Altering reality, minds, Time and Futures

Yesterday I posted something of a vitriolic piece about the altered reality inhabited by the agitprop tendency at The Guardian. I was talking to a close chum about it this morning, and he made the very pertinent point that an inability to face reality or stop can-kicking was almost universal among the Elite – be they multinational CEOs, politicians, bankers, civil servants or trade unions.
He’s right, of course: looniness is nowhere near restricted to the Fluffies. In fact, as the Rednecks have more money and power, they are potentially a lot more dangerous – see The Slog’s earlier post today. But for some reason, the conversation got me thinking on a more philosophical level.
What is reality? There are at least a thousand answers to that timeless question….ranging from Buddhists who would say ‘it doesn’t exist’ through to atomic theorists postulating that if you get the same result in a physical experiment every time, than the occurrence was real.
Neither position at each end of that spectrum is easy to maintain. If there is no reality, then clearly we are all tuned in perfectly to the same nightmare. We look in mirrors and at photographs, and seem able to agree about the image that’s there. But if the physical experiment thing is to be followed, then it falls down at the sub-atomic level, where some phenomena are disturbingly erratic in what they will or won’t do under identical conditions.
If you’ve ever taken LSD, then you’ll know that what’s dubbed ‘hallucinogenic’ by observers is, to the person experiencing it, physically real enough. I saw and touched a brick wall where a toilet door had been, felt extreme pain when some railings leapt out to spear me in the cheek, and watched in horror as the sky turned bright orange. (Once was enough for me – I never took it again).
But here too, physicists would say, “Yes, but if you think you were run down by a truck on an acid trip, you’ll be alive when the drug wears off. If it really happened, you’d be dead.”
Absolutely right. However, there are former LSD users all over the world who, after a bad trip, were never the same again. That too is a ‘real’ effect left behind years after the drug wore off.
In much the same way, years after amputees have had a limb removed, they have a completely physical experience of the long-absent appendage. In some patients this is a terrible problem, and requires constant use of pain-blocking drugs. That sort of pain too is ‘real’ – if it requires pain blocking drugs.
Post-hypnotic suggestion can make people believe the most extraordinary things, even to the extent of being a different species. They relate (occasionally) having ‘seen’ other people as cats or mice.
Does all this represent a false reality, or another reality? For me, this is a question for chemists and neuroscientists, rather than necessarily just a topic for metaphysics.
Ultimately, we consist largely of water, and some complex chemicals busily reacting 100% of the time until we die. When given drugs in pharmaceutical tests, some people given the placebo will respond as if they had been given the actual drug. Somewhat typically, medics write this off as ‘the placebo effect’, but of course it isn’t – the positive effect has been caused by chemicals in the brain. Whether based on expectation or not, the astonishing possibility here is that we could all cure ourselves of just about anything…if we only knew consciously how to create the correct chemical mix.
While researchers call that a placebo effect, those studying recreational drug use refer to ‘mind altering drugs’. But what if that’s only half the story? What if the alteration of ‘the mind’ (a set of chemical reactions and electronic pulses) produces an altered reality? What if there are millions of realities existing side by side, and most of the time, we’re merely tuned to one narrow channel?
In terms of actual matter, the ‘reality’ we perceive is a version of it we create to enable our brains to handle the data. As Carl Sagan wrote, ‘We were to be conscious of every electromagnetic signal that hits our senses, we would suffer data overload within seconds’. We refer to things as solids, liquids and gases, and we measure density to explain why some things are more impenetrable than others; but the universe is almost entirely empty. Even the simplest molecule, massively enlarged, would consist of two or three specs of dust rattling around in the Albert Hall. The cushion, chair or brick we ‘see’ is in fact largely space. And the mass of such objects will also rise or fall depending on the speed at which they’re travelling.
Any changes that occur in our physical environment are largely explained in terms of Time. But time itself, Einstein showed, is relative – and therefore cannot be entirely ‘real’ within the atomic physicist’s definition. If it was, it would behave in the same way wherever we were, but it doesn’t: it moves more slowly or quickly depending on what speed we’re doing….but to the mind engaged in going at that speed, it appears always to be the same. To all intents and purposes then, time is indeed an illusion.
The conclusion reached is nearly always that, while the mind can change the perception of what’s happening, what’s really happening is an absolute. The odds were pretty much on the side of this once we’d invented mechanical things to record events as an ‘objective witness’: the video camera shows the chimney falling over, so the chimney fell over – QED.
But there is a flaw in this concept: why should a machine with no elements of the mind in it record exactly the same ‘simplified’ appearance of events as the mind saw from its own vantage point of filtering out much of the data? It’s a flaw that, in the movie business, every director would tell you can be stood on its head: that a human mind can change what the cameras sees to produce something different to what we see…that certain actors can change their ‘reality’ for the camera….or do they do it by changing how the camera operates? Monroe, Wayne, Gable and Chaplin all had this ability. What was it?
What we discern most of the time, on this planet inhabited (and physically dominated) by us is human beings capable of being incredibly selective about the reality they see around them. This pertains no matter how many mathematical calculations suggest they’re wrong, scientific investigations show that they’re barking up the wrong tree, or film records prove that Americans really did go to the Moon. For some people, belief is everything.
Fine, neuroscientists say, it’s just a left brain/right brain imbalance thing. And indeed, schizophrenia is now increasingly thought by those treating it to be a hippocampus problem, involving one side of the brain failing to tell the other what is ‘real’ and what is delusional. Except that here too is an assumption about how what most people (outside the asylum walls) see is real, whereas those inside don’t. A closely related ‘given’ is that dreams are unreal, and daytime consciousness is real. Yet while we are asleep, there can be no doubt that we dilate time: a period spent asleep for four hours can sometimes ‘feel’ like five minutes, and a dream that seemed to last for hours – psychometric graphs will show – lasted a matter of seconds. As this is an ability to change the illusion of Time when we are unconscious, who has the right to say that this is imagination, whereas conscious Time is real? After all, we already know that Time is an illusion: so maybe the subconscious is entirely same to challenge it.
Is there any point to this conjecture? Yes, I think there is. Imagine how our somewhat leaden visions of the future would change if:
1. We were able to master travelling along a diferent Time reality, rather than being constrained by the one we ‘normally’ perceive.
2. We could reverse the sense of feeling a limb that isn’t there, and thus remove the need for anaesthetics.
3. We could train the brain to combat attacks of a debilitating and cancerous nature on its own.
4. We could dilate unconcscious Time and go wherever we wanted, without ageing 10,000 years.
5. We could study the effects of ‘mind’ altering drugs in a context of them being ‘reality’ altering drugs, capable of enabling people to withstand appalling environmental changes and still survive.
Those are merely five possibilities chosen at random. There must be thousands more. And that’s the point: Ford said that all history is bunk, but he was wrong. History can be a lesson or an intellectual tyranny, but it can enlighten: the future guessed on a linear fashion from the aspect of today reall is bunk. The possibilities for our species are endless, and none of them are known in 2011.