The signals from the outside world reach our consciousness in the brain through a complicated chain of electrochemical processes. The problem is that the brain processes we experience are of a completely different nature than the stuff of the outside world.
When we perceive a table in front of us; what is it that reaches us in the interior of the brain? It’s not like receiving a fax in an office. It’s not that we receive a microscopic little wooden replica of the table in the office of our brain. The thing we receive in our brain is not made of the same stuff as the table.
I like to think of our connection with reality like a more drastic version of the kids game Chinese Whispers. The first person in the far away end is directly in contact with reality but instead of whispering what he sees he composes and recites a poem. The next person listens and whistles a tune inspired by the poem. The third person creates a painting based on the tune. The fourth guy looks at the painting and writes a play. And on it goes from person to person till it finally reaches you. That’s how we perceive reality.
I wonder if the impressions we have of the reality of the outside world bears any resemblance to reality as it is in itself. Does it even make sense to talk about how the outside world looks like independently of us?
You can think about the “objective appearance” of reality as you would about the monsters you encounter in online roleplaying games like World of Warcraft. What does the monsters look like when you don’t play? In this analogy it becomes clear that it’s almost meaningless to talk about the monsters appearance when no one plays. The monsters “objective appearance” is just data on a harddrive. What does data look like? When we play the game a Cave Troll may look greenish brown, scruffy and slightly hunched with a grim facial expression. When we’re not playing the Cave Troll is just one’s and zeros or north-south polarity in the magnetic ferric oxide film covering a disk. The point is that reality does not look like anything at all when we’re not watching. The appearance of reality is completely created in the interaction with conscious beings.
The German physicist Heinrich Hertz wrote in the introduction to his The Principles of Mechanics, published 1899, something that’s been stuck in my mind for many years.
We form ourselves images of external objects; and the form which we give them is such that the necessary consequents of the images in thought are always the images of the necessary consequents in nature of the thing depicted…
This is such an elegant answer to the whole philosophical question.
Hertz, one of the greatest and most important physicists
of the nineteenth century died only 36 years old.
The international unit for frequency is named after him.