Upside Down Trees
We have discovered a world that knows no inside and no outside. ‘Inside’ is embodied in my inner sense – either as emotion, or as an act of will. ‘Outside’ is identified as my external sense, which I perceive as bodily action or re-action. Consequently, my world depends on how I look at it, with two basic options on offer: either to ‘tumble into the world of my fantasy’ by internalizing my being-in-the-world, or to ‘tumble into the world of reality’ by externalizing it. But however I look at these two phenomena, they are ultimately nothing else but a different form of looking at the same thing.
Yet, this important insight does still not give us what we are looking for. At best we have established that, from the view of the brain, imagination and reality are both ‘real’. A real tree or an imagined tree is roughly the same for the brain. Both are cortical events played into existence by means of neuronal activity. For the brain, one is as real as the other, because cortical activity is its reality. But this is precisely what bothers us. We still feel that the imagined tree is not real!
But ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ are by no means clearly definable states. We believe firmly that the landscape we look at is real, and exists outside of our being. But the truth is, we do not look at a landscape. We ‘look’ into our visual cortex. The vast landscape is not vast at all – just a few cubic centimetres: as large as the amount of neurons necessary to make it appear. So, what do we actually see: a landscape, or neuronal activity experienced as a landscape?
I remember staring up at a poster in my childhood classroom. It read, ‘How the world gets into the brain!’ There was a tree, an eye and a brain. According to the image, the lens of the eye picks up the real tree. The procedure works similar to that of an analogue camera. The lens turns every object upside down. To view it the right way up, you have to turn the photo 180 degrees. Simple. And this was also what the brain did. The miniature, upside-down replica of the real tree inside the vitreous gel of the eye is led via the optical nerve into the visual cortex. There it is turned around again and the real tree appears now as an identical picture in the brain. Simple!
But there are many problems with this simplistic view of how senses and brain digest the real world. To be recognized as a tree (or any other object), the cortical replica of the real tree needs to be observed, which requires an observer. Is there then, a little person or an inner eye that looks at this miniature world inside the brain? If this is so, the brain is akin to a cinema in which the real world, which enters through two lenses and two funnels (eyes and ears), can be observed and listened to on a kind of screen. But the cinema version of the brain requires an observer who himself observes a picture. If this were so, his eyes would pick up a picture as well, turn it round and round again until it appears on another screen, which is now inside the brain of the observer. This, however, would require another observer who observes the screen inside the brain of the first observer, and so on, ad infinitum.
To Be Is To Be Perceived
The true problem lies of course not with the observer, but with the real tree, which is tacitly considered as existing. And exactly at this crucial point does George Berkeley (1685-1753), whom we have already met in the second chapter of this book, direct his discerning intellect into this murky area of reality. Berkeley draws the only sensible conclusion, namely: since we can only perceive what our senses and brain allow us to perceive, it is not possible to deduce from these specific experiences of a material world, the existence of such a material world. All there is, according to Berkeley, are our experiences, and we, the subjects that have these experiences. With this he attacked Locke’s concept of primary and secondary qualities.
John Locke (1632-1704), inspired by the French philosopher and adversary of Descartes, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), holds that ‘ideas of sensation’ are a copy of ‘real’ objects that impinge on our senses. The brain, for Locke, is a ‘tabula rasa’ without innate ideas- a kind of all-devouring bucket. With this he endorsed Gassendi’s famous slogan: ‘Nothing is in the mind that was not previously in the senses’. The process involved can be easily grasped when we understand ‘ideas of sensation’ in the same way as making a copy from a printing block where the impression gets weaker. We see an object clearly when we look at it, but as soon as we close our eyes, we only have an impression of it – a kind of imprint. The same is true when we touch an object. We could say that ‘hands on’ an object feels strong, and ‘hands off’ feels weaker. If we equate ‘stronger’ with real and ‘weaker’ with unreal, we reach a point where we accept that what can be seen and touched is real and what cannot be seen and touched is not real.
This strange reversal of Platonism made heavy weather throughout Europe.
Yet, severe problems with this outlook lurk just round the corner. Difficulties arise once colour, taste and smell are considered. Why, for example, do individuals see the same colour differently? Why does a certain smell make one person excited whilst it disgusts another? These disagreements could not emerge if objects were precisely as we perceive them. Locke had to concede that not all parts of external object are exactly as they appear. There is obviously an individual dimension to objects. Locke solved this problem with his celebrated ‘primary and secondary qualities’. Primary qualities are ‘truly’ in the world as we perceive them in our brain, and these qualities are: solidity, extension, motion, number and figure. In addition however, the brain adds colour, smell, taste etc. These are the so-called ‘secondary qualities’.
Yet, despite this ‘sensible’ and quintessentially British vision of the world that surrounds us, Berkeley, the Irishman – quite rightly saw no reason at all why primary qualities should be more real than secondary qualities. If the brain adds a subjective dimension to certain aspects of perceptions, why should it not do the same at all times and with everything? What allows us to conclude otherwise and assert that there is a real world that looks exactly as we perceive it (taking away colour, taste and smell)? To be sure, there is only one conceivable reason that allows us to come to this conclusion: wishful thinking! But despite Berkeley’s delightful pragmatism, which should have secured him the pinnacle amongst the English-speaking philosophers, he was widely ignored. His supremely sensible insight appeared as the product of a ‘fantastic’ mind to his contemporaries, whilst something as outlandish as Locke’s conclusion was hailed as a beacon of sensibility. Admittedly, Berkeley’s inference goes against the grain of common sense. But it needs not very much to show how wrong Locke is with his brand of realism. Let us scrutinize it: if we agree that the real object at which my eyes look can only be perceived as an experience inside my brain (and Locke was in agreement with this) then we have also to agree that I do not look at a real object, say a tree, but at some-thing inside my brain which I happen to call ‘a tree’. But to deduce from this experienced tree in my brain that its real counter part, in its solidity, extension, motion, number and figure, is exactly as my brain represents it, is certainly a fantastic undertaking. It evokes the ‘double loop of causation’, which proceeds as follows: If I assert that the external tree at which I look is like my experience of it, then I have to declare something I experience as real, because this is all I can go by. And since I have par force to begin with the experienced tree, I have to project it somehow into the outside world, look at it, send it back to my brain and recognise it again as a tree. Now how fantastic can reality become? Do we all have projectors in our head that send off rays from our brain into the real world? Do we all regurgitate our experiences and then absorb them once more with our senses?
This considerable low point in western philosophy is what Berkeley attacked in his ‘Hylas and Philonous’, the three dialogues in which he explores his own ideas concerning human knowledge. But an attack that targets the core-beliefs of his time is certainly a tricky undertaking. On top of this there was also a weak point in his argument. David Hume pointed his finger at it: granted, we cannot deduce from specific experiences of the material world the existence of such a world. But likewise, we can also not deduce from our experience of being such an experiencing subject the existence of such a subject. If the former is non sequiturthe latter does certainly also not follow. In other words, if we agree with Berkeley’s argument and deny (or, at least, question) the existence of a material world, then we have also to deny or question our own existence as an experiencing subject. What remains is nothing. With this, Hume did not refer to the tenets of the ancient philosophy of a British colony, but he ridiculed Berkeley. In response, Berkeley pointed out that reality is only to be found in the mind of God – a mind that knows everything. And with this he obviously lost the argument amongst his enlightened contemporaries.
The scientific world continued researching the phantasm of appearances, which it called ‘reality’. The practical results yielded were so impressive that no serious doubt would emerge – a situation that lasted roughly up to the early twentieth century, when quantum physics began to emerge – and from there into our own time where computers and virtual reality are changing our entire outlook.
Playing Peekaboo With The Moon
Where do we stand today, in the twenty first century? How do we look at the problem(s) of reality? To get into the swing of this exciting theme, we return to Einstein and his assertion that “the moon is still in the sky, also if we do not look at it”. We have discussed this briefly in the fifth chapter and expressed our doubts gingerly by proposing that we are only able to recognize the moon as such if it remains within its position, that is, within the places where we are used to see it. Should we dislodge it and transport it into another galaxy, we would not recognize it. We would first of all have to measure it and verify its specific details, like size, craters etc. to be sure that it is really ‘the moon’. In other words, as soon as we loose the relation between us, the moon looses its ‘moon-ness’. This shows us already how fragile our reality is. In fact, we do not look at the moon but we look at all the relations and deduce from this that the thing in the sky above us is the moon. In other words, we play it into existence. Looking at the moon is thus not such an ordinary undertaking as is commonly thought, for it involves our creative faculties, albeit on an automatic, subconscious level. True to Kant, we automatically impose our mind on the object to make it appear.
But to go further with this we need now to intensify the argument and ask: what about leaving all the relations intact – so, the moon is in the sky, we stand on the earth and look at an old friend. It is extremely large today; its craters are conspicuously visible whilst it rises from behind the horizon, majestically, persimmon red, and foreboding. Now, to go back to Einstein: at the moment we close our eyes – is it still there? Is Einstein right in telling us that ‘the moon is still in the sky, also if we do not look at it’? Or is he wrong and the moon, like the electron we observe, disappears a soon as we do not observe it anymore?
Imagine the following: you go to a concert and listen to one of these dreary compositions, let’s say, Delius’ ‘In a Summer Garden’. As soon as the chant-like tune for wind quintet emerges, which is echoed by strings, you see yourself at the seaside. The sky hangs deep and grey and the sea undulates listlessly. You stand at the shore with your new shiny green Wellington boots and pull the hood over your head to protect your hair and face from this thin and cold rain that hovers somewhere between fog and a slight drizzle. This goes on whilst the oboe intones its flitting phrase and one dismal chord progression follows another. Now come the violas with their spacious melody, and instantaneously the sky darkens and the slight drizzle condenses into a nasty downpour that lasts as long as the viola section remains in the foreground of the musical landscape. Depressed, you walk on, just as far as to the point where the horns and trumpets herald their rapturous climax. Just then you step with your shiny new Wellington boots into a large dog turd.
What you have experienced here is your relational brain and your phenomenal brain in action – just slightly muddled up, because it derives a visual experience from an aural one. If you thought you were literally transported to the seaside when listening to Delius, you may be quite terrified. But lets assume that you were born this way. As long as all aural experiences are translated into visual ones and visa versa, such a reversal of roles would not bother you. You would not even be aware of it and would find it absolutely normal. To make this example more simple by keeping it within the scope of just one sense: if you were born with a brain that shows you blue as brown and brown as blue, it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to your life and others, because as long as we have common names to categorise our experiences, the word ‘blue’ remains the same. And this is what the relational brain does. It makes sure that the external world appears to you coherently. It does not show you the world as it is. It only relates things to each other. It is eager to show you a stable world in which everything slots in with everything else.
George M. Stratton made use of this cortical peculiarity in an experiment he performed in 1896. He used prisms through which the world appeared upside-down to those who wore it. The people who took part in this experiment found it difficult at first to live in this upside-down world. But gradually, after wearing these prisms constantly for some time, the world appeared normal again, that is, until they took the prisms off again. At this moment, and using nothing but their own eyes, the world was upside-down! Some participants reported that their upside-down world turned only gradually to normal. First some objects revolved back to their normal position whilst others still remained upside-down. But eventually the entire world was back to ‘normal’ again with everyone.
This impressive example shows how malleable the relational brain is. We know similar strange experiences from people with synaesthesia. In this case certain things are experienced on two levels. For example, eating an ‘After Eight’ provides a syneasthesist with the familiar taste of mint. But in addition to the minty taste he/she also feels a touching sensation of a cool green glass. The taste of mint relating to ‘cool green glass’ seems to be absolutely arbitrary. It could as well be a hot bath with bubbles. Why ‘cool green glass’ is favoured might have reasons in some traits of our evolutionary past, but no obvious reason seems to invite itself here. Yet, far from considering this additional ‘sense-impression’ a handicap, many synaesthesists understand it as enriching. Many artists and scientists derive insights from it. And also here, on this double level of perception, does the relational brain provide consistency. A synaesthesist lives in a richer, but nevertheless, in a stable, consistent world.
The staggering amount of possibilities with which the brain can process what the senses provide, and the monotony in which it shows us almost instantly the same world over and over again, seems now to point to one important insight: If the world could be upside-down, sounds could appear as sights and brown could as well be blue, and we do not find it difficult to live in either of these strange worlds, provided that all experiences relate again coherently and in the proper relation to each other, then the real world could also be fluctuating and changeable. Let us look once more at Locke’s model. His world is entirely fixed. Houses are houses and trees are trees (give and take some colour, smell or taste). Now if the real world were fixed and stable to such a degree as Locke assumes with his primary qualities, then it seems rather odd that evolution should have come up with a brain with such a range of possibilities to adapt swiftly to changes. Why, for example, should it have developed the ability to turn an upside-down world back to normal if the world is anyway always the same way round and never upside down? Why synaesthesia (unless we consider it a malfunction)? If everything is just exactly as we perceive it, a much simpler brain would surely suffice. But the sheer complexity of brains, allowing unending possibilities to interpret reality, points to something entirely different.
The ‘magic eye’ was a cult phenomenon in the early nineties. It thrives on autostereograms, which can be admired on densely patterned wallpapers. Looking at these wallpapers for some time will induce the brain to create a 3D image, that is, one layer of the pattern will float slightly above or below the background. With an autostereogram, the brain receives repeating 2D patterns from both eyes, but fails to correctly match them. It pairs two adjacent patterns into a virtual object based on wrong parallax angles, thus placing the virtual object at a depth different from that of the autostereogram image. With the ‘magic eye’ this ‘malfunction’ of eyes and brain had been made use of to create 3D images. You hold a 2D image of repeated patterns close to your eyes. After moving it slowly away, a 3D image emerges eventually.
When we go beyond admiring these three-dimensional images and begin to think about their implications, a glimpse into the creative workshop of eyes and visual cortex offers itself instantly. The first obvious insight is that eyes are not passive lenses that pick up objects from the outside world and project them into the visual cortex. Eyes become instantly creative as soon as they are stimulated. It is their nature to create! But what stimulates the eyes? Contrary to general belief, visual stimulation does not come from objects, but from photons, which are discreet little jolts of light. Once the light-sensitive rods in the retina are excited and once the colour-sensitive cones are active, the impulses of the photons, which impinge on the retina, are transformed into electrochemical impulses and are led along the optical nerve into the brain. Inside the brain so-called ‘ganglion cells’ feed the visual cortex with chains of electrical impulses. As we have seen already with the ears (see chapter 2) also the eyes create uniform electrochemical impulses that travel into the relevant cortical areas. Here they are finally transformed into images that give us the illusion that we are midst in a real world that consists of three-dimensional objects that can be touched, smelled, seen and heard.
For obvious reasons, however, we are entirely fixated on the so-called object. The object is, after all, what we see – and for this reason, common sense tells us that the cause of our visual experiences are ‘real’ objects. But if we let go for one moment of objects and focus our attention instead on the creativity of eyes and brain, other possibilities emerge. What remains once the object is taken out of the equation are just three things: light particles that impinge on the retina; internal processes, which transform the bombardment of light particles into uniform electrochemical impulses; and cortical processes, which transform these uniform impulses into pictures, which we then interpret as real objects. In other words, nothing else is needed to create objects, except patterns of light and the innate processes of eyes and brain. The same, by the way, is true for all the other senses, except that the ears use vibrations and the sense of touch uses pressure and release. Thus, our world could as well be created artificially. We could sit in a laboratory and look at a screen from which patterns of photons emerge, being arranged by a computer program to mimic exactly the correct amount, intensity and order the eyes would receive from the ‘real world’. As a result we would see ‘real’ objects. This technique is made use of in so-called ‘virtual reality’, where impulses of light, generated by a computer program, are directed into the eyes to create an artificial world in 3D.
Now where do we stand regarding our old friend, the moon? Is Einstein right to assert that it is still there at the moment we close our eyes? Taking into consideration what was explored so far, we know that photons can’t access the cones and rods in the retina if eyes are closed. Consequently, the moon disappears. But does this allow us to conclude that the real moon is also gone? Well, as you should be familiar with now, the answer to everything is going to be ‘neither, nor’, yes and no – the same thing perceived in a double way – something that is and isn’t at the same time (like the ladies of Bundanon dilemma – chapter 1) – the answer is both! Berkeley would say ‘yes’, and he would be absolutely right. But if we would press him and ask: ‘do you mean that everything is just in our mind?’- he would probably answer: ‘of course not, you silly man, whatever there is, is in the mind of God, and since the mind of God is all there is, you experience the moon directly from the mind of God.’ And if we would transport Berkeley with a time machine into the present time and argue with him, he would probably sigh and say: ‘OK, so you guys don’t believe in God anymore – no worries, because you believe in computers and electronics and quantum physics – it’s all the same. So let’s replace the word ‘God’ with the word ‘Cosmological Computer Program’ (CCP, in short) and you get the same scenario. Imagine the universe as a giant computer and you live inside it. Your senses are stimulated by photons and vibrations, all stuff that comes from the CCP. From these messages from the CCP, your brain creates an image that helps you to persist in your existence, something we called in our time ‘conatus’, and you probably call ‘survival’. You can survive more successfully because your brain translates the messages from the CCP into what is good for you and what is dangerous for you in this great universe of ours. And your brain shows it to you via cosy pictures in 3D, enhanced with sounds, smells, sensations, memories and feelings. You see, the universe is nothing but a gigantic and infinitely complex CCP! But of course, I’m sure you’re clever and well educated enough nowadays not to think that the images your brain generates are exact replicas of reality’.
The best answer we can give nowadays is that the moon, as we see it, is of course not the real moon. It is a product of our phenomenal brain and our relational brain. It comes about when we open our eyes and focus on a specific region in our surrounding. This opening and focussing of the eyes excites their rods and cones thanks to a shower of photons impinging on them, which, in turn, stimulate specific areas in the brain. From this stimulation of the retina and its processing in the visual cortex emerges something we call ‘a picture’. Consequently, what we see when we look at the moon is a representation of something else. And in this respect, Einstein is certainly wrong. The moon, as we see it when we look at it with eyes wide open, is most certainly a product of our brain. It is gone as soon as we close our eyes, because the eyes are not anymore stimulated by photons and, consequently, the brain cannot generate the familiar picture of a moon with craters and all the paraphernalia we are used to. But Einstein is of course right when we look at the problem differently and ask: is there nothing in the sky when we close our eyes? Of course there is something – only that it is most probably very different to the moon, which we see inside our brain. And this, we can be sure, is how Einstein meant it. He had, after all, a picture of Immanuel Kant in his study and understood very well what a transcendental world is like. To be sure, he knew very well that there is not a moon up in the sky that looks as we see it – as much as we know that there is not a little man inside the television set who reads the news. What he objected to was not the Kantian transcendental world. He objected to the insight of Bohr and Heisenberg, that the universe is indeterministic and that it depends on us, the observer. For Einstein, the universe is deterministic. It is the universe of God who ‘does not play dice’.
So, where does this leave us in our quest for the creative spark? The obvious answer is that creativity is not an exception. On the contrary, creativity is the norm. It is what we do from the moment we open our eyes, our ears and the rest of our senses. It is what comes naturally to us, not because we are unusual individuals endowed with special powers and special talents, but because we can’t help it. Creativity is hard wired into our senses and into our brains. As soon as we absorb the world in which we exist with our senses and our brain, intricate creative processes take over and show us a world more fantastic, more spectacular than even the greatest artist could imagine. But since we are used to this world, habit plays an ingenious trick on us and makes us believe that it is real and not an ingenious creation of our senses and our brain. And precisely here lies the bifurcation that leads us into either the world of our fantasy, or into the world of reality – except that everything is now upside-down. Strangely, but quite obviously, what we call ‘reality’ is in fact a product of our fantasy. All the trees, the houses, all of nature and every fellow human being is a product of a brain that had been excited by electrochemical processes. Nothing of this is real, because the entire drama unfolds inside our phenomenal and our relational brain. The real world, in which a ‘spade is a spade’ is consequently nothing but a product of hardwired creative processes. And what artists, scientists, philosophers, drunkards, poets and the like do, – all this is an attempt to circumvent the wonderful creations of our brain, as we know them, (sounds, smell, taste, touch etc), and find the hidden ‘true’ world behind them.
In a strange and spectacular reversal, the realist now becomes the dreamer who is involved in a world of his fantasy, whilst the artistic dreamer and the intellectual turn out to be the hard-nosed realists.
 I’d like to remind my reader of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘duplicity of all being’ (See chapter 2)
 However, it is an intriguing fact that during the Middle Ages it was widely believed that the object itself had no properties, which allowed vision. Popular theory of the time suggested that the viewer’s eyes sent out emissions to the object and that those emissions enabled vision to occur.
 Subsumed within the phenomenal brain is everything relating to the way brains function. Phenomenal concepts are concepts that pick out certain internal properties; these are physical-functional properties of the brain. For example: when I take the cup of coffee next to me, and drink from it I experience the entire procedure inside my phenomenal brain. The cup of coffee, including taste, smell, satisfaction and all the rest appears thanks to the physical-functional properties of the brain. But on top of this I do also relate to something that seems to exist outside my brain (the cup of coffee). Dealings with this experience happen through the so-called ‘relational brain’.
Read the chapters of the book:
- The Ladies of Bundanon – Chapter 1
- Is The Earth Flat? – Chapter 2
- Turning up late to your own funeral – Chapter 3
- The Performer in the Stages of Rigor Mortis – Chapter 4
- Breathing dreams like air – Chapter 5
- The Celluloid Soldier – Chapter 6
- The missing leg – Chapter 7
- The mindless brain and the Sea Squirt – Chapter 8
- Your body is the enemy – Chapter 9
- Conclusion of Part One – Chapter 10
- The Magic Eye – Chapter 11
- A new world-material without being real – Chapter 12
- The artist’s longing – Chapter 13
- Ink to Paper – Chapter 14
- A portent black squiggle – Chapter 15
- The Sunflowers – Chapter 16
- God is Gay – Chapter 17
- Extra Science – Chapter 18
- The Aleph – Chapter 19
- Chained chaos, broken forms – Chapter 20
- Matter and Memory – Chapter 21
- A Leibnizian Universe? – Chapter 22