Thursday, December 27, 2012

Consciousness and Reality

Speculative Flights of Fancy about the Nature of Reality, Part II 

In part I of this post, which explored the relationship between individual consciousness and the collective, I promised to offer some more bizarre and hopefully fascinating speculation about the relationship between consciousness and what it is that people are conscious of – that is, what they perceive to be external reality. I posed the question, is reality something that is wholly constructed by each of us and not really independent of our perception of it, or is there an external reality independent of consciousness?

Again my disclaimer:  In this post, I am going to go on a flight of fancy. Nothing in the post is an assertion that anything I am talking about is true, or that it should be construed as proof of anything. It is all speculation and conjecture. Just fun stuff to think about.

In philosophy, a debate has raged for centuries about the nature of reality and its relationship to personal perception.  To greatly over-simplify, and at risk of making a caricature of the positions, we have on one side those who are sometimes referred to as naïve realists, who believe that reality is, well, real, and totally independent of our perceptions of it. While individuals may have a highly distorted view of it, it exists as immutable facts regardless of the observer's bias.

On the other side are the constructivists, who point out that we cannot really “know” what is real except as we perceive and process the universe through our own central nervous systems, which are incapable of reproducing reality exactly as it might be.  In this view, all of our knowledge is distorted somewhat.  Then we have the radical constructivists, who believe that outside reality is completely a product of our own minds – sort of a delusion, if you will.

Clearly, we all live our lives as naïve realists even if we claim to be radical constructivists. Any attempts to deny this would indeed be laughable. We accept much of what we experience as being factual. We have to in order to survive. Some facts do seem rather immutable. Take dead people for instance. Whatever we may think or perceive, dead people do seem to remain dead, and except in the case of Elvis, there doesn't seem to be much disagreement about that.

But then came quantum physics, and the whole debate was rekindled - this time among physicists.  It started with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He showed that it impossible to observe anything at the atomic level without changing that which we are observing, because whatever energy we used for purposes of observing affects and changes the item observed.

Then we discovered what is referred to as the wave/particle duality, wherein electromagnetic energy behaves like a wave if we use certain methods of observation, while it acts like a particle (and has completely different and contradictory properties) if we use other methods.  And we have also found that particles can appear to us to be in two places at once!  Chalk up one for constructivists.

Nobody has won this debate.  Descartes thought he settled it a long time ago.  He thought, therefore he was, and since he believed in God, he believed God would not fool us about the universe outside of ourselves.  Therefore, it must be real.

However, some physicists have even found evidence that they believe proves that nothing can exist in nature without an observer.  Again, with subatomic particles, this seems to have some validity.  But what about the proverbial tree falling in the forest?  Doesn’t it make sound waves regardless of whether anyone is around to hear them?

And of course, the universe existed for literally billions of years before consciousness evolved to perceive it.  Didn’t it?

OK, now for some of my bizarre speculations. I will start with the question I just raised.  I find a possible solution to this issue by asking the question, how fast does an hour go by?  I submit that the answer to this question is entirely a matter of consciousness. Surely, as we grow older, hours seem to race by faster than they did when we were young. We can stand next to a kid, with both of us agreeing that an hour went by, but for the kid it felt like a much longer time than for the older adult right there with him.

But this is just a matter of perception, one might argue.  An hour is an hour.  How fast it seems to go by has absolutely no effect on the physical universe.

Oh yeah?  Well, the theory of relativity predicts, and experiments have proven, that the faster an observers moves, the more time slows down for the observer relative to an observer who is not moving as fast. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more pronounced is this effect. 

If someone took off from earth in a very fast spaceship and stayed away for several years, when he returned to earth, he would be much younger than a friend who was originally the same age but who was left back on the home planet. Interestingly, psychologically the rate of the passage of time would not seem to have been affected for either either of them.

So what does this have to do with the question about whether or not the universe existed before the advent of consciousness?  This: when we are born, could it be that both our consciousness and the universe came to exist almost simultaneously.  The universe, in this scenario, would pop into its existence with its entire history. The billions of years would take place, in the experience of the newly formed consciousness, in what would seem to him to be a fraction of a second relative to him.

If this were true, it would then be possible for “reality” not to exist without someone there to perceive it, at least time-wise. But what about space-wise? Is there not a reality that exists independently of each one of us in space?  Well, I for one believe this to be the case.  But perhaps it does not exist independently of all of us collectively.

This brings us back to the idea of collective consciousness that I talked about in Part I of this post. To understand my crazy speculations about this, I must first raise two questions: 1. Which is a closer representation of reality, a photograph that is in focus or one that is out of focus.  2.  What is the significance of the uncanny but ubiquitous normal distribution (I will define that after I focus on the first question, pun intended).

Which is more accurate: the in-focus face of the pony in the picture below, or the out-of-focus items in the rest of the picture?

Answer: the out of focus part. We know from physics that the electrons which make up the outer shells of every physical object we see can be anywhere – even miles away.  Probabalistically, however, they tend to hang around certain orbits in close proximity to the nuclei of their atoms. But they aren’t there all the time. 

It is our eyes, and therefore our consciousness, which “focuses” them at their most probable location.  If it were not for our consciousness, they might be anywhere at any given moment of time.  At the subatomic  level, without our consciousness, the universe is nothing but an endless sea of subatomic particles that come into and out of existence continually - and nothing more.

This brings us to normal distributions, the proverbial bell shaped curve.  It seems that the vast majority of any measurable quality of items in the universe comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, whose frequency of occurrence follows the pattern in the picture below:

From dice throws to human height and weight to atomic motions in matter to psychological and social events such as how much alcohol people consume, it seems like almost all quantities in nature are distributed in this pattern.  Each flip of a fair coin, even if you’ve already thrown fifty heads in a row, has a fifty percent chance of coming up heads again, but the odds of throwing fifty-one heads in a row at the beginning of your coin-tossing experiment are astronomical.

As physicist Heinz Pagels points out, individual chaos leads to collective determinism.  It seems that the only way you can get distributions of measurements or events to have a skewed distribution, as pictured below, is by introducing a non random event.

In his fascinating book, The Cosmic Code, Pagels gives the example of the number of dog bites in a city with a stable population.  In one city, the yearly number of bites over succeeding years was 68, 70, 64, 66 and 71.  Why so stable?  Why is there not a year with 5 bites and another year with 500?  It is almost as if there is an invisible hand (a god?) which produces the normal distribution with the about the same average number coming up year after year after year.

The only way to change things, as mentioned, is to introduce a non-random event, like the sudden passage of a law requiring city inhabitants to limit their dog ownership to non-aggressive breeds.

So let’s apply this reasoning to the distribution of people’s perceptions of reality.  If the same principle applies, most people will perceive reality at or near a specific average point, with a few outlying people perceiving it to be somewhat different, and a very few people perceiving it as extremely different, in one of two possible ways, but with similar frequency.

So, if I may offer a crazy conclusion, actual reality could be determined by the average perception of a collective of individual consciousnesses. The "average" perception becomes an immutable external reality, regardless of what the outliers think or perceive. Once again, individual chaos leads to collective determinism.

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