Beyond the Brain’s Picture of Reality

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 8 Comments

It is much more exciting to question the whole of reality than it is to question any number of its parts. That might be why there has been such a surge in popularity in the recent discoveries of neuroscience as published in a number of books over the past decade. Through these publications we are learning a great deal about how our brain works and discovering that a lot of what we experience as real is actually a creation of the way our brains functions. Taken to its extreme some would say that our experience of reality is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of synaptic impulses in our brains. Everything you are experiencing right now is being created by the electrical discharges that are going off constantly in your brain.

In the same way that a Television image is produced from a vast array of colored pixels, your experience of being yourself reading this page right now is being created by electrical discharges in your brain. Some would go so far to say that none of what you are experiencing right now is anything more than synaptic discharges. There is no space, no time, no things, no self… no anything. It is all an illusion created by the brain that we experience as a perfectly deceptive virtual reality exactly like the holodeck. I want to point out what I believe is a flaw in this way of thinking.

Let’s imagine that it is true that everything that we are experiencing is an illusion of reality being created by our brains. That would mean that the brain itself is part of that illusion. All of the studies and experiments that were used to come to the conclusion that reality is being produced by the brain are also part of the illusion. Can one part of the illusion be responsible for creating the rest of the illusion? If the brain is producing the illusion of everything else doesn’t that mean the brain has to be real? And if it is then isn’t the body the brain exists in also real? And if the body is real isn’t the world that the body emerged out of also real?

We can’t believe that the reality we are experiencing is an illusion created by the brain without privileging the brain to be the only real thing in the universe. If we want to do this we then have to find the line that separates the brain from the rest of reality. Only then would it be responsible to imagine that it was responsible for creating the illusion of everything else. If we look closely we don’t see any hard dividing line, and if we did we would have to admit that the dividing line was also being created by the brain.

The so called ‘hard problem” of consciousness is figuring out how a grey mass of synaptic discharges leads to the rich and full phenomenal experience of reality that we have. This may not be the best question to ask because the brain itself as well as the experience of being someone who has a brain and is thinking about the hard problem of consciousness is all already happening inside of the illusory experience of reality that we believe is being created by the brain. The brain is creating the whole illusion of reality including the illusion of a brain that is creating the illusion.

There is a popular analogy of spiritual awakening that involves a movie theater. Waking up is like realizing that you have been watching a movie without realizing that you had been actually sitting in a theater watching a movie. You had mistaken the story of the movie as the reality of who you are. The recognition that we live in a reality created in the theater of our brain is similar, but what happens if the movie we are watching is about a person who realizes that they are watching a movie? How do you wake up from a dream that is about waking up from a dream?

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Matthew Kent
6 years ago

Jeff, you just ‘Inception’ed me.

Françoise
Françoise
6 years ago

Jeff can you post the author(s) you are refering in your articles ? Just read a short extract of “In Quest of Freedom – the Emergence of Spirit in the Natural World” (Ph Clayton) and it seems some thinkers really works on what is reality – in between science/neuroscience and theology/conciousness – thks and always appreciative of your philo posts :)

Ray Gregory
Ray Gregory
6 years ago

“Let’s imagine that it is true that everything that we are experiencing is an illusion of reality being created by our brains. That would mean that the brain itself is part of that illusion…. Can one part of the illusion be responsible for creating the rest of the illusion? If the brain is producing the illusion of everything else doesn’t that mean the brain has to be real?” If the illusion were created out of whole cloth, sure, then why conclude that the illusory brain is any more real than any other part of the illusion? But if the illusion… Read more »

David
David
6 years ago

Excellent . I love these posts. Thanks. Remembered a line from Dr Eben Alexander’s recent book, Proof of Heaven. He said the brain, as marvelous a tool that it is, does not produce consciousness. I guess that means that the brain is real and so is consciousness. That’ s my experience.

liesbeth
liesbeth
6 years ago

Yesterday I read another article of a psychiatrist attacking ideas, she said that scientific prove has been given that spiritual experiences can be caused by the temporal lobe. She said that things we do not understand or are to complex for our brain; -she mentioned quantum mechanics- but also the idea that consciousness isn’t measurable are said to be supernatural.
I think as long as we do not know exactly what consciousness is, we just do not know, that is what makes life fascinating.

liesbeth
liesbeth
6 years ago

The same school dat says that reality is an illusion says that the ‘I’ is just a contraction. So the brain only cause contractions ( unreal ideas of reality) of the unlimited consciousness. They say only consciousness is real.

liesbeth
liesbeth
6 years ago

Making space for a new view. Like Marcel Proust when he said that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
6 years ago

Thanks, Jeff. The current overemphasis on neuroscience (boardering on hegemonic) is annoying and problematic. No system can successfully resolve the problems it presents. Hence, the need for multiple paradigms which leaves us stuck in reality without any real ground for appeal. Love the movie metaphor. Reminds me of post I did to one of your earlier blogs two years ago. I once woke up from a dream and then woke up from that dream. Best I can tell I haven’t yet woken up from the present dream except in the sense that I become resolved to not having certainty about… Read more »