Am I Out Of My Mind?

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Imagine what existence would be like if humans perceived reality strictly at the molecular level. By this I mean seeing actual molecules doing-their-thing to create what’s-out-there. Pretend for a moment you're sitting on a beach towel absorbing the sun’s rays. Your vision of the ocean is sometimes interrupted by an occasional bikini clad sun worshipper passing between you and the waves crashing along the shore.

As you stare out toward the horizon, instead of water, you see uncountable tiny ball-like structures (H2O) sliding about one another as the sea heaves up and down until it finally crashes onto the shore. You don’t see a liquid. You see tiny molecular balls (not exactly round), which appear like so many slippery BBs to be holding onto one another. As this mass crashes as a wave onto the beach, some of the BBs roll up almost to where you sit. As the mass slides back toward the sea, a few BBs break off from the rest and are left behind.

While you stare at them, they quickly find their way down in-between the groups of BB-like sand molecules and disappear. You take your hand and slide it along the shore allowing the sand BBs to run up and over the side of your hand then down the other side. These BBs (SiO2) are distinctively different from those of the water. Several are joined tightly to make one tiny solid grain of sand.

Constantly in motion everywhere above the beach, the ocean, and you, are floating molecules of air unattached to one another. They bump helterskelter into themselves and move aside as people walk along the beach. They rush toward your face and up into your nostrils as you breath in air (N2+O2+Ar+CO2). Then, just for the fun of it, you blow these BBs out through your mouth in all directions when you exhale.

Not far in front of you sits a small youngster playing with the sand BBs. You can see the molecules of the small tin shovel he holds. These molecular BBs hold tightly together and retain their shape, just like those of his little tin bucket (Sn(O2CCH2)2. But what about the boy himself? You identify him as a human boy because you recognize the way his body molecules are clumped together—his form.

His skin’s molecular BBs do not slide loosely about like water, yet they are bonded together in such a way that his skin is pliable. It moves and bends without the molecules breaking apart. You notice that the molecular BBs of his eyes and hair are noticeably different from those of the rest of his body which has definite limits in space. The boy’s loins are covered with yet another layer of molecular BBs, which are tightly held against his skin molecules but are not part of it. You recognize this layer as a bathing suit.

Of course, light is refracted from the different molecules I have described so at least they appear to have various colors.

Fortunately, we are not forced to see reality in this way. We are incapable of seeing the world at that disturbing, somewhat monotonous level. Somehow, however disparate it may be, our five senses take in data and send it to our brain. Then our imagination and cognition kick in, take over, and convert it into three-dimensional awareness of the outside world. Thank the gods for little things.

Scientific reductionist thinking would probably argue that the conversion of sense data into images of reality takes place in our head—specifically in the brain. They would claim it is the interactive split-fraction firings of myriad axons and dendrites through an uncountable host of interconnected brain pathways that is the cause of imagination, cognition, and thinking.

With PET scans researchers hunt what part of the brain is responsible for other transcendent human experiences such as happiness, intelligence, imagination, artistic bent, and expressive language. Matthew Adler insists there is a location in the brain he calls the Godspot that is responsible for mankind’s belief in the supernatural.

But let’s look at this a little differently. Quantum physics has added an unusual twist to the nature of reality. At the subatomic level, the tiniest thingies, which make up electrons and photons, appear to be infinitely small with no mass. To find them, scientists must disturb their motion. In the act of intercepting their motion by bombarding them with another particle or photon, we don’t see them for what they are—we see them changed by the particle that momentarily stopped them.

Left alone to travel at unimaginable speeds at incredible distances from one another, all we can be conscious of is their ceaseless wave of probability through vast amounts of empty space. “It seems that consciousness … collapses the wave function and brings the subatomic particle into being as opposed to just possibly being there.” (Dr. Manjir Samanta-Laughton). In a very real way, consciousness creates these subatomic particles/waves/strings, and they make up the molecular reality I attempted to describe at the beginning of this article.

Unless I’m mistaken, neuroscience seems to be stuck in the reductionistic view that if we examine and name every part of a system (including the brain), we have satisfactorily explained all there is to know about it. Biologists, in particular, still seem to believe that consciousness is localized in the brain. This puts us in a quandary—the brain is composed of the very subatomic particles that require a conscious mind to bring them from possible being into actual reality. In a very real sense, my consciousness brings the atomic particles into being. They make up the molecules of my brain. So, which comes first, chicken or egg—consciousness or brain?

Whether any of these puzzles will ever be solved is a matter we need not be concerned about unless you are an obsessive wonderer like me. We exist in a world—a planet somewhere in the universe; objects appear real here; we are conscious enough to perceive ourselves and them; fortunately, we can approach reality with common sense and have fun thinking of all the paradoxes.

"The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense” (Feynman R.P.,  Q.E.D.  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter).

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About Regis Schilken

  • andreas

    sorry to dissapoint 😉 – but in my experience biologists of all people are hardly ontological reductionists (they’re system scientists)…

    I find it curious that you conceptualize perception as a “conversion of sense data into images of reality” – it is you who gives us something to be reductionist about by doing so…

    btw sense data is most often used as a psychological term (of a bygone era) that refers to our 1st person experience not to the outside world as described by physics and conceptualized to impinge on (passive) sensors.

    a lot of neurobiologists, psychologists, etc. would not set up the question of perception this way (anymore), particularly those working on active vision, top-down processing, or ecological perception.

    if there is no implicitly dualist question it is very hard to take a reductionist answer (42?) seriously, anyways.

  • Regis

    Your comments are well taken, Duane. The problem is with my own conscious thinking. I seem to examine reality with whatever-it-is that allows me to sit here and type right now. As far-fetched as it appears, it seems that this awareness somehow brings reality into my existence. Yet, I cannot stand back and see or even explain what it is. Nor is it something strictly metaphysical, either. It is real.

  • duane

    Regis, your recent articles are thought-provoking and well written, but this one has me scratching my head. What are you trying to say?

    You’re mangling the explanation of the Uncertainty Principle, when you say “we don’t seem them for what they are.” You’re referencing the momentum-position version of the UP. In physics jargon, momentum and position are “conjugate variables.” The UP says that you can’t simultaneously measure two conjugate variables associated with a single particle to arbitrary precision. Pinning down one, increases the uncertainty of the other. The degree of uncertainty is related to Planck’s constant. But an electron is still an electron. It doesn’t change its character just because its momentum is measured.

    Maybe you could look into wave-particle duality as a truly paradoxical aspect of Nature.

    Collapsing the wave function doesn’t bring a particle into existence. This reminds me of the tree falling in the forest question. Maybe you should explain in your article what collapsing a wave function really means.

    The tiniest “thingies” are not massless. Electrons, protons, neutrons, the stuff you’re made of, all have well known masses, tiny though they may be. The quarks that make up protons and neutrons all have masses. If they didn’t, you would not be planted on Earth as a response to the gravitational field.

    The general tone here seems a bit dismissive of “scientific reductionist thinking.” This boggles me. You even quote Feynman, who is best known for quantum electrodynamics, which is a monument to the power of reductionist thinking. Without reductionism, we would be as ignorant as the Babylonians about the nature of physical reality. A little respect is called for, I would think. You seem to attribute scientists with a level of blinkered naivete that is surely not warranted. Who do you suppose is leading the way in studies of so-called “emergence”? Yes, the same scientists at whom you seem to scoff.

    Scientists, more than anyone, are aware of the possible limitations to their approach. But the frontier of ignorance is vast. It would be absurd to stop now. The rate of progress is stunning. Aren’t you stunned at what we know now compared to 1909? As Brian points out, scientists do what they can with the tools they have available. What alternative could you possibly suggest?

    I enjoyed your article.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Nice Article…

    Unless I’m mistaken, neuroscience seems to be stuck in the reductionistic view that if we examine and name every part of a system (including the brain), we have satisfactorily explained all there is to know about it.

    Well.. I’m pretty sure that the scientists do these things because, first, they are trying to discover as much as they can & as much as our current technology will allow them. Second, they name these “things” so we/they can have something to reference when they review what they know to be true.

    Ultimately, We can’t see all the things you’ve mentioned because we are not built as perfectly as some people might suggest. In fact, our perception of “reality” is quite hindered.