I have tried to communicate a fact to my readers regarding the nature of our perception of reality in some of my blog posts, but judging from some of the replies I’ve received, I don’t seem to have gotten the point across. This may have happened because my explanation was one of several ideas I was writing about. So I’ve decided to make the perception of reality the main topic of this post. Let’s go.
As the title of this post implies, what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is fake. What do I mean by fake? What I mean is that what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are not physical realities that are “out there” and are independent from you. And here let me clarify that I am not being flippant or just “expressing my opinion”. What I am telling you is a fact that is accepted by scientists and was discovered a long time ago. This is old news.
How can this be? Is life then a dream or some other sort of mystic stuff? The answer is “no”. Let me explain.
The brain detects the reality around us through receptors present in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. When these receptors are triggered by outside stimuli, they generate an electric signal that travels by the nerves to our brain. So what our brain receives is not light, or sound, or smell, or taste, or tactile signals. What the brain receives is just electric signals. Once these signals arrive to the centers of the brain responsible for perception, these electric signals are filtered, organized, and integrated to CREATE perception. Did you notice that in the previous sentence I put the word “create” in caps and underlined it? Yes, the brain generates a perception for us that is very different from the physical reality present “out there” that generated the signals which were detected by the receptors in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. Let’s see how.
We see color, but color is just a brain-generated representation of the wavelength of the light rays that strike our eyes. The physical reality out there is that light rays have different wavelengths, but we don’t see wavelengths. In fact, if it were not for science, we would not know that light has a wavelike nature! What the brain does is create an internal representation of these different wavelengths where we perceive short wavelengths as purple and long wavelengths as red.
With regards to hearing, it’s the same thing. The mechanical perturbations in the air around us reach our ears as compression waves, and by pretty much the same process as vision the brain generates an internal representation of these waves where we perceive short waves as high pitch sounds and the long ones as low pitch sounds.
In the case of smell and taste, the receptors in our nose and mouth detect the chemical structure of compounds in the air, food, or drink, and the brain generates the different fragrances and flavors we perceive. The reality “out there” is not fragrances and flavors, but merely chemical structures.
Finally, there are receptors in our skin that send the brain a signal when, for example, they detect a difference in temperature. This signal is integrated by our brain to generate the sensations of hot or cold that we experience. The reality “out there” is differences in heat content, but we perceive this as “hot” or “cold”. Something similar happens for other skin sensations such as the compression of our skin (which we perceive as pressure) or the damage to our skin (which we perceive as pain).
This is why, as I stated in the title of this post, everything you perceive is fake. What you perceive is not a real (veridical) representation of the reality “outside” of you. And of course, the way our brain perceives reality also affects vastly more complicated things such as the emotions we experience, the convictions we have, or the actions we take.
But, if this is true, how can we even function?
The answer is because there is a correlation between the reality “out there” and our perception of it. And we know this correlation is high because life would otherwise not be possible (if you don’t recognize the edge of a cliff as you approach it, you will die). This is a situation analogous to when you work with a computer. You create and move and delete files all the time in your screen, but the physical processes taking place in your screen are very different from the physical processes that are taking place in the hard drive of the computer (so much so that some people in information technology refer to the screen as the user illusion). However, because they are correlated, it works. Thus, at the level of our basic senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), our perception of reality although fake, is not false.
So, if there is a correlation between the sensations that our brain generates and the reality “out there”, why should this even be an issue worthy of consideration? The reason is that the correlation between reality and what we perceive is not 100% percent. There are many well-known illusions that can fool our senses because they exploit this disconnect between reality and perception. But at more complex levels, there are many biases in our perception of reality that can lead us to filter said reality and distort our perception of it to the point that it becomes false. For example, many people still accept conspiracy theories such as those denying the results of the 2020 election, the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, the 911 attacks, or the moon landing. Others accept false world views such as creationism, QAnon, or the flat Eart.
How our way of perceiving reality can lead to its distortion is an active area of research in scientific fields ranging from molecular neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience to psychology and economics.
"Five Senses" by TheNickster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
In 2021, at the ripe age of 90 years, William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek the Original Series, boarded the Blue Origin Space Shuttle with 3 other passengers and launched into space. The spacecraft followed a suborbital path that allowed its occupants to experience weightlessness and view the Earth for a few minutes before reentry. This experience profoundly affected Shatner. He says that he was expecting that going into space would be the next step to understanding the harmony of the universe and the connection between all living things. Instead, he experienced a profound grief — as if he was attending a funeral. This was because when he looked away from the warm colors and beauty of the Earth teeming with life towards space, he just saw death everywhere. Space was a black, cold, vast emptiness that stood in stark contrast to the thin layer of atmosphere that we inhabit on our planet.
What Shatner felt is not new. In fact, it has been felt by so many people travelling into space that it was given a name in 1987 by writer Frank White who christened it the “Overview Effect”. This effect causes a shift in the way people see the world. They no longer see countries but rather only a group of human beings living in one world floating in the void of space. They see life on our planet as interconnected and fragile, and in need of being preserved and protected from the damage we are causing to it. After decades of playing a character that would board a starship and boldly go off towards the final frontier, Shatner realized that he had gotten it wrong. The beauty is not up there but down here, and we should devote ourselves to our planet and each other.
If you have been reading my blog, you can probably figure out that I agree with Shatner. We have to protect our planet. For example, we have to transition to green sources of fuels to deal with global warming, and we have to address the harm we are causing the environment by dumping waste such as plastics into our oceans. However, I disagree with Shatner in one very important aspect. The future of humanity is not on Earth. Our future lies in the stars, and we should waste no time in figuring out how to get there.
Why would this be? Let me explain.
The future of the Earth is to be destroyed by the sun. Our sun is halfway through its life cycle in which it fuses hydrogen to helium, producing the heat that we all feel during the day. Eventually the amount of hydrogen will decrease to a point that the sun will begin fusing helium to heavier elements, but this will mean that our sun will expand outward and become much hotter turning into a red giant. This expansion will basically fry the Earth, boiling our oceans, and scorching our continents. And what I have just described will take place in 5 billion years. However, in practice, our planet will become inhabitable due to other effects of the sun nearing the end of its life cycle such as deoxygenation due to increased solar flux. So the time we have left on Earth is really about 1 billion years or so.
Now you are probably frowning or rolling your eyes. One billion years is a really long, long time. By then, if we have not ruined our planet, our descendants will have figured out a way to move away from Earth. Why should we worry?
Consider the following.
The furthest object that humanity has sent into space is the Voyager 1 probe. This probe is currently travelling at the hefty speed of 35,000 miles per hour, and it was launched 46 years ago in 1977. During that time, it has covered a distance of 14.5 billion miles, which is 21.6 light hours (a light hour is the distance light travels in an hour). How far away is the nearest star to Earth? The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away, which is 37,168 light hours. This means that in 46 years Voyager 1 has only covered 0.06% of the distance to the nearest star! We currently have no way of covering the humongously ginormous vast distances of interstellar space in any reasonable amount of time.
But it’s not enough to just travel to the nearest star. We need a new planet to settle in. As an approach to identifying a possible planet to colonize (an exoplanet), astronomers try to figure out whether the planet is a rocky world (as opposed to a planet made out of gas such as Jupiter) and whether it lies in the “habitable zone” of a star. This is the zone where water can exist in liquid form. Proxima Centauri has a planet in this zone but it’s probably so close to its star that it receives lethal levels of ultraviolet radiation making it unsuitable for human life. Other planets that astronomers have found in the habitable zone are orbiting stars that are dozens to thousands of light years away from Earth.
Of course, even if we find one such planet, there are myriad of other issues to resolve such as whether the atmosphere will be breathable, whether there is indigenous life compatible with our presence ranging from microbes to an intelligent species that will not want us there, etc. Finally, also consider that I have not addressed other problems such as the long-term effects of space travel on the human body.
To me the solution of these problems seems daunting and may require an enormous amount of time. However, you can argue that using science and technology we will find a way much in the same way that we have solved other problems that in the past seemed unsolvable. This may well be so, but at the moment all we have is uncertainty.
So, I agree with William Shatner that we must focus on our planet and deal with important issues such as global warming, global warming denial, habitat destruction, pollution, and other things. But we must not forget that, however long, our time on this world is finite. So in that sense, I agree with Captain James T. Kirk that we must boldly go where no one else has gone before. We must begin planning our trek to the stars because that is where our long-term future lies.
Shatner describes his experience in his book: Boldly Go.
The captain Kirk photograph by NBC Television is in the public domain. The William Shatner photograph by Super Festivals is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.