If you want to discover fundamental truths, you must identify and challenge your deepest assumptions – the ones you aren’t even aware are assumptions. There can be strong social pressures against openly challenging such assumptions, but doing so can result in life-altering revelations, as if stepping through a door into a new realm.
One such assumption is that we perceive the world the way it really is. The truth of the matter – completely supported by scientific evidence – is that the world is not just a bit different from what most of us perceive, it is actually totally and fundamentally otherwise.
Note: for the purposes of this essay, I generally use the term “science” to refer to the physical sciences, primarily Physics. In some cases it refers to the philosophy of logic and scientific method. I believe the context makes it clear, but to be specific: I use logic and scientific method to show that Physics does not and cannot explain our reality.
Light is electromagnetic radiation, exactly like x-rays or gamma-rays, the only difference being that wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation which are detected by our eyes are commonly referred to as “light”. X-rays and gamma-rays have no colour, they have no brightness. Indeed, no electromagnetism carries qualities or attributes of ‘colour’ or ‘brightness’. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, even light has no qualities of colour or brightness. How can that be? It seems so obvious that it does… after all, we can see that it does! Let me explain by means of an analogy.
Consider this analogy. A Geiger counter detects radiation and for each high-energy particle it detects, it generates a sound — a click. The radiation itself has no inherent quality or attribute of sound, the sound is created by the detector. And different detectors can be made to produce different sounds for the same particles. A typical Geiger counter produces more clicks for more particles detected, but a counter could just as easily be made to produce a higher volume — so one particle detected produced one soft tone, and many particles produce one loud tone — but, while we experience the tone and the volume when the Geiger counter detects particles, the particles themselves have no tone or volume.
But our eyes are in fact like Geiger counters for electromagnetic radiation. We have detectors (receptors: cones and rods) in our eyes which each detect electromagnetic radiation at particular wavelengths. When electromagnetic radiation of the right wavelength and intensity hits one of those receptors, an impulse is fired along the optic nerve. That radiation is then perceived by our mind as colours, and the varying intensity of that radiation is perceived as variations in brightness in our mind. The colours and brightness of light exist nowhere but in our mind. Objects we see, do not have any inherent colour, they simply absorb many wavelengths of visible electromagnetism and those which are not absorbed are reflected, to be detected by our eyes, and those reflected rays are perceived by our mind as colours. A green leaf is not actually green at all, it is an object which absorbs most visible electromagnetic rays, reflecting only those rays with wavelengths we perceive and associate with green.
Phenomenal when you stop to think about it: the colours and brightness we see are entirely our own creation, in our own mind. Phenomenal, and yet true. At best we can say that what we see ‘out there’ is a mental overlay we create to make sense of an entirely ‘dark’ reality filled with electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths. The picture as we see it exists only in our mind. Indeed, the picture we see doesn’t even exist in our brain — if you cut open a brain you will find no ‘screen’, no picture, no place where that image exists in its entirety, not even individual coloured pixels scattered about. Without consciousness, there is no picture. The picture is a purely conceptual interpretation of entirely ‘dark’ radiation. Who is doing the conceptual interpretation — the viewing — of that image, and where is it?
“But wait, there’s more!” This perception is not restricted to our sight: Exactly the same applies to all our senses.
Sound is a quality our mind creates as a way of differentiating variations in air pressures as they impact upon receptors — tiny hairs — within our ears, firing nerve impulses. Those variations in air pressure have no quality or attribute ‘tone’ or ‘volume’, they’re just waves of air pressure. What we call “tone” is in fact only the frequency of those variations in air pressure which our ears detect and are perceived by our mind, presented in our thoughts, as a sound. And the intensity of those waves are perceived by our mind as volume. The qualities of tone and volume as we perceive them are, again, just a mental overlay our minds create to make sense of an entirely silent reality filled with rapidly varying air pressures. The age-old question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is deeper than at first it may appear, and easy to answer with certainty: No, the tree does not make a sound; it disturbs the air which creates waves of varying air pressure — like a stone creates waves in the water — but the actual thing we perceive as sound — that noise — is not created until a mind perceives those air pressure waves, and that sound exists only in the mind.
Just ask anyone suffering from tinnitus: No physical object is ‘out there’ producing waves of air pressure, yet in your mind there is a sound. A sound in your mind indistinguishable from a ‘real’ sound, except it has no external source — there is no alarm clock out there, no electronic device producing a high-pitched peep, no truck rumbling over the road, no one ceaselessly clicking their nails. But the sounds a tinnitus sufferer hears are, in fact, every bit as authentic as those resulting from an external source, because in both cases, the sound is produced by the mind.
Food consists of molecules, and those molecules have no attribute of ‘taste’. They have particular structures, forms which our taste-buds detect, and those detected forms are perceived by our mind as tastes. Bitter, sweet, salty, savoury — these qualities correspond to the molecules’ various forms, but exist only in the mind.
And so also for our senses of smell and touch.
Now, I have carefully avoided using the terms, “in our head” and “in our brain”. First of all, because these are physical things, and our consciousness is not physical. Our perception is that sights and sounds are perceived in our head because that’s where their corresponding sensory organs are located. We don’t generally say we feel an object in our head, we say we feel the object at the place the feeling originates — our fingers, for example. If our eyes were in our knees, we would probably have an entirely different sense of where we see. But, wherever it seems to be, the actual interpretation of our senses is in that ‘place’ where our consciousness is. The fact that the majority of our senses are located in our head, gives us the illusion that our consciousness is located there, too. But if we were born with only the sense of touch, I believe we would be convinced that our consciousness was throughout our entire body.
We are accustomed to referring to sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch as “senses”. But in reality we don’t sense what is ‘out there’, we quite literally make sense of it. We create qualities in our mind which are not actually ‘out there’ — outside our mind. We are so accustomed to our perceptions that it can be very difficult at first to separate them from the reality of what we are perceiving. For most people, it is simply taken for granted that our perceptions of colour, brightness, tone, volume, taste, smell and touch are actual attributes of the things themselves, when in fact they are all mental overlays.
The way you experience colour and brightness is entirely a product of your mind, and so you may see the colour green in other sorts of hues that I cannot even imagine. Or maybe you experience seeing in your mind the way I experience smelling in mine. But since neither of us can look into the other’s mind, we both agree that what we are experiencing is, say, bright green, because every time we experience it, we individually experience the same thing as we’ve experienced before, which we have each always called bright green.
Green, screeching, bitter, pungent, hot: none of these are actual attributes of anything physical, they are all experiences created entirely by our mind.
But if all that we see ‘out there’ is just electromagnetic radiation, with no colour or brightness, why do we see that image out there? That is to say, why aren’t we aware of the fact that the actual image which our mind created is in our mind? Since the image is created in our mind, why don’t we see it like a projection on a screen in a cinema within the mind? Somehow our mind is very adept at creating the illusion that the overlay is outside itself, in the same way that if you wear headphones, close your eyes and listen to a stereo recording of a person walking by, you can be convinced the sound is not emanating from the headphones, but ‘out there’ in front of you.
So what exactly is out there, beyond our perception? Even including our own physical body, which we sense in exactly the same way we sense the rest of the universe, albeit (apparently) more intimately. What is actually outside our consciousness? We typically define the boundary between what we call “me” and the rest of the universe as the thin layer of skin covering our body — the outermost part of our sensory organs. But every bit of our body is experienced — sensed — by our mind in the same way we sense everything outside our skin, namely entirely a perception in our mind with not one of the intrinsic physical attributes we perceive it in our mind to have. So, even though we project a physical boundary, as far as the mind is concerned, the body inside our skin is every bit as ‘out there’ as everything outside our skin.
Here’s an astonishing consequence: All scientific evidence is entirely based directly or indirectly on our senses — colour, temperature, touch, sound, etc. — which, as we’ve already seen, are mental perceptions which exist only in the mind and contain no attributes intrinsic to physical reality. So, if all the evidence is known not to be physical let alone objective, how can one say there is scientific evidence for a physical reality? Indeed, there is no objective scientific evidence for physical reality.
That’s not necessarily to say that nothing ‘out there’ physically exists, but if it does then the best we can say is that it’s ‘something’ that your mind paints with its own colours and shades, tastes and smells and sounds, perhaps a soup of radiation and forces swirling about in silent darkness, figuratively and literally illuminated by our consciousness. If there is a physical reality, we have no way of knowing anything of its true nature – at least not by direct or indirect use of our senses.
All perceived qualities — i.e. all those things by which we supposedly know what a physical reality is like — exist solely in the mind. Put another way: without consciousness, there exists no colour, no brightness, no sound, no taste, no smell… no hot nor cold, no smooth nor rough. So what is physical reality without consciousness? What is it, without a mind to perceive it? Since a physical universe doesn’t actually have any of the properties we perceive, and all those properties exist only in our mind, what sense does it even make to say the physical universe existed and evolved before there was any mind?
The impression of a physical reality ‘out there’ is all we’ve ever known, so it’s no wonder we have trouble challenging that assumption. But let’s look at it from another angle: If you first assume that you are a consciousness with the ability to imagine and create images, sound and other perceptions, why would you then theorise that there is some physical reality outside your consciousness, the true nature of which which you cannot know? If you theorise the existence of something you know you cannot know, then you also know it can never be scientifically tested.
As I wrote in my essay on consciousness, the only thing we each know for certain, the only thing for which each of us has irrefutable proof, is one’s own consciousness. Proving physical reality exists is impossible, whereas proving mental reality exists is trivially self-evident: I know I am conscious because I know I am conscious. Also in that essay, I also show that knowledge cannot not exist: put simply, if knowledge couldn’t exist, then the fact that it can’t exist is itself knowledge, and therefore a contraction. So knowledge exists, irrespective of anything else, and knowledge implies a knower. What is consciousness other than self-reflective knowledge?
All the physical aspects we believe/assume reality has, produce endless complications (e.g. time, singularities, how did it come into being etc. etc.). A purely mental reality could do everything a physical reality could, but without those complications. So if you have a choice between two models, Ockham’s Razor suggests you favour the less complicated of the two, especially if that simpler model doesn’t result in those unnecessary complications. Again, if everything we know of reality is in fact a mental overlay, and a physical reality is unknowable; if there is no difference whether the universe is only in our mind, or if it is in our mind and also ‘out there’, existing on its own in an unknowable form, then indeed there’s no reason to theorise there is anything ‘out there’, outside our mind. Applying Ockham’s razor, we should choose the simpler theory: Physical reality is an illusion of consciousness.
Life… is a state of mind.
Being There (1979)
The reason we tend to pick the more complicated model — the reality with unknowable physical aspects — is because the illusion of reality being ‘out there’, outside mind, is, again, all we’ve ever known and been taught, so we rarely even realise we should question it, that we should challenge one of our most fundamental of assumptions. It’s such a deep assumption that, despite there being no reason for it, we think it insane to question it. But perhaps we should be asking, instead: At what point did we forget that it is all in the mind?
The insistence that the physical reality is required as the foundation for our mental reality, is based on the notion that a physical reality plus a mental reality is somehow easier to explain than just a mental reality. And that, in turn, is related to our obsession with a mechanical universe: everything must be reducible to mechanics, so consciousness must also be the result of a physical machine. It’s taboo for any self-respecting scientist publicly to consider that it could be the other way around. Many if not most of today’s scientists believe consciousness is an illusion of a machine, which is infinitely more complicated than saying it is the machine that is the illusion of our consciousness.
Many physicists believe that one or both of time and space is actually an elaborate illusion, a result of quantum entanglement or a type of holographic projection. Physics equations break down when they deal with singularities, such as black holes or the “big bang”. We seem to be chasing Alice down the rabbit hole as physicists look deeper and deeper into the physical universe. Even if there is eventually some grand unifying equation discovered, physicists will still not be able to answer the fundamental question, “Who am I?”
But, according to the simpler theory, the dimensions of space we perceive are in fact a thought, an imagining, like the very real but dimensionless space in our dreams. We already know that our entire perception of a physical reality is an illusion — none of the physical things we see, hear, feel, taste, smell actually has those qualities our mind gives them. Nothing has that colour green we see, nothing has that sound we hear. Underneath it all, even knowing that our mind creates elaborate overlays in order to navigate reality, we still believe that reality really is ‘out there’ and, although we don’t usually think of it this way, that ‘out there’ starts with our own body, which itself is perceived with the same mental overlay: the colour, the smell, the taste or the sounds our body makes — these visualisations and sensations are all creations of our mind which are not actual, physical attributes of the body itself.
Gone would be the questions of “How big?” and “Where?” Space would have no physical dimensions, and yet it would be infinite — as far as thought can go. Without physical dimensions, there is suddenly no problem with singularities nor a paradox surrounding quantum entanglement at a distance. And as time is simply a measure of change of a physical reality, it too is an illusion of consciousness, for if reality is a thought, then change within that thought is also a thought. The way in which we perceive change and order is constrained only by thought. So the illusion of time is created by the intent of our consciousness.
Imagine an invisible train, rolling through your inner landscape, towards a wonderful, exciting destination. And if you could catch sight of that train just once, you could swing up on board and start walking towards the engine. And what then? Well then, you could possibly answer the most important question in the universe: Who are you?
I’m not suggesting we are dreaming, in the sense that we are asleep in some other reality to which we will someday wake up. That’s just begging the question, part of our obsession with the idea there must be a physical reality at some level. We are not in a Matrix, we are not a subject of Inception. I’m suggesting that it’s not physical reality which is the foundation upon which thought is created, but that it’s thought — consciousness — which is the foundation upon which our ‘physical’ reality is created: our physical reality exists only in thought. The closest analogy I can think of, is that we are a lucid dream.
Now just because reality might ‘only’ be consciousness with no physical reality, doesn’t mean it’s any less genuine. We have a tendency to think it would be less real only because we have always assumed it is physical, and it’s very hard to change an assumption when we are not even aware it was an assumption. If we are conscious and this is ‘just’ a conscious reality, then everything we experience is most certainly entirely real and genuine, just as it is: it really does exist. Reality does exist, but its physicality – the existence of objects independent of consciousness – is an illusion.
As I have shown, there is no objective scientific evidence for the existence of a physical reality – i.e. of something which exists independently of consciousness. We each have self-evident proof of consciousness. Our dreams are evidence that our consciousness is capable of creating an illusion of physical reality complete with the sensations of pleasure and pain. Rather than assume the existence of a physical reality for which we have no objective evidence, and believe that consciousness for which we have proof is emergent from physical reality, it is infinitely more logical and reasonable to assume that consciousness is primary, and that physical reality is an illusion of consciousness. It’s not that the physical universe exists only when some consciousness is there to perceive it – the moon springing into existence only when someone looks at it, so to say – it is that substance is purely a concept, and ‘physical’ reality exists only in consciousness.
And since belief without proof is faith, then the science of materialism is faith-based. Materialistic science can have no more claim to ‘the truth’ than any other faith-based system. The fact that most people I’ve spoken to find this statement absurd, shows just how deep the assumptions regarding science run. I refer to it as scientific fundamentalism.
Yet the core assumption of science is that physical reality exists, so if it is an illusion, then science is nothing more than a tool for modelling an illusion in which it is ‘trapped’. In a crude comparison, imagine you lived in a computer simulation game, such as SimCity: you might be able to discern all the rules of the simulation, but you would not be able to understand why, say, certain parameters – certain constants – constrained those rules; and you would not be able to understand where your world is. The ‘physical’ things you experience – the ‘space’ – would not actually exist physically anywhere. Furthermore, nothing you experience would bear any resemblance whatsoever to the underlying reality. All the rules and constants and ‘laws’ you discovered would actually only tell you something about the model, and absolutely nothing about the true nature of reality.
To understand a conscious reality, we need a fundamentally new approach. In this sense, science is the most effective distraction from fundamental truth we have ever conceived. We think it is leading us to the ultimate facts, but that’s like expecting the rules of chess to reveal the maker of a chessboard.
Reality is, the dreamer and the dream are one.
Self-reflective knowledge which cannot not exist, and hence depends upon nothing else for being.
copyright © 2016, 2018, 2022 Scott Owen