I am convinced that we are poor observers of reality; we largely mix our perception of reality with ideas, convictions, presumptions, whatever, about reality. And the whole of “reality” and “mind models” becomes our reality.
The three reasons or causes are the following.
I have an academic education as a theoretical physicist. More that any other scientific discipline, modern – post-Newtonian – physics deals with phenomena that we cannot observe directly, with our own senses (eyes, ears, etc) or that are very different from the world that we can observe with our senses. Well-known examples are from relativity theory, astronomy and quantum physics.
Eg. general relativity deals with bending of four dimensional space-time and relativistic effects such as the fact that the speed of light is the same for any observer, resulting in length contraction and time dilation. Astronomy learns us that there must be much more matter in the universe that we can observe, so-called black matter. Quantum physics deals with ‘spooky’ effects, such as funneling and entanglement.
The interesting effect of a physics education is that you get used to and feel familiar with the idea that there is a world, that we cannot observe directly, and especially, that our observations sometimes are wrong or at least do not tell the complete story.
From psychiatry we long know that people can have mental diseases that make them observe or experience phenomena that do not exist, at least, not the the world that we all share.
Well-known examples are schizophrenia and psychosis. Yet, for people who experience such delusions, they are very real. I have personally experienced first hand the incredible effects of psychosis with a friend of mine; it is fascinating and scary.
From my (non-professional) studies of neuroscience during a few years, I learned that a fundamental mechanism in our brain is that the signals that our senses bring into our brain are modified by the brain. A lot is filtered out. And most of what is not filtered out is colored with emotion: some signals are made more important than other, some signals are exaggerated, all signals are placed in a model of the world that we have in our brain, a model that we partly built-up during our life and partly already owned by birth: our mind model.
And, it’s not just psychiatric disorders. Our ideas of reality, our vision of the world also gets distorted by simple convictions from (limited) life experiences, fears, hopes and doubts. In other words, we see things wrong all the time. We think we know it all, but we know nothing.
We rather live in our mind model that be uncertain in the real world!
In a psychiatric and a non-psychiatric sense, people have all these convictions about our life and the world, that sometimes are plain wrong. Yet, we cling to them, because our brain craves for certainty and a mind model gives (often false) certainty. But like Gladys Knight once sang “I rather be living in his world, than be lonely in mine“, we rather live in our mind model that be uncertain in the real world. It is how our brain works: increasing our chances of survival through predicting the world, based on a mental model.
By the way, some scientists, like UC Irvine professor psychologist Donald D. Hoffman, believe that mind models are a logical consequence of evolution. “Hoffman argues that natural selection is necessarily directed toward fitness payoffs and that organisms develop internal models of reality that increase these fitness payoffs. This means that organisms develop a perception of the world that is directed towards fitness, and not of reality. This led him to argue that evolution has developed sensory systems in organisms that have high fitness but don’t offer a correct perception of reality.”
In my own words: Our senses and brain are too simple to fully observe and understand reality. You would probably need thousands of senses (we have five) and a brain of thousands of kilo’s (ours is 1.5 kilo), if possible at all. So, evolution advanced those who developed (the relatively more) useful senses and brains to survive. Hence, our senses and brains are very much specialized to survival (‘fitness payoffs’). This is exactly what created mind models.
By the way, Hoffman’s ideas go much further than this. He is a supporter of so-called ‘conscious realism’. (Earlier, I wrote about ‘Naive Realism‘.) Conscious Realism is described as a non-physicalist monism which holds that consciousness is the primary reality and the physical world emerges from that. With MUI theory, Conscious Realism forms the foundation for an overall theory that the physical world is not objective but is an epiphenomenon (secondary phenomenon) caused by consciousness. This way of thinking is somewhat consistent with the idea from quantum mechanics that a real quantum state only exists as a result of observation by a – conscious – observer. The wave function that it is derived from is not a real physical entity.
It’s a bit like this. We have many possible futures (at least in our head), but in the now, the present, only one is selected and turned into only one past (about which, in turn, we then can create many idealizing fantasies in our head).
In 2009, I suffered of sudden deafness from the combination of the use of antibiotics and a contamination with borrelia bacteria from a tick bite. As a result, I chronically suffer of tinnitus and hyperacusis in mostly my left ear. I hear sounds that do not exist in the real world and I am hypersensitive for sound.
From this experience, I know that our brain sometimes creates sensations that do not really exist.
And by the way, other species than humans may have different senses, experiencing a – at least partly – different world. Eg. dogs hear and smell much more than we do, snakes and other animals see in a much broader frequency spectrum than we do, bats use echolocation, some birds and eg. monarch butterflies seamlessly find their long distance way from north to south, etc. They experience things – a reality – that we do not.
So, from a physics (there is more than we can observe), neuroscience (we create our own reality for maximum survival) and personal experience (our senses do not observe everything and sometimes create sensations) perspective, I know that what we observe may be different from ‘reality’ (whatever that is, exactly).
Furthermore, I see everyday how people have lots and lots conscious and unconscious assumptions about every aspect of the world around us. But often, they do not realize (enough), that these are assumptions that may not necessarily be true. Still, people do assume they are true and act accordingly … often harming themselves in the short or long term, or damaging parts of the world around them.
I call these assumptions ‘mind models’.
Mind models, to me, are the most fascinating phenomenon in the world. They are what differentiates human beings from all other living creatures (that we know of).
But there is more. Dreams, fantasies, desires, visions, ideas (eg. by entrepreneurs and artists) also are mind models. And these mind models have brought progress for the human species. So, by far not all mind models are bad (as far as there exist universal ‘good’ and ‘bad’; some groups always benefit more than others, and often what is good for one group may be bad for another). Anyway, mind models, to me, are the most fascinating phenomenon in the human world. They are what differentiates human beings from all other living creatures (that we know of).
Realities that we create to shape ourselves.
Now, I am not the first who discovers the phenomenon of mind models, obviously. They come in many variants, eg. naive realism and indirect realism are two ideas from neuroscience. UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman once said “naive realism may be the single most underappreciated source of conflict and distrust across individuals and groups”.