There is a tale about an Indian king that my father-in-law is fond of telling. The story goes that one night the king dreamt that he was a pauper; he woke up very disturbed because now he did not know whether he was a pauper dreaming that he was a king or a king who had dreamt that he was a pauper. We are like the king; how do we know we are not in a dream?
Even science can’t tell me if I am dreaming or awake at this moment. As I write this sentence, I could be dreaming that I am writing this sentence. The brain processes are the same when I am dreaming as when I am awake. The firing of neurons in our brains is how we see, feel or sense anything. Our senses bring information from the outside world to our brains through our neural systems. The trees we see, the birds in the sky, and other people, are all created in our brains. Every object outside us has a unique pattern of neuron firings. Each blade of grass, each cloud in the sky, everything has a unique pattern of neural firings in our brains. All that we perceive- the world outside us, our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations- are patterns in our brains. Our dreams are also made of patterns of neurons firing in the brain. How our dreams are made is no different from how reality is constructed in our brains. We create the world in our minds. Our world is a projection of our mind. It is all in our heads. What is inside is outside.
Our body, too, is a pattern of neuronal firings. I perceive my body as a pattern of firings in my brain. This does not mean that my body does not exist; all I can be sure of is that something exists. This “something” creates a pattern of neuronal firings, which my brain makes me believe is my body. For all I know, I might be a hat rack. Oliver Sacks’ book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a hat”[i] is about a brain impairment called visual agnosia, wherein a person is unable to recognize objects. Sacks writes in his book about a man with visual agnosia who mistook his wife for a hat. The point is that our brain creates an image we recognize as our body. When the brain circuitry is impaired, as in the case of patients with visual agnosia, the image created to represent the body could be anything. Those afflicted with anorexia have a distorted image of their body, making them think that they are overweight when they are underweight. These examples illustrate what shaky ground we are on when we accept, uncritically, as real what our senses tell us.
“…few things about our beings are as remarkable, foundational, and seemingly mysterious as consciousness. Without consciousness- a mind endowed with subjectivity- you would have no way of knowing that you exist, let alone know who you are or what you think. “Antonio Damasio,[ii] professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the head of the Brain and Creativity Institute, in his book “Self Comes to Mind,” writes.
According to Damasio, our brain creates our conscious mind. Our conscious mind creates our reality. He continues, “The fact that no one sees the mind of others, conscious or not, is especially mysterious. We can see their bodies and actions, what they do or say or write, and make informed guesses about their thoughts. We cannot observe their minds, and only we can observe ours, from the inside and through a rather narrow window.”
Damasio offers a neuroscientist’s view of how our mind creates our reality. Damasio is saying that the contents of our mind create our reality. If we change the contents of our minds, we change our reality. Let this sink in. Each one of us exists in our reality. And, each of our realty is mind created. It is as if each of our lives is in our bubble or a simulated reality of our creation.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, believes that the odds are that we are living in a simulation. His argument goes that the swift advancement of video game technology indicates we’ll be capable of creating a fully lifelike simulation of existence in a short period. In 40 years, Musk explained, we’ve gone from Pong to massively multiplayer online games with millions of simultaneous players, games with photorealistic graphics, and stand now on the cusp of a new wave of virtual and augmented reality experiences.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said. Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”
We each inhabit a different reality, a reality of our creation. Therefore, the truth that each of us perceives is relative. So, what is absolute Reality?
No matter, no mind. No mind, no matter. Which came first, mind or matter? This is the existential question.
[ii] (Damasio, 2010)