude, but the result of a rigorous mathematical proof of an extremely sophisticated kind.”
What this suggests is that logical truths require the support of accompanying axioms. A lack of statistical certainty does not prevent us from forming millions of intuitive and logical beliefs. So how does my Self, my consciousness, form beliefs about everything external to Self? Here is a rough account of the manner in which I believe the process of cognition occurs:
1. Reality starts in the mind, regardless of the underlying nature of that reality. Whether reality is objective in the most Materialist sense, subjective in the most Solipsist sense, or somewhere in between, it is only perceived by my Self in my mind. Whether external reality is strictly relative to its own relational differences, or involves absolute relationships between objects, the practical human experience remains subjective. My apprehension and comprehension of reality is innately and exclusively a single perspective. My mind uses its best tools (sensory apprehension, reason, logic, intuition, pattern apprehension, etc) to process, comprehend and make assessments of reality, but what I experience is a product of what my mind tells me I experience.
2. My mind is the sole constructor of my value and belief system. It uses a combination of sensory input (e.g. life experiences, logical constructs, socially learned concepts, etc) to organize and develop paradigms that allow rapid and efficient processing of new information. These paradigms are largely related to social context. In other words, I am aware of my own beliefs only when they are juxtaposed against an alternative. My understanding of reality and belief systems is at the mercy of language. Language provides the logical and definitional context that allows meta-analysis, and the structure and flexible complexity needed to build comprehensible value and belief systems.  Language is an inherently social construct, and my comprehension is not immune to the social context in which ideas are presented to me. Social context almost certainly forms the primary influence in the formation of personal value and belief systems.
3. My mind (the human mind, in general) recognizes patterns exceedingly well. That may be one of its most defining features. As a pattern is recognized as repetitive, my mind will seek to formulate a routine in conjunction with the pattern. It can be intentional (conscious) or automatic (unconscious). Perhaps most often it starts as intentional/conscious and becomes automatic/unconscious once learned, as with a language. This results in the formation of thousands of habits. They can be automatic behavior patterns, ranging from the utterly unconscious (moving body parts, translating English words to meaning or visual stimulus to 3-D images), to ultra-simple routines (blow on a hot beverage upon picking it up) to extremely complex ones (getting into my car, starting it and driving home from work). The creation of these habitual processes allow for my mind to expend energy thinking of other projects or rest while automated processes handle predictable situations. This automation also makes for fast and efficient execution of routine tasks.
4. In tandem, these approaches (2 & 3) combine to form an overarching series of biases that color my ability to process new information. I have a value and belief system (whether I recognize it or not) that frames my worldview. It establishes a series of axiomatic premises that underlie all subsequent processing of new information. My mind’s proclivity for recognizing patterns and expediting processing through pre-existing shortcuts limits my perception and perspective. Biases overlap and filter all new information that I encounter. All new experiences are sorted, often unconsciously, into a “box” that suits them according to the paradigm(s) through which I experience the world. In this way, no life experience after infancy occurs in any manner that approximates “objective” perception.
The ideas presented above form the basis of how I believe I (and likely all other humans) experience the world. I will expound on these ideas later in greater detail, but for now an outline is established. I believe my ability to perceive new information and my ability to process it are both greatly constrained. But with that admittance stated, I also believe that my mind is the only way that I can evaluate what is most likely to be real and “true”. As physicist Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, once said, “We cannot get beyond consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” And the only consciousness that I experience is my own.
My examination of this topic started with questions of theology, and of God. The premise I held for most of my life was that God was the basis for absolute reality and truth, and that the objective of my mind was to understand God. If I understood God, then I would understand truth. I had been raised to believe that God was revealed in the Christian Bible, but this now seemed a provincial perspective. Given the great variety of conceptions of God that exist in the world, and even within Christianity itself, how could I know which is the correct one? For one, I could study holy scripture, the Word of God. But which scripture and which God? The Hindu Upanishads? Islamic Qu’ran? Bhuddist Dhammapada? The Christian Bible? Which translation? It seems to me that even in my attempt put God first and have God supersede my own reasoning, I must first rely on my own reasoning to determine which God is most likely real. Then which scripture is most beneficial. Then what that scripture says and means. It seems ironic at best, and self-defeating at worst; using my mind to pick a God to which I will subjugate my mind in the future. Is it not better to recognize, acknowledge and assent to the practical reality that my mind determines what external realities (be they ideas that are taught, conditions observed, etc) I accept as truth? I believe it is better to judge external sources critically before accepting teaching, always recognizing that the only arbiter for the truthfulness of a given claim is my own mind. Nothing else. To those who would say the scientific method can provide certainty to claims of knowledge, I would assert that science is always viewed through the prism of human perception and understanding. As Godel exhibited, there is no system of logic or symbolic representation that is independently complete and coherent. In my view, the human mind is no exception. So I would label my view of reality epistemological skepticism.
Epistemology is defined as “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”.
Skepticism is defined as “the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain”.
That is so, I am skeptical of my epistemological relationship with “reality.” I am so skeptical of human epistemological standing that I consider questions of ontology (what we know) to be a cursed derivative – fun to explore, speculate and pontificate about, but forever at the mercy of our epistemological uncertainty. So going back to the original question: What is real? I must confess that, given my belief about the limitations of knowledge, I can never know. That said, my conscious existence itself is to me certain proof that “something” exists. The vagueness of “something”, as defined as “some indeterminate or unspecified thing” – i.e. not nothing – allows for statistical certainty in my view. I would not go so far as Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” without putting conditions on “I”, “think” and “am.” So, it turns out, there is one axiomatic truth that I consider a statistical certainty:
“Something” because I can’t be certain what it is, except that it is not nothing. “Exists” because the “something” presents itself as stimuli. I cannot define it further. I don’t know that I am real. I don’t know that you are real. We could both be clever algorithms and would never know otherwise. I certainly don’t know that matter is something apart from a creation of consciousness. By all appearances, the world is as it appears – tangible, full of independent agents, etc. But appearances can be deceiving. However, since Nihilism is rather impractical, I live my life like everyone else. I read research to be informed, interact with others as though they are independent agents, expect gravity to return me to earth when I jump, and so forth. I am forever reminding myself that knowledge is fleeting and understanding is perpetually incomplete. In the words of R.R. Martin, “you know nothing, John Snow.”
But speculation is fun. So hopefully you find my speculation is amusing.