[A Christian friend recently asked me, “What is it that you believe now?” Tough question to give a short answer to. I could say, “I believe I am everything that exists, experiencing a state of separation from the full magnitude of what I am.” Or I could say, “The universe is holographic in nature, like the Star Trek holodeck or The Matrix.” I’ve tried those kinds of answers and I’ve seen eyebrows raise in an expression of bewilderment that seems to communicate, “How on earth did Darryl go from believing in Christ to this bizarre nonsense?” For what it’s worth, I’m going to try and guide you step by step into my headspace.]
What is the true underlying nature of reality? What is my place in it? Does my life have meaning, or am I a cosmic accident? Are the answers to these questions found in religion, or is science where the real enlightenment lies? Is it even possible to know? What chance do I have of finding out? And where the hell do I even begin?
The first step is a willingness to unlearn what you’ve been taught, or more appropriately, what you’ve been conditioned to believe all your life. With hundreds of belief systems on Earth, the chances of you inheriting the right one, by virtue of geographical placement, are miniscule. If you were born in America, is Christianity true by virtue of the number of people around you who believe in it, or the number of times its ideas are repeated to you? If you were born in Iraq, is Islam true for the same reasons? Look around the world and you will find countless differing religions, each one confident of its superiority over all others, one generation indoctrinating the next. The thing that so few people dare to do is to step outside of the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age. But it’s what you have to do if you want to discover the real truth. No belief should ever be so sacred that we are not permitted to look critically at it and assess its worth.
The zeitgeist is not only religious in nature, but also infiltrates the arena of science. Science is concerned with what is definable and measurable. It’s all about weighing evidence and making rational deductions. When there is no evidence for something, it will not become a scientific fact. That is why science has little or nothing to say about ideas like God, or the soul, or the afterlife. And that’s fair. Those things seem to be outside the scope of measurement. I would guess this is why many scientists are atheists. They have decided that if there is no evidence for something, then they have no business believing in it. But therein lies the trap. Absence of proof is not necessarily proof of absence. And although science prides itself on making no assumptions, the entire discipline hangs on one colossal assumption – that the physical universe is the cornerstone from which we do our thinking. Matter is what matters. But if we’re willing to look closely at the presuppositions that shape our thinking, we might discover that we’ve been making deductions using the wrong set of presuppositions – that we have been unwary victims of the zeitgeist. One of the most important things I figured out was that the proper starting point for rational thought is not observation of the physical universe; first and foremost, it is observation of our own self-awareness, as I will attempt to show.
Having unlearned (or at least temporarily shelved) everything taught or imposed upon me by science and religion, I begin with the knowledge that I am a conscious being. I am self-aware. Let’s not even assume that I am a body. First and foremost, I am self-awareness. It appears that I have eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear. Five senses in total, allowing me to receive information from outside of myself. But already I’m making too many assumptions. Do I really see with my eyes? No. On closer inspection, my eyes receive information, convert it into electrical signals, and pass these to the visual cortex at the back of my brain. I see with my visual cortex, experiencing a bright world of colour and motion inside the absolute darkness of my skull, which no actual light can penetrate. If I pick up a pencil, I feel the pressure of it in my fingers. But I don’t, really. The nerves in my fingers transmit signals back to my brain, and my brain tells me that my fingers are touching something. Meanwhile, my eyes relay signals to my brain, showing me visual information about the object I’m touching. The principle to remember here is that you cannot get beyond your brain in order to prove the existence of the physical world. All the information is second hand.
Perhaps you think it should be taken as a given that the physical universe exists, by virtue of the rich and repetitive nature of our perceptions. But let’s remember that every night in bed we experience a five-sense environment in our dreams. Dreams are so lifelike that we usually believe them to be real for the duration of their experience, yet they have no physical substance. When we are awake and when we are dreaming, it is our consciousness that does the perceiving, not our physical senses. In truth, when we awake, we simply have no way of knowing whether we are connecting to a real physical universe, or merely a longer dream – one whose rules are more concrete, perhaps because it is a dream-world held together by the collective unconscious of the all those who share it. Either paradigm is possible, and neither provable.
We are perceivers and we can never get past our perceptions to discover the actuality of the universe. You can look out of the window and say, “The grass is green.” Are you sure? Did you ever consider that a cat or a lizard might see the grass in a different manner, since the structure of their eyes are quite different from a human’s. What right have I to say, “The universe really is the way I see it,” when I am perceiving the universe through the machinery of my body. Consider the bat, which is almost blind and much more reliant on a form of radar. Or the dog, who experiences an exotic realm of smells that we humans can barely imagine. Bodies are biological machines that perceive the universe in differing ways. The grass is only green when the body-machine interprets the data it receives in a certain manner.
We cannot be certain what the actuality of the universe is; we can only see it through our own particular lens. We can’t even know that the universe is genuinely physical in nature. Consider the analogy of the modern videogame. We can take part in adventures across city-sized maps, with amazingly detailed roads, buildings, and countless nooks and crannies for exploration. We can make our game character turn his head in any direction and watch the real-world laws of geometry playing out in two-dimensional space on the flatness of our television screens, beaming out texture, light and shadow. Once, I had a moment of clarity when I stood on a hillside, gazing down through the trees at a lake and a castle on the opposite side (in a game, that is). It was a picturesque scene, and in the real world it might have made me reach for my camera. And I thought, “No one else has stood on this precise spot and looked down the hill at this exact angle. Not even the game’s creators. The game is just too vast.” It struck me as profound that something so artistic – something that was just for me in this moment – could spring to life from nothing more than a rapid series of mathematical equations being processed inside my computer. In videogames we experience an interactive world of sight, sound and touch – a limited but spectacularly detailed facsimile of the physical world. The big question, then, is this: if we mere mortals are able to create this 3D experience inside a computer, have we any business assuming that our universe is truly 3D in its deepest essence, in its actuality? The three-dimensionality of a videogame is nothing more than binary ones and zeros flowing through electrical circuits, and yet the laws of physics in a game are as solid and dependable as the laws of physics in the real world. A game’s vistas, although not nearly as detailed as the real world, use the same mathematics of geometry, the same understanding of light and shadow. Put simply: the universe is made of mathematics.
Some people simply will not enter into this manner of thinking, because it seems repugnant that the universe should be telling us fibs about itself. But this is exactly what has already happened and continues to happen. Without any knowledge of astronomy and geometry, we started off believing the Earth was flat. Why? Because our experience told us it was flat. The human form is so tiny in relation to the magnitude of the Earth that we have no conscious awareness of moving over a curved surface as we go from place to place. Only when we started getting our heads around geometry, and noticing things like how the stars travel up the sky as we move towards them, could we begin to deduce that we were sitting on a big ball. When a cat sees its reflection in a mirror for the first time, it thinks it is looking at another cat, one that mimics its every move – until it learns to see through the lie. We’ve invented the hologram – images that stand out from their photographic paper screaming, “I have substance!” Yet wave your hand through one and there’s nothing there. The key question is whether you want to trust your experience or try to see the bigger picture.
The universe lies until you figure out the lies. Its purpose is not to tell you its innermost secrets. Its purpose is to provide consciousness with an experience. It is up to us to probe its nature, except most of us have been doing so from the wrong standpoint. We’ve assumed that it’s all real, when that realness – that three-dimensionality – may be nothing more than a stream of data, a matrix, a frequency to which our consciousness is tuned. Is Betelgeuse six hundred light-years away from Earth, or is it sitting right next to us, just another point on the data stream?
You may ask, “What difference does it make which view I take? Life is the same either way.” On the contrary, life is vastly different. If we use the physical universe as the cornerstone of our rational thinking, we can easily lose sight of the importance of our own self-awareness. When you look in at yourself from the outside, through the eyes of science, and you begin to understand the brain, the tendency is to explain away your own consciousness in purely physical terms – as if your consciousness is little more than a computer program performing a task. And yes, there is something very computer-like about our minds. All creatures, humans included, possess behaviour patterns: appetite, sexuality, testosterone, predatory instincts, maternal and paternal inclinations, etc. These things, and more, make us predictable to a certain extent. Similarly, a computer programmer can create an autonomous game character, imbue him with behaviour patterns, and place him into the game environment, where he will interact with it and behave as if he is self-aware. However, you would never say that such a character is genuinely self-aware. And yet you know that you are, in a manner that transcends any form of artificial intelligence. Science has never distinguished mind from self-awareness. The two are not the same. Mind is a brain-based faculty used by self-awareness. Science has fundamentally lost touch with the wonder of consciousness that we all experience. It has no place for such a thing because it cannot seem to grasp it and measure it. “No,” says science, “you cannot be immaterial consciousness interfacing with a brain. You’re just a brain.” And yet, where is this thing called self-awareness on any map of the brain? Nowhere to be found.
If you start from the deeper standpoint of using self-awareness as the cornerstone of your thinking, you end up with a vastly different perspective on the universe. For a start, the one thing you can be sure of is that you exist. As Rene Descarte said, “I think, therefore I am.” Everything else is under suspicion, because everything else is a perception. What this means is, if you want to believe in a physical universe, you have to take it on trust. If you want to believe it’s all a matrix, you have to take it on trust. In this predicament, what do you do with the scientific approach, when you suddenly realise you can’t use it to get anywhere? My answer to that is you use an almost forgotten little thing called intuition.
What do you sense the truth to be? The two most fundamental questions you should ask yourself are “What am I?” and “Where I am?” In my experience, asking those questions starts you on a wonderful journey of self-discovery that brings an end all to the bewilderment of living in the zeitgeist. For the scientifically minded person, the understanding that consciousness transcends matter opens up the genuine possibility of life after death and the mystery of whether our physical birth was really the beginning of our life. For the religious among us, it presents spirituality free from imposed dogmas that must never be questioned. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
(I recommend watching the following documentary for an easy-to-understand visual look at the nature of reality.)