Subjective Reality

We were not taught philosophy at school and it never occurred to me that I lived in my own imaginary world. I thought my brain had the equivalent of a television screen on which it saw the world as it was. I was bold over by the experience of the new world which was revealed when I put on my first pair of glasses and saw so much more detail, but it never registered that I still saw only a very imperfect image of the world.

The inventions of the microscope and the telescope revealed two new worlds to humanity and even today, advances in technology reveal greater wonders with each passing decade. Research into how the brain works has revealed that we do not actually see the world, only a mental image or model of it that our brains have constructed from the information gathered by our eyes and other senses.

When the police question witnesses to a road accident or a crime, they are usually faced with contradictory accounts because the mental images we form in our minds are not very accurate. Many of the things we see need to be interpreted and that processes is even more inaccurate and subject to the previous experience and beliefs of the individual. Occasionally, we come across strong evidence of this phenomena. The early artists attempts to draw or paint a rhinoceros reveal just how difficult it is for the brain to form a visual image of something which is beyond our previous experience. Another example is afforded by an operation which could make some people who had been born blind see for the first time. The pictures they drew contained blank areas where anything hot should have appeared. They were fitting the new information from their eyes to the mental schema formed through feeling things. Anything that could not be felt could not be conceived, and heat was something to be avoided, not felt.

Realising that we do not observe the world directly, but that we view only an internal mental model formed from observation, analysis and assumptions is an essential part of our understanding of the world around us. Philosophers say that we each live in a "subjective reality".

Some philosophers, or should I say twaddle mongers, have taken this a stage further and argued that they can never know whether or not there is a real world out there beyond their own personal subjective reality. When men sit on their backsides and ask whether or not the tree they are looking at will continue to exist if they close their eyes, either they are out of their tiny minds, or else they are pretending to be clever.

I know that there is a real world out there, beyond the subjective reality in which I live, because I also slip into my dream world when I am asleep. In my dream world, even if I keep looking at the tree, it is likely to turn into a house or a sheep. My dream world has no continuity. My subjective reality reveals a world governed by conservation laws. The only explanation for this that my subjective reality is a view of the real world beyond. Trees do not come and go.

However, if we both look at the same tree, it will appear different within each of our subjective realities. Once I point out to you the bird half hidden in the branches, your brain adds that detail to your mental image. Not only is our subjective reality inaccurate, but it is also continually changing as our brains pay attention to various details in the surrounding scene.

We may be looking at a tree, we may see an image of it in our minds, but our subjective reality is far more than the experience. It contains all the memories of previous encounters with trees and all we have every been told about trees. It might send shivers up one person's spine because they have been told that trees are inhabited by evil spirits. Another might be looking for a route to climb into its branches, or another might be trying to identify the species. All these, and far more form parts of our subjective reality.

Life is full of decisions. Some are vital like the decision that it is safe to cross the road. Sometimes, pedestrians make that decision incorrectly because their brain has not yet had time to add the approaching vehicle into their subjective reality. When I take a photograph, every bit of it contains detailed information. When I look at a tree, the image in my mind lacks a lot of detail. As soon at I direct my attention to a particular branch, my eyes scan and add detailed information to that part of the image. This gives the illusion that I can see every branch. I believe that as the human brain has evolved, it has retained the ability to make decisions on the basis of limited information. When danger threatens, the brain can can make very quick decisions using functions which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Touch something hot and you will immediately pull your hand away. The decision to do that was not even referred up to the brain, but took place somewhere in the nervous system.

This design feature of being able to function with limited information affects not only our decisions, but also our thinking. We make value judgements all the time and about all manor of things. On the limited information that the approaching person has a leather jacket and hair gelled into 6 inch spikes, we make a value judgement and cross to the other side of the road. Because we are living in our own subjective reality, we are unaware of its limitations. We think we are in command of all the facts and assume that our conclusions are valid.

Based on the limited information that Christians believe the world was created in six days, Richard Dawkins has made the value judgement that Christianity is nonsense and inferred that God does not exist. Because he is a member of the pseudo priesthood of university genetics professors, and because those who steer government and society are always keen to diminish the influence of the church, his views get much publicity.

To my mind, the man is an idiot. I have come to that value judgement on the basis of limited information. In fact, I even discarded previous judgements I made about his intellect. When he presented the Royal Institute Christmas lectures "Half an eye is better than no eye", or when I read his book "The Selfish Gene", I thought he was highly intelligent. In fact, such is the feeble nature of the human intellect that I might even have associated Dawkins with Hawkins (which is my misspelling of Hawking) whose understanding of the universe is somewhat at variance with my own.

Realizing that I live in my own subjective reality, I am aware that beyond it is the objective reality of the universe and everything in it. Looking through a telescope or down a microscope, my subjective reality is expanded. The chasm between it and the objective reality has been narrowed and now some things which I could not explain before have become simple to understand.

My subjective reality is far more than the view I have of my surroundings. I know that the world beyond my immediate view continues to exist and function when I look the other way. So my subjective reality includes all my memories and allows me to take into account the world beyond my gaze. My subjective reality also includes all of my understanding of how the world works. As I stand by the roadside, looking left, right and left again, I know that while I am looking to the right, the car I saw approaching from the left continues on its way and will be closer when I look back to the left.

Some people are sensitive to what we might call the spiritual dimension. This is where our attempts to understand the world we live in become far more subjective. When I look down a microscope at bacteria multiplying, I can be fairly confident that you will see the same thing. When I walked into the ruins of the church on Mount Nebo, I could feel the holiness of the place. When I mentioned this to another member of our party, they contradicted me saying they sensed the evil of the place. For others, this was just an archaeological excavation. How can we make sense of these different experiences. The most rational conclusion would be to say that our subjective reality also contains things which exist in our imagination.

At this juncture, the philosopher remains uncommitted and simply discusses the implications of the objective reality including God, gods, or other alternatives. As ordinary folk forming our own philosophy of life, we have to come down on one side or another. Between the ages of 13 and 28, I took the rational view that neither God nor any other spiritual beings existed. When my subjective reality was invaded by an overwhelming experience of what I understood to be God's love, I changed my mind.

The two most important discoveries we have made, using first optical and then electron microscopes, are the existence of bacteria and viruses enabling us to understand the causes of many illnesses. Before they were discovered, these kinds of illness were thought to be caused by evil spirits. The existence of disease and illness was for many the evidence for the existence of evil spirits; for others evidence of a God who punishes people for their sins. The discovery of bacteria and viruses frees the mind to dismiss such irrational explanations.

So let us now return to Richard Dawkins and the 70,000,000 Christian fundamentalists in the USA, each living in their own subjective reality. They have all fallen into the same trap of getting frozen in a particular state of their subjective reality. From childhood, our subjective realities are continually expanding and changing. That process should continue until the end of our lives unless arrested by the assumption that they have become objective.

As I have said, my subjective reality includes a lot of accepted wisdom and speculative theories presented in television documentaries. The latest revelation, televised last weak, is that the genetic paleontologists have now concluded that all life springs from a single first cell. They might be wrong, there may have been many such events, but only one possible path to the formation of a cell capable of reproducing itself by division. My own concepts of infinities and probability lead me to the conclusion that if all life on earth can be traced back to a single cell, then God must have created it. [It took my brain only a second or two, maybe even less, process this information and place the conclusion in my conscious mind: evidence of how the thought process is continually working at many levels.]

We are to some extent in control of our own subjective realities. I chose to watch that program. I choose to study physics, I choose whether or not to understand parts of the Bible as creation myths or as the Word of God. I was in control of my subjective reality when I did what any good scientist would do. I was not sure whether or not God existed, so I performed an experiment and put it to the test. From a philosophical point of view, the outcome is unimportant. What is important is the scientific mind set which is never content with one's current understanding. Part of being truly human is to always be trying to expand one's subjective reality in the hope that it will more closely approximate to the objective reality of the real universe (and possibly the God who created it).

We should all be concerned about the degree to which we in Western Society are exposed to so much fiction on television which presents a distorted portrayal of reality. Drama writers are taught that drama lies in conflict, so they pack their plays, soaps and serials with scenes of people shouting at each other and resorting to violence. So long as viewers clearly understand the difference between fiction and real life, no harm is done, but it is obvious from the increase in violence and the general decline in standards that too many people are drawing upon fiction for their roll models. There is nothing new in that, for we are all in search of our own identity, but what is alarming is that our subjective realities are being contaminated. We see conflict and violence on the screen all too frequently and this distorts our perception of the real world and we perceive them to be far more prevalent than they are in reality.

Vast amounts of effort are put into the decimation of misinformation. Prevalent among these are UFO sightings and conspiracy theories. If we are taken in by any of this, then our subjective reality has been distorted. Ghost stories are also popular both in movies and children's television. God is mostly absent, but mortal are given superhuman powers. Magic is also popular. Obviously, only the feeble minded actually believe what they see on the screen, but never the less, the repeated exposure can only increase our estimation of the probability that they are real.

In my subjective reality, there are many things about which I cannot make up my mind. I tend to make vague estimates of the probabilities of various scenarios being true of false. Increasingly, I find myself suspecting that the antics of politicians and their portrayal in the media is just a puppet show orchestrated by hidden puppet masters. I wonder with interest if with respect to these matters, my subjective reality is moving away form or towards the objective reality.