Reality is a nebulous concept. When most people think of reality they consider the things that that can see, touch, smell, feel, or experience. In other words, they define reality in terms of their perceptions. They view their “reality” as concrete and solid. After all, how can we deny what we experience?
The role of subjective experience
The paradox of reality is that we define our realities through subjective experiences. We create internal maps or representations of the world around us based on our perceptions, and label the resulting “realities” as objective.
Consider that the very instrument that constructs your reality map is isolated in utter darkness, surrounded by fluid, membrane and bone inside your skull. Your brain never actually experiences the external environment (at least not on a good day). Every bit of information your brain uses to construct your reality, or interpretation of the external world, is received through various organs and passed on as to the appropriate part of the brain via neural circuitry (neurons) for processing.
To add to the complexity of the system, these signals are passed through a variety of neural circuits that serve as filters that further encode the information as it is received. This filtration is a fundamental part of how we (or more accurately, our brains) interpret these signals.
In the most general sense, these filters can be described in terms of beliefs and values that are learned and developed over the course of our lives, particularly in our formative years. Our beliefs and values tend to distort our perceptions in ways that make the information we receive “fit” into our reality map. The result is the confirmation bias, which has been discussed in previous posts on this blog. Information that cannot be made to fit is either discarded entirely, or dismissed as irrelevant, untrue, or offensive.
So, we can see that our subjective experiences, or the culmination of our life’s experience, play a critical role in the way our minds construct our maps of reality. This is an entirely new way of thinking for most people, and a challenge to the notion that reality is… real.
Subjective and objective realities
You may even be asking questions like, “what about gravity?” What about the things that simply “are?” There are a couple of ways to answer these kinds of questions. One philosophy is that there are two types of reality – subjective reality that is based on subjective experiences, and objective reality that is based on the laws of physics. The combination of the two represent the total reality in which we live. This model of reality is convenient as very few of us would argue that gravity does not exist. However, some may argue that accepting this model of reality, which includes an inflexible objective aspect, may be an example of how our filters once again work to make information gathered through our perceptions “fit” into our reality maps.
In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that objective reality is not all that it appears to be, and that our subjective experience plays a role in shaping it. Modern science, particularly quantum physics, seems to support the notion that what we may consider objective reality, or reality defined by the physical universe around us, is at least partially determined by our subjective experiences. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests that the very act of observation influences the outcome of an observed event on the quantum level. The implication of the theory is that the observer is part of the system, and actually changes the behavior of an observed event on the molecular level. In other words, the observer plays a role in shaping the event. This is a direct assault on the objective view of reality. After all, how can reality be objective if the observer of an event can have a subjective influence on the outcome of reality through observation alone?
Can we change our reality?
Given the affect our subjective experiences have on how we perceive reality, it is logical to wonder to what degree can we actually change our reality. Can we ignore or change the physical laws of the universe like Neo in the Matrix?
I am not willing to go that far… but I’m also not willing to say beyond any doubt that if someone were somehow able to free himself from reliance on subjective experience that anything would be impossible.
What I am absolutely convinced of is that we can change our lives, and therefore the realities in which we live, by changing the way we think about our world.
Once we recognize the impact our subjective experiences have on our daily lives, on our relationships, our self image, and on the world in general, we can shape a significant part of our own realities and lead more productive, happy, successful and purposeful lives.