Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Consciousness vs. Reality

by Richard Crews
It seems that without a real, physical world--what we call "reality"--there would be no consciousness. Consciousness--that is, an individual's awareness of oneself as a discrete and functioning entity within, and distinct from, an environment--seems to depend on a functioning brain--a physical entity. And without conscious awareness of it, whether or not there is any such thing as "reality" becomes moot.

Consciousness demands the existence of a real physical world. And reality, the existence of a real physical world, demands--rises or disappears depending on--conscious awareness of it.

There are three different ways that this dependence of consciousness and reality on one another can be interpreted.

One is the psychological way. If you imagine several different people standing at a bus stop, you can easily imagine that they live in very different worlds. One is an escaped prisoner, hawkishly alert and observing sharply the people and the circumstances around him; his world is filled with danger--every nod and blink and wisp of wind in the trees could be a harbinger of fear and distress. A second person at the bus stop is tired and hung-over from the revelries of the previous night; he wishes he were back home in bed--he is barely aware of the people and events around him. Another is a young lady absorbed in a mental exercise--she is desperately trying to recall and remember the names and faces of her co-workers at the new job she started yesterday. Yet another is richly enjoying the clouds, the breeze, the fragrances of spring in the air. Another is in physical pain--she is dying of cancer. And so on. Each of the people has a very different experience of reality at that moment. This is the psychological way that reality and consciousness are dependent on one another.

Then there is the quantum physics way. It has been demonstrated by repeated, rigorous experiments that physical reality does not exist until it is observed. Photons and sub-atomic particles are probability patterns which only collapse into real physical entities when they are observed, that is, when an attempt is made to measure them. You may not like this view of reality, but it is beyond refute. J. B. S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist and philosopher of science, said, "The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine."

And finally there is the metaphysical way that reality and consciousness depend on one another. Sages of every culture and in every age have advised us that we each create our own reality. This, they say, is a deep and powerful truth that can be known only through long, patient, inner contemplation. It is a truth that is available for anyone to see, anyone to know, but it requires terrifying confrontations with "ifs" and "whys" that most people, frankly, are unwilling or unable to undertake.