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Hey! Is the World Outside Real?

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By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

What are the odds that we are living in some form of the Matrix?

Since I was a child, I've always been interested in issues related to the mind, consciousness and the 'reality' of the outside world. At college, my curiosity in these issues were piqued even more after i took a few philosophy classes. Now, its been a while since I thought about these things, but for some reason they came to my mind recently again, so I thought I'd write a little article on this. 


Brain in a vat

Most of us take for granted that we can see, hear, feel, smell and taste the physical world. I think that we don’t exactly ‘see’ things, or ‘hear’ things for that matter (at least not in the way that we commonly think we do), what we actually ‘see’ is a representation of the physical world, reproduced in a mental format. More specifically, when we ‘see’ a table for example, it is the result of visual stimulus from photons (or light) reflecting off the table and hitting our retina; we don’t ‘see’ the photons also, they just cause our retina to send a stimulus to our brains, resulting in an internal representation in our minds. Thus, we don’t ‘see’ the table - made up of atoms, nor do we see the photons, what we are ‘seeing’ is in fact a mental representation or perception of the interaction of photons with the table; color and brightness could thus be seen as representations of the different possible interaction between photons and objects.

The same goes for sound, what we hear could be considered a mental representation of the vibration of atoms. It feels somewhat anti-intuitive to think of sight in this manner though, as it is natural for us to take it for granted that the physical world is the way it looks to us; it would be hard to imagine the physical world to be anything other than what we perceive it to be. However, bats are known to be able to hear ultrasound, and there exists animals that can ‘see’ electromagnetic waves outside the visual spectrum; the world would be nothing like what we knew it to be, if we could have their perception. This underscores the fact that perception is a subjective experience, a representation of the physical world that is unique to the individual mind. Could it be the case that the color you perceive as blue is what I perceive as green? Or that saltiness to you, is sweetness to me (I call that particular sensation saltiness all the same because I associate it with the word ‘saltiness’ all along)? That is, if I could somehow swap my perception with yours, would it be radically different from my original one?

Now imagine an unfortunate  girl named Jane, born with none of the five senses. Suppose that she is anatomically complete, except for the fact that the necessary connections of her sense organs to the brain are absent. It would be clear that she has no perception of the external world, but my question is would she have the ability to think? Is thinking dependent on sensory perception? Would she have dreams? Since dreams are states of the mind where the brain is active without any sensory stimulus, would it mean that she would be able to experience some sort of perception (colors for example), if the right parts of the brain were to be somehow stimulated in her dream-state?

Lets leave Jane behind for the moment and consider evolution. If the theory of evolution is correct, we all started out as some from of unicellular organism, and gradually climbed up the evolutionary ladder and became humans. In between single cells and humans, there are creatures like the desert ant, which appear to have perception, but behave like robots made up of biomass; there are creatures that clearly have perception, like dogs and monkeys, and are able to process their sensory inputs in more intricate fashions, in other words, think. But humans stand out because we have this thing called consciousness or qualia that animals do not have (at least it is widely believed that we are unique in this regard). Consciousness enables us to have the concept of ‘I’, and the ability to know that we are thinking, to know that we are experiencing perception, and the ability to examine our own thought processes. But what is it that we have that endows us with this special ability? In evolutionary terms, we are just more creatures that have evolved more complex brains; that explains our thinking power, but it does not adequately explain consciousness because we are basically structurally similar to other animals, all the basic anatomical processes, including those of the brain, are the same.

Do animals possess consciousness too? I remember watching a documentary that featured chimpanzees, it was shown that chimpanzees appear to know that the image in a mirror was themselves; they knew how to groom themselves in the mirror. Other creatures like raccoons or cats are not known to be able to recognize their own images, in fact, they sometimes attempt to attack the image, apparently fooled into thinking that another creature exists at the other end. Could it be that chimps have the concept of ‘I’, and hence consciousness? Or have they learnt how to groom themselves in the mirror simply by associating some form of causal relationship between their actions and that of the image in the mirror?

Coming back to Jane then, although she has no sensory perception, she does have a human brain, so would she be able to experience consciousness? In other words, is consciousness independent of sensory perception? Puzzling. 



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