Tag Archives: Science

Unmasking the nature of reality

[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.)

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The inexorable oil crisis: Reasons to be glad

I saw a documentary recently called A Crude Awakening, where a bunch of experts said what they thought about oil. Documentaries tend to have an agenda, so you’ve got to be cautious about what you take from them. In the 1970s, scientists worried over the coming of a new ice age; now it’s global warming. As for oil, the experts seem to think that it’s all going to be gone in the next twenty years.

I’m not going to get too attached to specific projections, but there are certain inescapable facts we can take away from a documentary like this. The main one is: it doesn’t matter when the oil’s going to run out, it is going to run out. Oil is a limited resource. It doesn’t matter how many new repositories we discover, there can only be so many. Whether we use it all up in twenty years or a hundred, one day it will be gone. And the human race will be in big trouble. And I can’t help but smile.

You see, I don’t like the way the world is. On a simple practical level, as a cyclist, I hate these lethally fast, carbon-monoxide spewing, four-wheeled metal monsters that I share road-space with. I can’t help but smile at the thought of oil prices rising and rising, as oil becomes less and less available, while our pay checks stay the same. Eventually, I think people will have to consider bicycles, as it will simply be too expensive to drive. Flying somewhere on holiday may become a luxury that only the elite can afford.

I’ve been a fan of the idea of the electric car, but this documentary gave me a new perspective on that. With electric, there’s no longer any need for petrol, so that solves the immediate oil crisis problem, but all we’ve done is transfer the demand for the needed energy to our home electricity supply. And where does that come from, in the majority of cases? Electricity power plants based on non-renewable fossil fuels: coal. The electric car is also almost as much a pollutant as the regular car. It’s just that the pollution is all spewed out at the power plants instead of distributed evenly across the country via the tailpipes of millions of cars.

Even nuclear power isn’t the answer to the oil crisis. I personally hate nuclear power because of the deadly waste product it generates and our need to store it somewhere safe on our very unsafe planet. But even if I could get my head around that objection, nuclear power depends on – surprise, surprise – a limited, non-renewable source: uranium. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. So, with nuclear power, all we’re doing is pushing “The End” forward another by another few years, and not very many years according to the documentary.

They say there’s no way to build enough wind turbines to serve entire countries, in keeping with the energy consumption that we’re used to. Solar panels are very expensive to buy, in comparison to the small amount of the energy they generate. The bottom line is, the oil is going to run out, and there is nothing to replace it with. The modern world is living in a state of addiction to a drug, and someday the dealer isn’t going to have any more product. When that happens, we’re all going to experience withdrawal symptoms. No more long-distance travel. No more import-export trade. No more plastics. The impact sounds monumental, but it will likely happen in stages. Everything will simply start to get more and more expensive, and we will lose our privileges by degrees.

But you know what? It’s absolutely fine by me. Funny, even. I have grown to care a great deal about the environment, and it’s heartwarming to know that man can’t keep doing what he’s doing to the world, in the name of expedience and big business, indefinitely. The means of his destructiveness will run out and the earth will recover. I would love to see the roof of my home decked out with a big solar array, and a wind turbine blowing in the garden, while I learn to live a simpler life (something I’ve already started doing in many ways). Mankind lived for thousands of years just fine before the invention of electricity. We’ll never have to go back to that, but we won’t be able to enjoy anywhere near the level or energy we’re used to. I can’t help but think that in several hundred years time, our children might be sitting in schools having history lessons about the horrors 20th and 21st centuries. And they will be shaking their heads in disbelief at the things we’ve done to the planet in our pursuit of wealth and affluence. “Yes, children. In some population centres there were so many motor vehicles causing so much pollution that entire cities became encased in a smog that was so dense you could photograph it. The smog made it more difficult to breathe and caused illness. But people thought this was normal life, and they refused to change.” And the children will gasp in disbelief. People don’t accept their personal responsibility for the planet’s welfare when they see themselves as one among billions. But when all those billions are spewing out pollution, we are indeed all collectively responsible. There’s a saying that I love: No snowflake in an avalanche ever felt responsible.

I understand the predicament people are in. Not everyone is free and single like me. Not everyone works within two miles of their home. Not everyone can say, like me, “Screw cars. I’m gonna ride a bicycle from now on.” Not everyone feels they can change. But the change is coming. And I think that’s great. You can cling to the present system tooth and nail, feeding your oil addiction while the government makes you poorer and poorer through rising prices, until finally you are broke and beaten; the oil is gone and your money is in the hands of the fat cats. Or you can look for ways to beat the system and turn it into personal empowerment.

Of course, the discovery of alternative energy isn’t something that I can completely write off, and it’s certainly something to hope for. The past hundred years have seen massive technological leaps, and I think we can expect more. It’s only fair to say that change of one kind or another is coming, and none of it looks bad to me. The sooner the better, for the sake of the health of the planet and ourselves. To quote a song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

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I am no longer a Christian

Before admitting this to myself and others, I thought it was best to let the dust settle – to make sure I’m not now embarking on some whimsical spiritual detour. But, after several months, it seems less and less likely that I will be returning to the fold of Christianity. So, how did this happen? I’ll do my best to explain.

You could say it began with reading something inspiring by David Icke on the topic of open-mindedness, from his book I Am Me, I Am Free (see my review), but the real origins of this change go back much further. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, what exactly is the nature of this open-mindedness? I’ve blogged about it at length over the past couple of months (see Truth seeking vs. emotional attachment). In summary, it’s an attitude of mind that says “Go where the information takes you, not where you want it to go because of a pre-defined set of personal beliefs that will cause you to edit the information to your own ends.” Sorry that’s a bit of a mouthful. Even now, after much discussion with blog commenters, some are still insisting that this kind of open-mindedness is impossible. Of course it isn’t. All you have to do is make the choice to distance your emotional attachment to a set of beliefs, at least on a temporary basis – to take those beliefs away and see whether the same beliefs occur when you reconstruct what you think.

I found that they didn’t. In doing what I did, the dust was being blown off many problems that I had allowed to stay on the shelf for so long that the shelf was pretty much forgotten. These problems related to the Bible itself, to Christian history, and to my life’s experience as a Christian. The latter is what I mean when I say the origins of this change in me go back much further than reading David Icke. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve stepped away from Christianity (see My 13-year war with doubt and What I learned from being an agnostic. I’ve hopped from Christianity to agnosticism and back again many times. In summary, what would happen is that Christianity would fail to work on a practical level, so I would seek solace in escaping to greener pastures. And it’s not hard to make the jump on a rational level, because you can always go grab some things from that dusty old shelf and give yourself a reason not to believe.

But things have been different for the past seven years. The fallacy of agnosticism & athiesm has been so consistently clear to me that there was no going back to it. And Christianity was much more tolerable because I had also learned to see through some of the BS that made it so difficult, BS that is largely inflicted upon you by erroneous church teachings and attitudes. I remember going through a period where I would feel I was committing a sin just by allowing my attention to drift during the singing of a hymn in church. For a time, church became an activity where we all got together to tell God how much we’ve let him down during the week. I would hear the most depressing prayers, and something in me would be screaming, “It’s not supposed to be like this!” For this reason and others, I don’t relate to church people and church life. I don’t go because it can so easily be an uninspiring and depressing and destructive influence on my life. My previous pastor has such a narrow view of me that he views my lack of church attendence as lack of discipline and he sees me as having lost my way as a Christian. He looks back on the good old days when I was coming every week and participating, and he recently referred to this period as my spiritual peak. He has no idea how I have progressed over the years, and how the memories of those good old days look from inside my head. He has no idea how manipulated I feel. And it’s not as if he’s the manipulator. He’s as much a victim as I was, his own mind shaped by the theologies that he has absorbed through incessant study in a single direction. I hope some of this illustrates reasonably why I abandoned church life and also why I viewed a lot of Christian literature as dangerous (see The Christian book minefield).

Well, I didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I held fast to my Bible – a lonely pilgrim without a home. Hang on, that’s not accurate. Yes, some years ago, I managed to be one of those rare Christians who actually read the whole Bible in its entirety. But in the last couple of years it’s only fair to say that it’s a struggle to pick it up and read it. The struggle has been prevalent for most of my Christian life. And this apathy can only be a reflection of the lack of inspiration I’ve felt. And I don’t think I’m alone. It has to be asked why so few Christians actually read the Bible regularly. And I would hazard a guess that it’s because their experience of their religion is as uninspiring as mine was. For the most part, I was addicted to wasting my life on pointless entertainment. I’ve known there was something wrong with this, that it was a form of escapism in an unsatisfying life, but I’ve felt powerless to counter it, despite my Christian faith (see Altuism and Altruism – Part II). Now, with my new outlook, I appear to have countered it with the greatest of ease, but that’s a larger topic for another day.

What I began to suspect a few months ago was that the leap I made from agnosticism to Christianity seven years ago may have been too great a leap – one that I made because I only saw two options: there is no God (and therefore no religion), or there is a God (with all the trappings of religion by default). No sooner had I accepted the reality of God than I accepted Christianity. There were understandable reasons to do so. It is the big world religion (strength in numbers, so to speak), with a massive history dating back to the ancient world, and the Bible does contain some inspirational material – the Book of Proverbs being a prime example, which I recall reading at the time of my “re-conversion.” What I didn’t see at the time was that there is an alternative to religion, one that does not involve turning to an athiestic view of life and the depression it causes.

When you know, from a rational basis, that athiesm is in error (see The lie of the joyful athiest) and you then learn that there are major problems with your religion that give you good cause to abandon it, this alternative then becomes the only option for you. (I will go into more detail later on the specifics of my problems with Christianity – not here, because numerous heated discussions are likely to ensue.) The alternative is simply to seek the truth without sacrificing your freedom to think for yourself. That freedom is taken away on the one side by the Bible, and by Popes, pastors, and every other religious authority that insists it has a right to your mind. On the other side, that freedom is taken away by the mind-prison where science is seen, not as a tool to help us understand the universe, but as a God-like authority where “this world is all there is” is the unproven principle under which it operates and which many people hang their entire concept of reality. Openness to possibility is where the real answer lies. Freedom to investigate without being forced into an “ism.”

You might think that this alternative view leaves me in a bit of a vague conundrum of not knowing what to believe, since I’m not allowing myself to be tied down to the specifics of a particular school of thought. Not at all. I think intuition has a lot to do with it. But boy, oh boy, that’s a real can of worms for another day. I have so much more to say, on so many things. This post is merely a summary of why I’ve changed.

Briefly, in closing, some of the positive changes in my life: more courage in speaking out; no fear of what others think; massively increased sense of emotional balance in my day to day life; vastly increased resistance to personal vices; most importantly a much greater capacity to love others, along with empathy and tolerance. In short, the past couple of months have felt like one massive great sigh of relief that the spiritual side of me has been longing for but until now unable to make.

Am I merely in the “honeymoon period” of a new belief that will, in time, fall flat on its face? Time will tell. But I figured enough time had gone by for me to start talking about it with some confidence.

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Clues about what we are, from a girl with half a brain

One of the major themes of my recent posts has been “What is consciousness?” or “Are we just a brain inside a body, or does our consciousness transcend the physical?” Well, it doesn’t get much plainer than lopping off fifty percent of a person’s brain and discovering that the whole person is still there.

There was an incredible documentary on telly last night about a little girl called Cameron Mott. When only three years old, she started displaying the symptoms of Rasmussen’s Encephalitis, the only cure for which is a hemispherectomy, the removal or disconnection of one entire half of the brain. After the operation, Cameron suffered (as predicted) paralysis along one side of her body, but she was young enough that, after a few days, she was already training the remaining side of her brain to take over, and she regained much of the use of her immobilised limbs.

The most incredible thing to me, and the thing which was beyond the theme of the documentary, was that that Cameron came out of the operation mentally and emotionally intact. She was still the same little girl. Surely this begs the question: if we can lose half of our brain, and still be “all there,” what on earth are we? I think this points very strongly to the idea that the brain is not the person; that consciousness (the core of ourselves), including our self-awareness and possibly our memories, lies somewhere beyond physical matter; that the brain is simply a machine that serves the consciousness and helps us interact with and function in this five-sense reality.

And then there’s my favourite question in all this: If consciousness is non-physical, what happens to it when the body dies? Does it necessarily die, too? Why should it, when it isn’t physical matter?

If I can make any valid point, it’s this: A view of reality that rests strictly on scientific principles involving the denial of anything beyond the physical, just because it is untestable, strikes me as wholely inadequate. When you’ve got scientists running around insisting there is no soul and that we’re just a brain, and then I’m seeing with my own eyes that somebody can lose half of their brain and still be fully compus mentus, well, excuse me for believing in a “soul.”

The full documentary Living with Half a Brain can be watched online via this YouTube playlist.

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