The “realness” of the world is something we intuitively feel. However, “objective reality” might not be so objective. Even if there is a real world “out there” we can only experience it mentally, and mental experience is unavoidably subjective, unavoidably filtered. We all experience a self-biased world which feels very real, very ”truthy” and actually unbiased. If you know someone who does not have access to one or more of their senses, you are very aware that you experience the world very differently than they do. Our self-biased world is also species specific, as anyone who has lived with another species has experienced. Each species highlights or tunes out part of “reality” depending upon its own survival needs. The world your dog experiences is not only different but unavailable to you. Science may have instruments more sensitive than our bodies, but these instruments cannot give us the true experience of the “real world.”
Our minds generate our reality; we are continuously and actively constructing the world we experience. Our experienced world is filtered and infused with our unique human emotions and thoughts. Donald Hoffman, a professor at UC Irvine who studies visual perception, has a hypothesis that perception is more of a multimode user interface (MUI): “The conscious perceptual experiences of an agent are a multimodal user interface between that agent and an objective world.” (1) This theory suggests that what we experience as objects are more akin to the icons we have on our computer desktop than what is likely really going on. In the same way that the user friendly icon on your computer in no way represents the reality behind it, our observed objects are but useful fictions that allow us to interact with an unfathomable “reality” that can’t be fully experienced. Hoffman also points out that it would not be an advantage to us if we could.
This image is the Necker cube which Hoffman likes to use as a demonstration of our reality construction. Our minds take the patterns within these eight circles and construct a cube, but this cube can be seen in multiple ways. Is it a cube on top of the red circles? Is the small red x on the front or back? Or, are we looking through the red circles to see the cube as if through small windows, and in that case is the x on the front or back? When our mind constructs the cube in front it also puts in the white connecting lines — even though they aren’t really there. These lines disappear when we are looking through the red circular windows. We can actually experience “reality” shifting as we move between these different perspectives (be patient). How does our past experience with the cube shape impact what we see? Would some people, perhaps young children, only see the red circles with patterns in them?
Our minds generate our reality and then believe that world is real. We feel like our sense organs are like open windows letting in what is really “out there.” We believe in objectivity, unfortunately, we have been fooled.
(1) D. Hoffman. Conscious realism and the mind-body problem. Mind & Matter, 2008, 6, 87–121.
John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.