Is It Real? How Can I Tell?

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on November 11, 2015, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

November 11, 2015 |   Print this essay


Although I am an inconceivably small element in a universe of 200 billion galaxies and uncountable trillions of stars, that world exists for me only as I am aware of it. I am the center of that world. Although I am aware that I am aware, I am not a spirit occupying my brain observing that world. There is no little homunculus in there watching reality on a screen. I am my awareness. The more my awareness includes perceptions of the outside world, the more verifiable – the more objective and real – my awareness. But even though I can extend my perceptions deep into that world with optical and other kinds of instruments, I am aware of it only through my brain processing the raw, meaningless stimulations of the retinas of my eyes. Each retina consists of 10 million rods and cones. These rods and cones do not mechanically record objects in the outside world. They record stimulations and create sensations. If my vision extended into the infra–red, like that of rats, snakes and mosquitoes, I would be recording different stimulations. Although I can see a tree, an image of a tree is not what is projected onto the retinas of my eyes. It is not the constantly changing light stimulations which do not distinguish the light reflected off the tree from the light reflected off its surroundings. There is nothing like an image formed which can then be inspected and interpreted by my brain or mind. My eyes and brain process the stimulations. “In the living, active eye, the so–called ‘image’ on the retina “is kept in constant involuntary motion; it drifts away from the fovea, ‘flicked’ back, while the drifting movement itself vibrates at up to 150 cycles per second.” My eyes jump from one point to another, near and far, refocusing each time. I perceive space by my head and body movements and bifocal vision along with anything projected on my retinas. Different receptors in the retinas select and respond to edges, corners and gradations of light. The resulting, processed, retinal stimulation is conveyed to my brain by 1 million optic nerves. According to the American neuroscientist, Christof Koch, the brain is “by far, the most complex piece of organized matter in the universe.” The average human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals (electrical impulses) to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, equivalent by some estimates to a computer with a 1 trillion bit per second processor. The stimuli do not become images until they reach my brain. My mind gives the stimuli meaning. Like all biological organisms, I see what is necessary to function. I see what I attend to. I learn to see what to attend to. “I do not see all of my surroundings, but construct a viewer–centered, three dimensional view of my environment.” My vision is thus intentional, selective and constructive. By inconceivably complex chemical and electrical processes, the original stimuli are converted into my awareness.


There must be a correlation between my awareness and my brain processes, but how that correlation results in my awareness is a mystery to me. I ‘don’t understand how consciousness can arise from merely electrical and chemical properties of the brain’. But somehow, it does. I know that I think and that my thought may correlate with such activity in a neuron, but neural activity is not my thought. Correlations are not the same as what they correlate with. Most present studies of consciousness are based on the premise that physical processes underlie mental processes in the same way that physics underlies chemistry. By learning the neurology of the brain, or perhaps, its underlying quantum processes, some brain scientists believe that they will be able to understand the laws of consciousness. I will argue that, on the contrary, although physical processes underlie mental processes, knowledge of biology or quantum mechanics will not reveal the content of my awareness or its specific causes. This is because awareness is not a physical phenomenon that can be studied with scientific objectivity, so that kind of connection is impossible to make. While chemical and physical changes in my brain – probes, drugs, electric shock, concussion – can affect its processes and the general character of my thought, they cannot determine what I am thinking. There is a difference between having an experience and knowing about it. How something occurs is not the same as what occurs. A blind man can know all there is to know about the color, red, but he will never experience it. Brain studies expand our understanding of brain processes, but they cannot explain or predict my subjective responses to the Michelangelo murals in the Sistine Chapel or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. They can determine the general processes of my brain, but subjective experiences are individual and personal. They differ in each person. This is not a matter of willful ignorance, of ‘inferring knowledge from ignorance’. Although there may be correlations between them, they are simply different kinds of stuff. Thoughts and feelings are not chemicals and electric impulses. For this reason, brain scientists can never achieve their claimed goals. They may eventually be able to describe it, but they will never be able to account for it. The scientific method is basically the wrong procedure for explaining subjective experiences.

But although my subjective experiences may not be measurable, they are just as real to me as my observable experiences. Denying the existence of subjective experiences because they cannot be scientifically observed and objectified, as some theories of consciousness do, creates a distorted, unreal model of the human mind. In fact, any theory of consciousness based on such denial rejects what it is supposed to explain. And, if we accept the idea on which this paper is based that all consciousness is ultimately subjective, then it even denies its own existence.

My awareness cannot exist separate from biological processes. What I think and do – my intellect and rationality – my conscious will – my power to determine my actions – must be the result of brain processes. I assume the outside world exists, but all I can know of it must also be the product of such processes. In fact, not only the appearance of the world and my knowledge of science, but all human knowledge and the languages describing it must ultimately also be organic in origin. And even though I am self aware and my conscious mind can rationalize, modify or cancel the products of my mind, I am still fundamentally a biological animal. Thus, reality for me cannot be an objective view of the outside world, but is rather the verification and consistency of my experiences of it. In this sense, reality is what I think I am looking at. The notion of a perceptual objectivity that all people share is impossible because everyone will not perceive the external world the same way. Within the limits of our species, we are the same, but we are also individuals. We are the result of biological evolution. Without individual differences, evolution cannot occur. Although similar experiences will result in similar perceptions, to the extent that everyone develops differently, they will experience and see the world differently. Culture and language, as well as autism and other mental conditions can also influence perception.

We do not perceive what is there and then interpret it. The perception is the interpretation. We see what we have learned to see. For example, modern surgeons have no problem distinguishing heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the pathways between them. We assume that we also could see what they see by looking closely. We might even know the names of the organs, having seen diagrams in which each organ is clearly outlined and color coded and so we should have no trouble identifying organs and their connections. But the body is far more complex and visually confusing than these visualized categorizations indicate. Photographs are especially confusing because they are two dimensional. For thousands of years, although people had seen the organs in the body, they had no accurate idea of what they were looking at, what the parts were, how they were connected or what they did. Unless we have participated in an actual dissection, in which the dissector pointed out the individual organs, their connections and functions, it would be impossible for us to distinguish them. We could not tell where one organ ended and another began. This is not to say that our retinas and our brains are not stimulated by what we are looking at, but without such knowledge, its perception is a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’. We have to know what we are looking at before we can see it.

We represent what we think we are looking at. To the Roman physician and philosopher, Galen, in the second century A.D., the heart was a lamp or little furnace. For him, blood went from the liver to the heart, where it mixed with air from the lungs, was heated by the heart, thus heating the body, and passed to the other side of the heart through tiny channels in the wall separating its two sides. Such channels did not actually exist, but because they were necessary for his model to function, he ‘saw’ them. 1,400 years later, the great draftsman, Leonardo da Vinci, drew pictures of the heart from observation, but, like everyone else at the time, his conception of the heart was still Galen’s. Therefore, his drawing contained Galen’s channels. He thought the heart contained channels, so he saw channels where there were none.

We may assume that because the physical world objectively exists, there must be objective ways of representing it. But, as we have seen, given its biological basis, objectivity cannot be absolute. We can only know the outside world through patterns our brains create in response to the patterns we perceive in the outside world. To the extent that patterns in our brains match patterns in the outside world, the world makes sense. In order to create such patterns, we simplify and objectify our perceptions. We reduce the complexity of stimulations to comprehensible chunks. Fundamentally, in giving meaning to our perceptions, we are categorizing them. We group them according to some quality or qualities they are perceived to have in common.

‘Categorization is the primary means of coding experience, underlying not only perceptual and reasoning processes, but also inductive inference and language’. In order to objectify and communicate categories, we convert them into words, numbers, two and three dimensional images and sounds. We use syntactic language and metaphor. We create myths, concepts, models, structures, classifications, algorithms, schemas, hypotheses, paradigms, theories, formulas and laws, so that our perceptions fit together in meaningful, functional categories. In our history, we have made marks and images on cave walls – pictographs and hieroglyphs on clay and wax tablets, tomb walls and papyrus roles. We have created alphabets, pictures and numbers on velum scrolls, on paper in hand written and printed books and magazines – clicks on telegraphs – voices on telephones and radios – photographs on paper and film projection – on TV and computer screens, I–phones and holograms. Each of these forms of articulation and communication (‘media’) gives its own characteristic, physical structure to our awareness. Each selects or emphasizes some perceptions, ignores or transforms others.

Some, but not all, categories can be verified by personal experiences. My immediate awareness of the outside world is derived from the integration of infinitely changing, overlapping, perceptual categories. This integration creates a predictable, stable, visual environment in which I can function. Such categories are experientially verifiable and potentially can be affected by my actions.

I am also aware of myself, both as a body separate from my environment and as a body having feelings and sensations. Such subjective experiences are directly felt and cannot be wrong because they are purely subjective. Although everyone has such experiences, they cannot be observed. They cannot be shared because no objective descriptions of them can be constructed. We cannot communicate, except possibly by analogy, metonymy or metaphor, the feeling of pain, seeing red, the smell of a rose, the taste of garlic, even the feelings of hunger or sexual desire. Our responses to music, painting, literature and poetry, to our fears, anxieties, loves, ambitions, stresses, moods, beliefs, desires and temperaments are entirely private. Mystical experiences cannot be objectively described. Such experiences may be ‘like’ something, but they are not what they are like. Also, for this reason, they cannot be digitalized and programmed into a computer without the intervention of a human programmer who has had such experiences.

I also live in a non perceptual world, in which categories are verified by the experiences of others. It is a world consisting only of its representations. Although there may be no doubt that scientific and other phenomena described by others actually exist, unless I have experienced them, I know them only as man–created, media–represented categories. I read, hear and see pictures of them, but I don’t experience them myself.


‘Perceptions can be categorized in multiple ways, giving rise to different ways of describing or understanding the same phenomena’. For example, according to Wikipedia, ‘In botany, a tree is a perennial plant with an elongated stem, or trunk, supporting branches and leaves in most species.’, but such a definition does not describe our actual experiences of trees. There are many different kinds of trees. The description does not include their size or shape. A tree can be characterized by its basic, branching structure, but also by its appearance from different points of view, in light and shadow and by its colors. Color can be visualized as local or optical. Are tree leaves really green? What color are they at night? They may be conceptually green, but not visually. Compare the representations of the appearance of trees by artists through Western history. What most trees might have in common may be their branching structure, but even that disappears in representations of forests in paintings from Durer to Monet where clusters of trees create patterns in which the structures of individual trees are irrelevant. Durer saw them as patterns of dark and light and texture. We were not aware of the infinite numbers of colors in trees until the Impressionists painted them. Categories describe aspects, not essences of the outside world. Categories, not the outside world, create essences. Thus, the concept, ‘tree’, is a created category.

But the world does not consist of created categories. Such categories exist in our minds, not in the world. They are not beyond the processes of our bodies and brains. Although thought is experienced as if it is transcendent, that is, independent of our brain function, meaning arises from relations of perception to bodily needs and functions. It is embodied in our actual experiences. But by making the world comprehensible, we destroy it totality, its unity, its inexhaustible complexity. Representational categories diminish and fracture actual experience. They recreate and replace it. Thus, ‘all attempts to conceptually categorize the elements in the outside world are ambiguous and cannot match our experiences of it. Thought cannot be the manipulation of abstract symbols unambiguously referring to things in the world.’ Rather, we think in terms of relationships between patterns, not logically or analytically, but analogically, by perceiving similarities and dissimilarities between remembered patterns and new ones. Although the mind can organize thought into syntactical, logical structures, thought itself is primarily metaphoric, based on association and resemblance, rather than rules and reason. It is capable of reasoning logically, but it can also be illogical, making inappropriate connections. (If the mind worked only rationally, there would be no illogical people.) It is an inductive process in which we try to fit new experiences into old ones. Since the mind cannot objectively view and copy nature, it creates its own version of reality.

The physical universe doesn’t change, but the patterns describing it do. Because our awareness of the outside world is a biological process, it changes as we respond to our experiences. As we learn more, we reluctantly revise our categories to accommodate new perceptions. New categories can create perceptions of what we were previously unaware. Scientific discoveries and artistic and technical creations establish new, useful connections between categories, but because the social circumstances of the creators of such connections vary, so will their purpose and, therefore, their emphasis and accuracy.

We change our version of reality to accommodate new experiences by noticing similarities between what we don’t understand and what we do. It is as if we ask ourselves, “What is what we don’t understand like?” What do we know that has similar characteristics? By identifying something we don’t know with something we do, we think we know it. We turn previous categories into metaphors for the new. For example, at one time, in our attempt to understand how our bodies work, because living bodies had moving parts and could act on their environment, the most common metaphor for the human body was the machine. The body became a purposeful mechanism. For the ancient Greeks, hydraulic systems, like fountains and the water clock, transported the four humors from one part of the body to another. Since humors determined states of mind, they had to be kept in balance. Descartes also saw the body as a machine, but his metaphor was weight or pendulum driven clocks and other contemporary mechanisms. Animal spirits were moved by his machine. For him, the mind was a non material entity existing outside the body. Even today, our cells are described as “little engines” or ‘nanomachines’ that carry out life’s vital functions. For Freud, sexual desires, a product of the mind, were like the pressures of water in a steam kettle or engine which had to be redirected or they would explode. The great physicist, Hermann Helmholtz, developed the telegraph metaphor for the nervous system and by the end of the 19th century, the brain became a switchboard which moved electrical currents through the body in wires. With the advent of the computers in the 1950s and the recognition that the mind could compute, the computer became the metaphor for the mind.

But new categories run the risk of being rejected when they contradict old assumptions. We remember Galileo’s problem in attempting to show that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the reverse. They also can reject characteristics of the old model which are essential for the new. They can select some innovative characteristics, but be oblivious to others, and, while revealing new insights, can also result in distorted perception. Confusing an object with its metaphor can lead to misleading conclusions when applied in the real world. A human may perform some functions of a machine, but it is dangerous to think of him as a machine. The idea that both the mind and the computer can compute has led to the idea that a computer could duplicate and even replace the mind. But similarities are not identities. Knowing how something works is not the same as making it work. Not only does the brain do a lot more than compute; it has many characteristics which can’t be computerized. Calculation is only one of its many possible functions. It ignores the fact that a computer is only an electronic machine, no matter how complex its electronics, whether it works in parallels or sequences, that manipulates symbols or, more accurately, electronic processes that can be interpreted, by a human being, as symbols, that is, as having reference to something in the outside world, but does not understand them. Humans can and do. A computer has no mind of its own, no self awareness, but must be programmed by self aware human minds. Its calculations are electronic processes, not thoughts. (Electronic processes in the brain become thoughts; they don’t in a machine.) A computer has no intrinsic purpose and cannot decide on its own what to do with its results. (In fact, it is even inappropriate to say that computers compute; computing implies intentionality: humans compute: computers apply algorithms.) Like a pocket calculator, it requires a conscious human being to interpret and apply them, to give them purpose.


Scientific objectivity is certainly useful. It helps us understand the physical universe and how to function in it. It helps us understand our bodies and maintain our health. But it becomes dangerous when it turns into dogma and denies the validity of alternate ways of understanding. It is especially dangerous when it ignores subjective, introspective experiences as being ‘folk–tales’ because it is unreliable and useless in describing physical brain states. Scientific studies are generally statistical generalizations and, as a result, cannot determine specific applications. For example, we may know that Paxil can modify depression, but we cannot tell how particular individuals will respond to it. The belief that only the products of scientific objectivity are real ignores most of the experiences that make us human. Scientific objectivity, when applied to people – substituting general knowledge of people for their personal experiences Ð can be dangerous because it ultimately denies our individuality and humanity. Such subjective experiences are as important as objective knowledge and are as real to the person experiencing them. They must be considered if we are to understand ourselves. Focusing on individuals does not deny what they have in common; it enriches it. The observations of Oliver Sacks are as important as those of Daniel Dennett. Scientific abstractions are no more real than the works of serious writers. I can learn more about individual humans from Shakespeare and Saul Bellow than Donald Hoffman.

And, on a more fundamental level, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein saw the world differently and lived in different realties. Today, even those worlds are no longer real. Our perception of reality has a history. Traditional notions of scientific predictability, of cause and effect and time and space, are challenged by scientific theory. Physical reality, entities like black energy and anti–matter, exist primarily as mathematical projections.

Although scientists try to be objective, they can disagree. There is no consensus among brain scientists on the relationship between brain processes and consciousness. And there most likely can never be, because the language describing consciousness is so ambiguous. Also, although neuroscience can tell us how the brain functions and how it responds to different stimuli. it cannot distinguish the different effects of their context, the particular causes of these stimuli. It can tell us what neurons in the brain light up when stimulated by different emotions, but It cannot predict behavioral responses to emotions on the basis of these studies. It cannot even distinguish between the response to a fear of a real threat, to that provoked by a horror movie and to one read about in a book. It cannot explain the effects of heredity and culture. It cannot explain our responses to the fine arts – to literature, poetry, painting or any of the humanities and it certainly cannot explain their creation.

Finally, what is ‘real’? We are biological organisms existing as part of a physical universe. Our biological processes, which include the electrical and chemical processes of our brains, and, therefore, our consciousness including our subjective experiences, our sciences and our arts, are part of that universe and should not be considered as something separate from it. But although that universe must really exist and we continue to study it, all we can know of it is the patterns our brains create of its stimuli. For us, then, concepts of accuracy and objectivity are relative terms and can vary according to the patterns we create describing our sensations. Reality for us, therefore, is not a matter of unchanging, objective Truth or subjective fantasy. It is not limited to the observations of physical or of neuroscientists.

And, most fundamentally, not only our survival, but also our knowledge, the satisfaction of our curiosity and desire to understand, depend on how successfully the patterns we create fit patterns in the universe. We may choose and connect the categories, the patterns, we find most convincing and useful in our lives. We may take for granted what we consider to be reality today. But we ignore at our peril the number of times in the past when such concepts have been wrong. Although our awareness may accommodate ignorance, misperception and misconception, our actions cannot contradict physical reality regardless of how we conceive it. When and where they do, both we and the physical world suffer.

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