Throughout my life I have had strange sensations that make reality seem altogether unreal, things that I hadn’t been aware of being universal. Oh, perhaps I assumed they were and never thought about it, but equally plausible, I assumed they were singular to me and thus never thought about it. As I grow older and more saturated by intellectual trivia, I learn that all, or at least, many of us share these seemingly subjective and arbitrarily indescribably experiences. In fact, many of them even have names.
The Tetris syndrome, wherein a particular task, such as playing Tetris, so dominates your life that it inundates your thoughts for days after, fills your dreams, and literally flashes before your eyes. This happened to me not only with Tetris, but with computer solitaire, and various work-related consternations, like being ‘in the weeds’ with sandwiches and fries. As a preteen, my obsession with Star Wars was such that I was seeing TIE-fighters in floor tiles, quilt patters, grains of wood.
I have sometimes felt my leg or even arm (especially when falling asleep in a chair) to spasm me back into waking, ever so slightly. This is called a Hypnic Jerk. And that strange sensation of falling or tripping just at the precipice of sleep, and the sudden awakening to catch yourself, it is called, for some reason, The Strange Falling Sensation.
An entire field of research is dedicated to the absurd and yet all-too-common area of synchronicities. Thinking about someone and then they call you, dreaming about events or locations before you actually experience them (or spookily, before they exist at all), odd names that seem to pop up all at once, songs or newly learned words and phrases that once obtained for the first time, seemed to be noticed absolutely everywhere. Perhaps strangest of all, I found myself reading the Coincidence File by Ken Anderson, and using a picture of an old classmate as a bookmark. Who should appear some months later but this same classmate, commenting on having also read the same book. It is, incidentally, a great book full of fresh case files and possible explanations for the meaning (or meaninglessness) behind eerie synchronicity.
Sometimes I am sitting in a room, visualizing or fantasizing, when it occurs to me that I am actually thinking about events (past or fictional), that occurred in the very next room, or perhaps in the very room I am in, but in my mind’s eye they were oriented differently (objects in the room, the direction facing the room, my concept of ‘font and behind me’) than I am at that point. It is somewhat jarring.
I have experienced not only déjà vu, but additional levels of it, sometimes one after another in a long sequence. Come to find out, I am not alone in this, it is called Déjà vécu, the feeling of having lived things out before, as if reincarnated, or stuck in a temporal loop, or the entire history of the universe repeating itself a la Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake. As Charles Dickens wrote, “We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time – of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances – of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!” Unfortunately this feeling is delayed, so that it is equally plausible that our brain is only tricking us into believing this synchronicity is occurring. Surveys have revealed that as much as 70% of the population have had these experiences, usually between the ages of 12 to 25.
Incidentally, the phenomenon of having something on the tip of your tongue, unable to recall it entirely, is called presque vu, or ‘being on the edge of an epiphany.’ I liken it to waking and trying to remember your dreams, often in vain.
I have discovered that the occasional (but by no means frequent) invasion of a subsonic sensation in my ears that none around me can hear is quite possibly a condition called Tinnitus. Though Tinnitus is usually explained biologically, sometimes even objectively hearable and verified by a doctor as emanating from the ear itself, there are also ‘Hums’ reported all over the world, from Hawaii and Mexico, to Auckland, Australia. I believe that I have a heightened sense of hearing, as I can usually tell from a reasonable distance, even through doors or walls, if someone has a television on, and I can determine who is at the door, simply by the way they hold and move their keys.
People with synæsthesia experience sensory data differently than most. We are all aware of what a ‘loud shirt’ is, or the consistency of food. But a Synæsthesiac would be constantly experiencing the shape of tastes, the sound of colors, the taste of words, the physical feeling of sounds… Letters and numbers can even evoke colors, days of the week and months hint of personalities. I must admit a certain affection for Thursday, being such an absurd and likeable fellow. I can also identify with the synæsthesiac’s tendency to ‘view’ periods of time spatially, as 1984 is ‘further away’ than 1991, but certainly not as inconceivably ‘far’ as 33 B.C.E. And tell me you’ve never thought of letters in this way: “T’s are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but… 3 I cannot trust… 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity” -Synæsthetic subject report in Calkins 1893, p. 454.
On acid (which I maintain did not expand my mind, but merely temporarily confused it into letting me see things how I really wanted, replacing its everyday lies with yet others), I was able to see additional colors of the light spectrum vibrate from different kinds of lights. Usually eyes adjust well to light, and it is not an overpowering green fluorescent, or orange-gold street light, sending arcs and spots into our periphery. But effervescent rainbows played upon the center of my eyes, often without the aid of lights at all (as lingering on the inside of my eyelid). Not only did forms and shapes, like my knuckles, reflection, and someone’s gauged earlobe, stretch and contort, but time itself became unusually arbitrary, as if breathing in… and out. Thoughts assaulted me with electric intensity, and sounds seemed to echo and buzz. My feet sunk into asphalt, buildings bent in to meet me. I somewhat lost control over the volume of my voice, and so stayed silent most of the night.
A long and rewarding conversation over pizza, soda, and cigarette börek with Eric concerning time travel, the infinity of space, and finally the parallels between his epilepsy and my acid trip, which both of agreed we would not like to see mixed. He has déjà vu, jamais vu (the feeling that none of this has happened before, though it should be familiar), re-sequencing of memory, loss of memory, reviewing specific parts of his life (in essence a ‘time travel’), additional sounds, tastes, and smells that are not truly present. Signs of a Complex Partial Seizure may include motionless staring, automatic movements of the hands or mouth, inability to respond to others, unusual speech, or other unusual behaviors, all of which I have seen Eric experiencing. Some epileptics also encounter ‘auras.’ Some, like Eric, are artistically compelled, with the overall intensified colors, sounds, and emotions in their life. Alcoholism, mania, pedantism, hallucinations and hypergraphia (the extreme compulsion to write) are not uncommonly linked with epilepsy. Though his experiences and mine differed in many ways, and were caused by different afflictions of the temporal lobe (his being a chronic neurological condition, mine being the result of psychedelic drug use), the similarities were astonishing!
And the more I sought, the more I found answers, names and case studies for all of those little things that are kind of bizarrely insanely altogether human. It seemed that I was not alone, after all, an answer to that question before I laconically came around to asking it.
It seems then, that true physical reality exists, and not my subjectively filtered perception of it, which alas, would be my only way of perceiving the world. With further empirical data to eradicate those things that seemed to be singularly constructing my own world-absorbing apparatus. However, another equally unconfirmable possibility was that my mind was filling in the pertinent details and connecting them up dubiously with previously established paradigms of thought. But that would mean that a lot of things in life wouldn’t make sense.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized a lot of things don’t make sense.
When two people are arguing with each other, but it turns out they are both arguing on the same side for the same thing. That I can look at a sign of numbers passing my field of vision, and not know for certain that it will remain the same. (My friend Paul and I as kids tried to remember a license plate for all time, but neither of us can remember it now. Who is to say it would even be the same?) Little things inexplicably get lost. Facts seem to change, like that obscure D-list celebrity that I heard about dying, who is in fact still alive. A particular part of a song, which I swear contains my favorite coda, no longer does. Favored television shows go off of the air if I neglect to keep up with them, as if I alone determined their ratings and thus cancellation. Time moving in bizarre, almost dreamlike ways, too slow or too fast, depending on the task at hand (it flies, for example, when I am having fun).
How do I know that a strawberry to me doesn’t taste different to you, we have only ‘agreed’ upon the descriptions for it such as ‘sweet’ or ‘tart.’ Empirical data such as testing other foods and comparing their collectively agreed upon adjectives might help, but it still doesn’t say anything for the individual’s subjective experience of it. It may seem an arbitrary point in practical life, but one central to the issues of identity, self, individuality, and consciousness. Similarly, how do we know that we all identify the same color spectrum. With a can of paint labeled ‘red,’ a physical crayon that exists, we could hardly get it wrong, so long as all of the colors were delineated for us somehow. Someone who is color blind cannot see certain or any colors, and cats see color in a different way to the extent that red and turquoise aren’t just reversed, but indistinguishable. Those sorts of color problems negate the experiential data of the whole, and become obvious anomalies. But who is to say that the ‘red’ that I see isn’t based on an entirely different spectrum, totally unknown and alien to you than yours, and vice-versa.
It occurred to me once or twice that the lives of the deaf or blind have no basis for what phenomenon we experience daily, and yet, without being told otherwise, might assume that everyone was the same. That without knowing that what they had was a specific affliction, they wouldn’t identify it as an affliction at all! In the H.G. Wells’ 1904 story, “The Country of the Blind” a man finds himself into an isolated valley, where generations were exposed to a disease that rendered all newborns blind. By the time the last sighted villager had died, the blind had their other senses honed to peak performance and adapted well to their environment. Believing that, ‘in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king,’ the interloper attempts to educate and conquer them. But having no concept of ‘sight,’ indeed no concept of ‘blindness,’ they write him off as a lunatic, or perhaps some sort of anomaly himself.
In philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What is it Like to be a Bat?” he writes about the subjective character of experience. “…if the facts of experience—facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” We can know that it is like something to be like a bat, but we cannot know what it is like to be a bat.
In Philip K. Dick’s 1978 essay, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, he writes: “Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe, it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown of communication… and there is the real illness.”
He is espousing a philosophical concept known as representationalism. Representative realism states that we do not (and cannot) perceive the external world directly; instead we know only our ideas or interpretations of objects in the world. But a problem with representationalism is that if simple data flow and information processing is assumed then something in the brain, described as a homunculus, must be viewing the perception, and thus is a biological and physical effect, which should make most of our worldviews coincide. A further difficulty is that, if we only have knowledge of the representations of our perceptions, how is it possible to show that they resemble in any significant way the objects to which they are supposed to correspond? According to this theory, the external world is only to be inferred, our perception of the external world is mediated by way of sense data such as photons and sound waves.
If the world of the blind and the world of a bat and the world of an epileptic and the world of a synæsthetic and the world of a schizophrenic and the world of an acidhead and the world of you and the world of me are all their own, then clearly we cannot identify the base reality, the absolute zero reality, the ‘true character of experience.’ There can be no real consensus as to what constitutes normalcy, if two witnesses near a fatal shooting cannot agree on the calibre of gun they heard fired, the timbre, the number of shots, or even that there were any shots at all! Surely, location, acoustics, and memory are all details to take into account, but let’s assume that each of these witnesses firmly believes that their point-of-view is the correct one.
The problem then, is one not so much of our worldviews being so drastically different that we each exist in our own spheres, but that all of our spheres are intermingled, some (like the bat and the schizophrenic), only slightly. The closer the spheres are, the more our worldviews agree, but no two can be completely identical. The logical follow-up question, then, is ‘what is the normal reality that most of us are seeming to be attaining?’ As Philip K. Dick postulated, for all we know, it is the schizophrenic whose world is ‘correct.’ Does majority rule? Is it Darwinian? Does the fabric of reality restructure itself based on our beliefs, such as when I inferred that evidence literally ‘presented itself’ to me because I needed evidence to do so? There cannot then, be any ‘correct’ universe, or ‘ideal’ universe. However, this becomes a problem when we talk about practical application; facing challenges of class stratification, racism, religious war, social neglect, world hunger, etc. Is it not true that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all just clashing points-of-view, of disparate realities with differing location, acoustics, and memory, each resulting in wildly different texts? None (or perhaps all) of them can be said to truly be accounting for things ‘wrong.’ Overall then, what does this subjective reality problem say, not only for reality and consciousness, but for truth itself?
As Nagel put it, “Without some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.” All attempts, it would mean, are futile.
William James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. Truth, he said, is that which works in the way of belief. “True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse” but “all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere,” he wrote.
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that no formal system which aims to define natural numbers can actually do so, it will inevitably contain statements that are neither provably true nor provably false. In essence, no formal system is ever truly ‘complete.’ (Though this refers to formal logic, and probably not so much our complicated and vast universe, the implications are still apparent.)
Counter-intuitively, many philosophers and scientists, notably Karl Popper, believe that a scientific theory cannot be truly scientific unless it has some basis for falsifiability. Not that it necessarily is false, just that it can be. As Stephen Hawking explains, “No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.” A logistical problem of induction and science in general. Since we were not around to watch evolution take place, it will always remain, in the strictest sense, a ‘theory.’
Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states, very simply, that it is impossible to know both the momentum and location of particles. This is not to say that the act of observing the event changes it, (commonly known as the Observer Effect), but rather, that in quantum physics particles do not truly ‘exist’ in particular locations and movement the way all of us ‘do.’ Of course, we are all composed of particles, which are constantly jumping in and out of existence like thoughts. Particles have been known to teleport through space, even through time. We are also limited by our technology and knowledge in this area.
Michel De Montaigne in the sixteenth century was instrumental in the development of Skepticism, the belief that humans are unable to attain true certainty. He famously said, ‘Que sais-je?’ or ‘What do I know?’.
There are holes in the universe, but more importantly, these holes (in physics, in logic, in basic continuity, structure and cohesion) aren’t just occasional lapses in the continuum, but even necessary to it. How can such a contradiction be?
If all of our information is arbitrary, ultimately subjective, dubious, faulty, or outright useless, how can we be sure of any real time-frame, if part of this ‘self-correcting system’ is to fill in those ‘pertinent details?’ The universe was created 13.73 ± 0.12 billion years ago, or twenty seconds ago. It will fall apart in 100 billion years, or approximately three days. Space expands with no intrinsic limit on its rate. If space were speeding up, expanding, contracting, slowing down, it wouldn’t really matter to us, provided it did it uniformly.
But how can something that at one point existed as a small point of finite matter, or for that matter, pre-existed that as nothing at all, now exist as infinite? Anything that is bounded in any way by definition ceases to be infinite. A line moves ‘infinitely’ in both directions, and a ray moves ‘infinitely’ in one, but unless they more infinitely in all directions, nay, never had a starting point or direction at all but always existed infinitely, then it isn’t true infinity. If I were to become a god tomorrow and think and live for eternity on eternal type things, I would still not be infinite, because I was born. A starting date is just an expiration date in reverse.
The Greek philosopher Lucretius (99-55 B.C.E.) proposed that the universe is necessarily boundless. Say for example, you were to hold as spear to the ‘edge’ of the universe, and then throw it. It should either continue, or bounce back, n’est pas? If so, then there is clearly either more space for it to continue through, or a physical object that prevents it, and clearly more universe ‘beyond the edge.’ http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~dhutchin/f1b.htm
Sir Fred Hoyle, the originator for the name of the Big Bang, ironically refuted it as a theory. And though his reasoning that anything infinite must have always been infinite, intuitively, sounds ‘correct,’ his alternative Solid States theory doesn’t enjoy much support these days, as further empirical data supports the Big Bang theory.
Lucretius and his spear, Hoyle and his solid states, however, just might have not been thinking fourth-dimensionally enough. If time is a dimension just as height, width, and depth, and if it is true that space curves, even back upon itself like a doughnut, or that there are an infinite number of universes, then all reasoning flies out the window like so many Bronze Age javelins.
Bishop Étienne Tempier of Paris ruled in 1277 that God could create as many universes as He saw fit, and hey, why not? It is God, after all.
I’m not even going to get into this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory
Continued evidence that the more we learn, the less we know. It is the wise man who admits he knows nothing, implying that knowledge isn’t power.
So what is the most practical, if not pragmatic, definition of reality to live by? I myself prefer Philip K. Dick’s maxim, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Because believe me, some mornings I have tried.