Reality is an Illusion???
Some time ago I read Oliver Sachs’ An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), and I came away with many things. I was particularly impressed by the first essay in the book, even though the other ones are equally impressive, and have been thinking about its message for quite some time now: “’The Case of the Colorblind Painter’ is about a painter who, after a car accident (possibly preceded and/or caused by a stroke), develops cerebral achromatopsia – he loses the ability to perceive, remember or even imagine colours”.[i] And the upshot is that colour vision is constructed in our brains, and does not reflect reality perceived. Reality seems to be an amalgam of greys, from really light to really dark. The reason I am now thinking about this is another book I am reading right now – Pain. The Science of Suffering (1999) – and its author Patrick Wall’s contention that “brain activity controls the input [of sensory data]. This does [however] not mean that the entire outside world is a hallucination, but it does mean that our senses include active participation of mind and body”. This phrase made me realise that colour vision is apparently a shared hallucination . . . In order to clarify my somewhat flippant statement, I would now like to refer to the work of David Eagleman. He ‘is a neuroscientist and a writer. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. He is best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw. At night he writes. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 23 languages. His book on the internet and civilization, Why the Net Matters, debuts in December 2010. His book on the unconscious brain, Incognito: The Brains Behind the Mind, hits the shelves in April 2011’.[ii] Now that I have give his books some exposure, let me turn to what is of interest to this blog post.
TEDxAlamo – David Eagleman, PhD – 29 October 2009
Turns out that reality is really a “vast symphony of electrical and chemical signals” in our brains . . . The journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin Robert Jensen writes that ‘Eagleman’s small office at Baylor offers no indication of what’s going on in his head; it’s a rather bland space, with little on the walls or the bookshelves. The collective lab space, however, is more eccentric. The whiteboard walls (which are actually a light blue) sport a kind of scientific graffiti—ideas for projects, questions about projects, lists of things to be done on projects—that reflects the serious but anarchic spirit of the lab. It’s clear that Eagleman’s possibilian sensibility affects the spirit of the place. As he finishes up a task on the computer, he is calm and focused. But once Eagleman starts talking, things take off quickly. Swiveling 180 degrees in his chair, his foot pushing off the various pieces of office furniture to propel him around like a wind-up machine, his verbal velocity accelerates as he describes his ideas. Those range from the experiments he’s running to age-old philosophical questions about free will . . . In his thinking about religion, Eagleman takes seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence.” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God can never say with certainty that one doesn’t exist; he’s not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities. Sum is a series of 40 what ifs: What if there is an afterlife where we relive all of our experiences, but shuffled into a new order? What if in the afterlife we confront all the possible versions of our self that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when our name is spoken for the last time? The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals. They are merely vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on vexing philosophical questions. Eagleman’s most basic concern is the mind: Is there anything beyond the physical brain? If there is something beyond, is that what we should call the mind? What does all this mean for the concept of the soul? These are the questions Eagleman wants to answer. In the lab, Eagleman says that he and other neuroscientists work under the assumption that “you are nothing but your brain.” Many scientists and philosophers come close to suggesting that this is not an assumption but a fact. These scientists reduce the mental to the material. That could be the case, Eagleman says, but he’s not certain’.[iii]
[i] “An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks” Things Mean a Lot (13 April 2009). http://www.thingsmeanalot.com/2009/04/anthropologist-on-mars-by-oliver-sacks.html.
[iii] Robert Jensen, “The Soul Seeker. A neuroscientist’s search for the human essence” Texas Observer (03 June 2010). http://www.texasobserver.org/cover-story/the-soul-seeker.