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Holly Stewart's picture

Reality as Reflective

I’m not sure we are right on in thinking that the brain doesn’t give a picture of reality. This conclusion may stem from the fact that we have now realized that our brain isn’t giving the picture of reality in the way we thought we were getting it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we aren’t getting anything at all. Maybe our discomfort is from the fact that things aren’t as simple as we want them to be. In our previous conception about what the brain does is fairly simple: we see something empirically and then our brain flips the image from our eye and volià, we have reality! Knowing what we now know about the complexity of the nervous system, it doesn’t seem that surprising that we will have to replace our idealistic conception of how the brain presents reality.

Initially it seemed a bit surprising and somewhat disconcerting about the amount of information the brain is filling in. But now I am starting to look at brain from a different perspective and it feels a bit more comfortable. We have a visual system which has a lot of communication and interpretation in and of itself. Furthermore, this visual system is set up to see sharp changes in points of light which not only allows us to see depth, but also to distinguish one object from another. Our visual system also has a check-and-balance aspect of its system: there is a part of the visual field which is seen by both eyes. I think there is a good reason for this which ties back to evolution and looking at humans as animals. There are many different ways that our visual system does the same thing, but it is the ability to combine this information that is really important. Each of our sensory systems in our body must have an understanding of coherency to create reality the way it does. This creation of reality isn’t random. Yes, I think that it is appropriate to think of reality as an average with standard deviations, but the honest truth is that most of us see close to the average.

I don’t want to purport reality by consensus, so for all intensive purposes I assume that we are all actually seeing/experiencing reality around the average, with our own subjective interpretation of sensory information. We all get a consistent picture of reality with our experience: when we reach out to touch something we can. And when it comes to the brain filling in information, it is a good thing that we have set up the world around us which supports the way that our minds work. In some ways I think it isn’t really necessary to consider what the world is like outside of our experience of it, since that is really all we can know (Kant also takes this viewpoint). The point is that we experience reality and our brain experiences reality the way it is for us. And it is designed to give us the picture of reality that has been advantageous for evolution (which I will discuss in a minute). There are reasons for the way reality appears to us and there are reasons for the way our brain presents the picture of reality the way it does. I can’t say that I necessarily know what those reasons are, but I do know that it is working out alright and has been for a couple million years.

Evolution. The visual aspect of our sensory system is set up to respond to change. This seems logical considering our animalistic background. If the most fundamental aspect of life is survival then we want to be able to respond to changes in our environment and then make a judgment as to whether those changes warrant any sort of specific response. I believe this has to do with the (arguably) instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. Over time our brain is able to interpret patterns of signals and determine what kind of response is needed. Reality for humans is change itself, since that is the aspect of reality we are tapped into. Reality is the language that reflects networks in the brain, and the brain is presenting the only form of reality is designed to interpret. The brain should not be seen as presenting a different picture of reality, rather it is simply presenting a narrower, more selective form of reality than what we traditionally believe we are experiencing.


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