CTRL-ALT-R: Rebake Your Reality: An essay by Extropia DaSilva

Philosophy has long struggled with questions regarding the nature of reality, and whether or not it exists independently of the mind. Bishop George Berkely (1685-1753) was bothered by the Newtonian ideology and its decree that nothing is needed other than ‘what can we describe through equations?’. Wanting to feel there was a divine presence in the world, Berkely came up with the rather radical solution of denying the existence of a world external to ideas. ‘To exist is to be perceived’. Reality just is the ideas you have of it; reality only exists in subjective experience. When he heard of Berkely’s philosophical system, Dr Samuel Johnson is said to have cried, ‘I refute it thus!’ and stubbed his toe on a rock.

The picture I presented, in which ‘imagination, RL and online worlds exist in the mind’ might sound more like Berkely’s belief in the non-existence of objective reality, rather than Johnson’s conviction that rocks (and, presumably, all material things) really do have an existence independent of subjective experience, but there is a crucial difference. Today, cognitive neuroscience uses psychological experiments, studies in brain anatomy and the relatively recent technological advance of functional brain imaging to build up a model of how the brain creates our mental world. It does not deny the existence of a reality independent of the mind, far from it. There really is something out there, going about its business whether we perceive it or not. But, cognitive neuroscience tells us that we are not in direct contact with this external reality. As Jeff Hawkins explained, ‘you hear sound, see light and feel pressure, but inside your brain there isn’t any fundamental difference between these types of information. There’s no light inside your head, it’s dark in there. There’s no sound entering your head, either… The only thing the cortex knows is the pattern streaming in on the input axons’. What we experience, then, is not reality itself but rather a simulation, a model of reality created by the mind based on the patterns of information flowing in through the senses.

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