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Wednesday May 25, 2005: Brain in the Vat versus Life Within the Web

        How could I know if the outside world actually existed? This may sound like a strange question to anyone (other than a fan of The Matrix series), but certainly while one is in a dream state it is possible to move, to interact with tangible persons and objects, to carry on conversations and resolve conflicts. It’s only upon awakening that one becomes conscious that memories of the night developed during REM sleep, that the realities were experienced by mind, not body.

        If we were no more than a brain in a vat, if the brain was stimulated within enough locations to produce vivid impressions of the five senses and if these impressions were jumbled together into a coherent story line, would we recognize that reality as any different from what we commonly experience in our awakened state? It’s possible and probably that humans routinely alter and rewrite sections of their memory, sometimes in conflict with other people’s recollections of the same event. In defense of their own self-image, people often reinterpret past events, casting the more favorable light on their own motives.

        Have we any proof that events actually happen and are not just constructs of the mind, designed to give us a sense of time and place and personality? Science fiction has had a great time exploring how we would perceive reality if memories could be replaced, giving a different history to flesh out the impression of self we carry into daily life.

        I can’t help thinking of two markedly different mystical states. In one, we appear as no more than centers of light, floating in a cosmic sea. There are no story lines other than those created by these light centers as they bump into other centers, as they are carried along by cosmic currents. These centers share a common environment, but not a communal sense of reality. This awareness level supports the brain in the vat (or the Matrix) theory. Reality is a state of being and we create our own impressions of outer reality to explain internal sensations of movement and interaction. It’s one of the infamous states of awareness that lead mystics to claim the outer world is only an illusion.

        In the opposing mystical state, we are part of an interwoven system; we are aware of our existence only in terms of our relationship to the world outside. We see ourselves as male or female, tall or short, working at home or driving to work, alone or in social interaction. All these perceptions are based on the way we fit into an outer world. From higher states, these connections are so intertwined with our reality that the question has to arise: if you remove the rest of the pattern, would there be a sense of self or existence? Could one exist independent of the belief in -- as well as the ideas and memories of – an external world?

        It is possible to reach a state of being where all personal attributes are stripped away. I was given the experience once (Heaven protect me from ever experiencing it again). I had asked to train for a specific spiritual ‘career,’ rather than follow the path chosen for me. When I could not be deterred from my goal, my guides switched tactics.

        Always be careful what you ask for. Only I could be such a dunce as to ignore spiritual guides. I found myself in a state of total responsibility, with no sense of self (not even emotions). To exist with no sense of personal goals or desires or satisfactions, just a singular focal point of responsibility, must be the most radical form of freedom one can experience. Having the smallest taste of that ‘freedom’ left me practically screaming to get back to everyday reality.

        That something capable of perception still remains after the soul is stripped of all attributes should have been comforting; I found the experience radically unnerving. Human beings, even when not consciously thinking about themselves, carry an awareness of just who is doing the perceiving, interpreting, and interacting.

        The question remains: do we exist only in awareness of our position and relationship to the outside world, or does the outside exist only as a private mental construct? I wanted to explore the notion further.

To be continued......

Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 04:31PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

Just a couple of weeks ago I was racking my brain about some of the ideas in the Matrix series (after re-watching them with my kids). I can get all excited about Choice and Truth as human values but when I think about the ultimate transformation of the human at the end (which seems to correspond to what you described as your experience as a point of consciousness), I get freaked out to the point of wanting to run like Cypher back to the Matrix where at least I think I know who I am and I feel comfortable with that. But not quite...

You asked "do we exist only in awareness of our position and relationship to the outside world, or does the outside exist only as a private mental construct? "

I've thought about this too. I think the answer is yes. I think there is a seperate outside world and I think that it is also a construct of our perceptions. And even though our perceptions of it differ, they are close enough for us to function together as if we understand the world in the same way.

You can sort of see it through history. As our world view changed, the way we viewed the world change but did the actual reality of the outside world change? I don't think so. I think it's a case of us evolving in our understanding of it. I can see us so many years down the road understanding the world from a quantum physics perspective from example and then maybe we will all see the energy and connections of the earth. Does that mean we created it? I think it was always there waiting patiently for us to see it as it is.

As a mother of two, a mechanical engineer and a painter. A former secular humanist who has changed over time to broaden her ideas of what rationality is, I feel a kindship to the way you view the world and have been enjoying reading your site. :)
May 31, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

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