Time to Get Real: The Riddle of Perception (Part 2)

Co-authored with Murali Doraiswamy, M.D.; Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.; and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D.

In the first post we said that the world that we perceive, with all its colors, textures and sounds, isn't the same as the real world. Other creatures process the raw data of the world far differently from us, like the eagle, which can spot a mouse from hundreds of feet in the air, or the desert fox, whose oversized ears can hear an insect crawling under the sand of a dune. As important as these differences are, the real question is how our brains turn sense data into reality, for that is what we are doing every moment of our lives. There is no light or sound inside the dark, damp recesses of the brain, no pictures or music, yet somehow we see, hear, touch, taste and feel things as if they were reliably real.

They aren't. A century ago quantum physics demoted the solid material world to a domain of probability waves arising from an infinite quantum field. But then a dead end suddenly appeared. Our minds think in terms of time and space, yet if you want to know where the quantum field comes from, the next horizon is timeless and without location. Such a domain is literally inconceivable. This would be an academic point except that when you and I convert photons into visible light using the visual cortex, we are working at the quantum level.

It does little good to say that there is a "virtual" field or a "pre-created state" from which the visible universe emerged. These are suppositions that are conveniently employed when the truth about reality is simply X, the unknown. Calling it "timeless" simply pastes a word onto something that our brains cannot think about, not as long as it takes time for neurons to operate. Across the border between the quantum field and X, the unknown, our minds cannot go. We are creatures of time and space, so naturally it's not shocking that we aren't able to conceive of the timeless and the dimensionless. Is it shocking that an earthworm can't do algebra?

Yet in some miraculous way, we convert the inconceivable into our everyday world, as do all living creatures after their own fashion. In other words, we can do this amazing thing, but we can't explain how. The brain cannot explain how it turns photons into the experience of redness. The brain cannot explain itself any more than a computer can explain its own software (because such an explanation requires software, the very thing that needs explaining). We cannot answer the question "what is a thought?" without thinking, and yet that's the very thing to be explained. In all these matters, the snake winds up biting its own tail. The brain can think about itself when we decide to be self-reflective, but it can't think outside itself.

If there is no material link between perception and reality, you could speculate that there is no reality at all, or that there are infinite realities, or that there are just images that we mistake for the real thing, like Plato's shadows playing on the walls of a cave. Many sorts of mental trickery can be employed to get around the inconceivable. Yet there is no need for trickery unless you are desperately attached to defending materialism by constantly patching its holes. The bald fact is that each of us is turning the inconceivable into the conceivable at every moment. In other words, we are participating in the chain of events that leads from X, the unknown, to a red rose on Valentine's Day. Just as clearly, our participation is conscious. This leads to the hypothesis that consciousness is at the root of reality making.

Science works by accepting the hypothesis that is the simplest and most elegant at offering an explanation. Because there has been not the slightest success in discovering how consciousness is created from atoms and molecules, it is far simpler -- and therefore more scientific -- to say that consciousness is the X, the unknown. It is also much simpler to assume that consciousness is the basic "stuff" of the universe. Atoms and molecules then become the symbols for the information that our brains produce in interpreting consciousness. In fact, as the creation of consciousness (like a piano created to make music), our brains can be considered as consciousness interpreting itself. As the philosopher Peter Wilberg cogently points out, we don't see because we have eyes; we have eyes because the mind wanted to see.

The Vedic tradition of India made such a claim when it declared that "the inconceivable gives rise to all that can be conceived." A card-carrying scientist can shrug this off as metaphysics, but that, too, only attempts to patch the hole. The fact remains that reality isn't perception, so if you want to know reality, perception is a false start. Arch materialists like Richard Dawkins, whose crusade is to deny the existence of spirituality, God and higher reality -- choose any term you want -- can't make a move without this same false start. They entirely rely on the perceptual world as a given, ignoring a century of quantum evidence that reality is, at best, highly questionable as a match for the five senses.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel has been a gadfly at the materialist picnic ever since the publication of his 1974 article "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", which raised the question of how different species perceive the world. His most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, has raised unusual ire for directly refuting neo-Darwinism and the materialist view of the cosmos. Nagel, an avowed atheist, wasn't arguing on behalf of God but on behalf of logic and philosophy. There are too many holes in materialism for it to stand. If materialism falls, then science must shift, and as Nagel views it, the shift will be radical. As a respectable gadfly, he speculates that current evolutionary notions "will come to seem laughable in a generation or two." It is not really a war between science and religion but a radically different approach between outdated materialism and consciousness-based science.

Since evolutionary theory tells us who we are and where life came from, Nagel's prediction applies to science in general and the consensus that has formed around it. Who we are and where we came from are questions about reality itself. Our hypothesis is that consciousness came first; it is the source of evolution, life, creativity in nature and the emergence of intelligence. The alternative, that random material events produced all those things, is simply untenable and ultimately unscientific. Should we be biased by the experience of skin-encapsulated mechanosensory receptors transmitting electrochemical signals to the brain? Must we be convinced of material objects floating around in a limited expanse of space surrounded by a void? Or is it easier to believe that our minds act as unique vessels of awareness navigating a universe of pure consciousness to create the notion of a material world? In the latter case, the story of creation is the story of consciousness becoming ever more aware of itself through a brilliant variety of life forms, including humans but not restricted to us.

Deepak Chopra, M.D., is the author of more than 70 books, 21 of which were New York Times bestsellers. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and a leading physician in the areas of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and the director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He is the co-author (with Deepak Chopra) of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics at Chapman University. He is the co-author (with Deepak Chopra) of the forthcoming book Who Made God (And Other Cosmic Riddles) (Harmony).

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