Because the word “consciousness” can be used in so many different ways, confusion often arises around statements about its nature. The way I use the word is not in reference to a particular state of consciousness, or particular way of thinking, but to the faculty of consciousness itself-the capacity for inner experience, whatever the nature or degree of the experience.
A useful analogy is the image from a video projector. The projector shines light onto a screen, modifying the light so as to produce any one of an infinity of images. These images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we experience-what I call the “contents of consciousness.”
The light itself, without no images would be possible, corresponds to the faculty of consciousness.
We know all the images on the screen are composed of this light, but we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the many different experiences, thoughts, and feelings that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself. Yet without this faculty there would be no experience of any kind.
The faculty of consciousness is one thing we all share, but what goes on in our consciousness, the content of our consciousness, varies widely. This is our personal reality, the reality we each know and experience. Most of the time, however, we forget that this is just our personal reality and think we are experiencing physical reality directly.
We see the ground beneath our feet; we can pick up a rock, and throw it through the air; we feel the heat from a fire, and smell its burning wood. It feels as if we are in direct contact with the world “out there.” But this is not so. The colors, textures, smells, and sounds we experience are not really “out there”; they are all images of reality constructed in the mind.
It was this aspect of perception that most caught my attention during my studies of experimental psychology (and amplified by my readings of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant). At that time, scientists were beginning to discover the ways in which the brain pieces together its perception of the world, and I was fascinated by the implications of these discoveries for the way we construct our picture of reality. It was clear that what we perceive and what is actually out there are two different things.
This, I know, runs counter to common sense. Right now you are aware of the pages in front of you, various objects around you, sensations in your own body, and sounds in the air. Even though you may understand that all of this is just your reconstruction of reality, it still seems as if you are having a direct perception of the physical world. And I am not suggesting you should try to see it otherwise. What is important for now is the understanding that all our experience is an image of reality constructed in the mind.
Because our perception of the world is so different from the actual physical reality, some people have claimed that our experience is an illusion. But that is misleading. It may all be a creation of my own mind, but it is very, very real-the only reality we ever know.
The illusion comes when we confuse our experience of the world with the physical reality, the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke of this as “maya.” Often translated as illusion (a false perception of the world), the word is more accurately translated as delusion (a false belief about the world). I suffer a delusion when I believe that the manifestations in my mind are the external world. I deceive myself when I think that the tree I see is the tree itself.
If all that we ever know are the images that appear in our minds, how can we be sure there is a physical reality behind our perceptions? Is it not just an assumption? My answer to that is: Yes, it is an assumption; nevertheless, it seems a most plausible assumption.
For a start, there are definite constraints on my experience. I cannot, for example, walk through walls. If I try to, there are predictable consequences. Nor can I, when awake, float through the air, or walk upon water. Second, my experience generally follows well-defined laws and principles. Balls thrown through the air follow |precisely defined paths. Cups of coffee cool at similar rates.
The sun rises on time. Furthermore, this predictability is not peculiar to my personal reality. You, whom I assume to exist, report similar patterns in your own experience. The simplest way, by far, of accounting for these constraints and for their consistency is to assume that there is indeed a physical reality. We may not know it directly, and its nature may be nothing like our experience of it, but it is there.
To reveal the nature of this underlying reality has been the goal of the physical sciences, and over the years they have elucidated many of the laws and principles that govern its behavior. Yet curiously the more deeply they have delved into its true nature, the more it appears that physical reality is nothing like we imagined it to be. Actually, this should not be too surprising. All we can imagine are the forms and qualities that appear in consciousness. These are unlikely to be very appropriate models for describing the underlying physical reality, which is of a very different nature.
Take, for example, our ideas as to the nature of matter. For two thousand years it was believed that atoms were tiny balls of solid matter-a model clearly drawn from everyday experience. Then, as physicists discovered that atoms were composed of more elementary, subatomic, |particles (electrons, protons, neutrons, and suchlike), the model shifted to one of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons-again a model based on experience.
An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these subatomic particles are a hundred-thousand times smaller still. Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a grain of rice. The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium, and the electrons would be other grains of rice flying round the stands. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, “matter is mostly ghostly empty space”-99.9999999 percent empty space, to be a little more precise.
With the advent of quantum theory, it was found that even these minute subatomic particles were themselves far from solid. In fact, they are not much like matter at all-at least nothing like matter as we know it. They can’t be pinned down and measured precisely. They are more like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite location. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance to it.
Somewhat ironically, science, having set out to know the ultimate nature of reality, is discovering that not only is this world beyond any direct experience, it may also be inherently unknowable.
Excerpt from the book by Peter Russell: From Science to God
It will look like this: From Science to God – A Crash Course in the Nature of Reality