January 23

Beyond the Brain’s Picture of Reality

It is much more exciting to question the whole of reality than it is to question any number of its parts. That might be why there has been such a surge in popularity in the recent discoveries of neuroscience as published in a number of books over the past decade. Through these publications we are learning a great deal about how our brain works and discovering that a lot of what we experience as real is actually a creation of the way our brains functions. Taken to its extreme some would say that our experience of reality is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of synaptic impulses in our brains. Everything you are experiencing right now is being created by the electrical discharges that are going off constantly in your brain.
In the same way that a Television image is produced from a vast array of colored pixels, your experience of being yourself reading this page right now is being created by electrical discharges in your brain. Some would go so far to say that none of what you are experiencing right now is anything more than synaptic discharges. There is no space, no time, no things, no self… no anything. It is all an illusion created by the brain that we experience as a perfectly deceptive virtual reality exactly like the holodeck. I want to point out what I believe is a flaw in this way of thinking.
Let’s imagine that it is true that everything that we are experiencing is an illusion of reality being created by our brains. That would mean that the brain itself is part of that illusion. All of the studies and experiments that were used to come to the conclusion that reality is being produced by the brain are also part of the illusion. Can one part of the illusion be responsible for creating the rest of the illusion? If the brain is producing the illusion of everything else doesn’t that mean the brain has to be real? And if it is then isn’t the body the brain exists in also real? And if the body is real isn’t the world that the body emerged out of also real?
We can’t believe that the reality we are experiencing is an illusion created by the brain without privileging the brain to be the only real thing in the universe. If we want to do this we then have to find the line that separates the brain from the rest of reality. Only then would it be responsible to imagine that it was responsible for creating the illusion of everything else. If we look closely we don’t see any hard dividing line, and if we did we would have to admit that the dividing line was also being created by the brain.
The so called ‘hard problem” of consciousness is figuring out how a grey mass of synaptic discharges leads to the rich and full phenomenal experience of reality that we have. This may not be the best question to ask because the brain itself as well as the experience of being someone who has a brain and is thinking about the hard problem of consciousness is all already happening inside of the illusory experience of reality that we believe is being created by the brain. The brain is creating the whole illusion of reality including the illusion of a brain that is creating the illusion.
There is a popular analogy of spiritual awakening that involves a movie theater. Waking up is like realizing that you have been watching a movie without realizing that you had been actually sitting in a theater watching a movie. You had mistaken the story of the movie as the reality of who you are. The recognition that we live in a reality created in the theater of our brain is similar, but what happens if the movie we are watching is about a person who realizes that they are watching a movie? How do you wake up from a dream that is about waking up from a dream?