Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends

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Gonna Lay Down my Sword
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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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Short previews
of all talks

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 How do I know I’m Real?

A talk given to the Dunedin Spiritualist Church in June 2009

How do I know I am real? Philosophers have puzzled over this question for thousands of years and maybe it is one of those things that in the end we just cannot prove. We can come up with some interesting possibilities, however, and it is worth spending time to consider the problem.

Rene Descartes though about it and decided we cannot trust our senses to prove we are real because sometimes our senses tell lies about the real world. The only thing we can rely on is our thinking. 
Therefore, Descartes concluded, that if he doubted something, then something or someone must be doing the doubting; therefore the very fact that he is able to doubted proves that he must existence in some way or other.  If one is sceptical of existence, then being sceptical is in itself proof of existence. " This is famously put in his saying, "I think, therefore I am".

We usually think of our brain being in our head and that is where all our thinking comes from. Nerves stretch out to all parts of the body and reach back into the brain. For convenience, we have divided our nervous system into three parts: brain, the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which reaches out to all the extremities of the body. In actual fact it is just one continuous nervous system all linked in together. 

Our mental processes occur throughout our body not just in our head. We could almost say that some of our brain is in our toes. Scientists have found a complex of nerve cells in our heart, big enough to undertake complex neural processing that have been called the small brain of the heart. Also, of course, our nervous system has no meaning without the circulation system, the endocrine system, the respiratory system etc also working together to enable it to function. It is not all in our head; our thoughts, instincts and emotions come from our whole body.

Next, what see, hear, taste and smell is not what is actually out in the world. We receive information from the world through light waves, sound waves, smells etc. Our sense organs detect them and turn them into electrical signals, which are sent to our brain, which decodes them and turns them, into a representation of the world out there.

And the representation of the world out there is not just a remapping of the outside world like an image through a looking glass. We take observing our world for granted, it feels so real.

This is also a little like what happens in a digital camera. Light comes from the outside world, goes through the lens on the camera and forms an image in the back of the camera. Light sensitive sensors detect the light and translate the impression into an electrical pulse. All of the electrical pulses are then all combined in such a way as to produce an image we can see on a screen or print out on paper. The picture looks just like the reality we had been observing. It is very convincing and we often talk of a photo as if it were the real thing. We say things like, “this one is me on holiday in Africa” and “the next one is me in Moscow”. Photos seem so real, but they are never more than a representation of what they depict.

Creating an accurate and useable representation of the world outside takes a big proportion of the energy needed to keep our body alive. Therefore anyway our body can decrease the amount of energy needed, the more efficient it will be.

In order to miminise energy use, the brain does not take notice of all the information it receives, but rather only chooses what it thinks is going to be the most important pieces of information and then uses information from the past about the patterns it has noticed to make guesses about the rest of the picture. This takes far less energy, so we need to seek, prepare and eat far less food if the brain takes a few shortcuts, which for 99.9% of the time works just fine.

That is why, especially in low light, we can see something we seem to quite clearly recognise, maybe as a dog or a cat, but when we get closer, we find it was only a branch or a piece of paper perhaps. Our brain has noticed the size, colour, speed etc. of the object and made a “best guess” as to what it is and actually presented it as that for you to see. But, when we get closer and gain more information we find it can not be our first guess. The brain must focus more closely, take in extra details and make a better guess as to what it might be.

As well as this, processing all this information takes time and sometimes that time is critical. Imagine a ball coming at you very fast that you need to catch. When it is say 4 metres away from you, by the time you have figured out that it is about four metres away, it will be closer, say only three metres away. You would always see the ball where it was rather than where it is, so it would be very hard to catch.

What our brain actually does is to notice that the ball is four metres away and coming in fast. It guesses that by the time it has processed the image the ball will be three metres away, so that is where it places it in the picture we see of the world. It makes a guess as to where the ball will be, based on past patterns and puts it there for us to see. That way we can catch the ball.

From all of this we can clearly see that what we take to be the real world out there is in fact a representation in our mind of what might be out there.
We don’t even know that what you perceive is the same as what I perceive. What you see as the colour red may be quite different to what I perceive, even when we look at the same object. It may seem logical that we all see the same thing, but we can never know that what your mind represents to you as red is the same as what my mind presents as red.

So, we now know that all the trees, houses, rocks, birds, clouds, rivers and people that fill our world as we perceive them are just representations of whatever might be out there in the real world. But, more than that, what we perceive as our own hand is still only a representation of that part of our body that our mind has created.

All the sensations we feel are again representations. When we feel heat, cold, pain or the pleasure of a spa pool, we are only experiencing representations. Feeling our heart beat is a representation.

Here’s where it gets really strange. Our own brain as we experience it is only a representation of itself. Isn’t that a bit strange? The brain observes itself and then creates a representation of itself, which we experience. If my brain is only a representation, how can it create consciousness?

Maybe there is another explanation to this. Perhaps consciousness is not tied to our brain. Maybe there is a consciousness that exists “out there” somewhere that the brain “plugs” into.  Emmanuel Kant suggested that our mind creates time and space as a way of representing that consciousness. That would mean the consciousness itself is not restricted by time and space but time and space are created as a way of experiencing consciousness. We therefore live in time and space, but in reality we are not restricted by it. That would provide a way to explain clairvoyance. If consciousness exists beyond time and space, then we can link with those who have passed on from other times and places. We can access the wisdom of the consciousness. It would also explain how minds can be linked and such things as telepathy and ESP could happen.

If everything is a representation, then we have no way of knowing that anything in our life is real. Our inside world and the outside world are equally real or equally unreal. If we create our outside world, then we can just as easily create our inside world. It could be that everything in us is just an expression of the underlying consciousness. Our whole personal being could be an expression of consciousness projected into time and space.

Perhaps that is why the Buddhists tell us that this life is an illusion that we create and sustain, but beyond that is a greater reality. They say the illusion must kept being recreated every second and every minute and if we could stop, even just for a short while, we would see out true being behind the illusion. They tell us we become attached to this world and everything in it, but through meditation and other techniques, we can come to experience consciousness directly.

Returning to Rene Descartes and his saying, “I think therefore I am”, we must ask just who “I” is. If everything in my life is only a representation, then who am I. How real is the I that I think I am. So much of who we think we, much of our identity, is a representation created by our mind. We have a name, a personality, and a sense of identity, but that identity, like all the rest of us can only be a representation of who I really am.

Then we must look at what might be behind this mass of representations we have set up to make sense of this life we have found ourselves in.  Mainstream science would tell us there is nothing behind it. What you see is what you get. They would say that somehow, as yet unexplained, life has sprung forth within this material world without anything else other than the process of evolution.

 Spiritual traditions consistently talk of an existence beyond this world, beyond time and space. It might be called heaven or nirvana, emptiness, paradise or what ever, but it is seen as the foundation of everything. Our existence in time and space then comes from what is beyond time and space.

For some, the way out of the pain and suffering of our world is to escape into heaven or nirvana and leave these illusory representations behind, while for others, like me, the path way is actually back into the illusory representations. As we engage fully with the illusion in which we live, and learn the lessons they bring us, we come to touch the infinite, the divine, to become that which we really are.

So, we have seen that there is more to the question, “How do I know I am real?” It might have seemed like an obvious question, and yet just a little thought shows it is not as straight forward. Everything we are aware of is a representation, but we do have the ability to reach beyond that representation to touch the consciousness that we really are and when we reach that consciousness we have truly arrived home.

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