What is Reality?
HomeBy Dr  Robin.


hy read this book?

We get up, we look round, we make breakfast, smell our hot coffee and get ready to go out. The trees are their natural green and the car is its normal metallic silver. We see a bird flap past. Is this what the world is like? Most people believe it is but what I have described is a view containing events.  The world itself is not a view. 

Our view is as different from the world as a photo of a man is different from the man.  Although vision contains a rough cone of visual events the cone also contains sounds, smells, touch and other sensations. 

Listen to a bird sing. If we are now, at this instant, how could we hear any part of the sound as a sound? Surely we could only hear the amount of sound present at an instant which is no sound at all.

We look at the phone. The bird song is gone, the room around us becomes dull and scarcely present. We reply to a message and the thought of the message fills us for a minute, blanking all else.

Why are we filled with this light and sound and feeling when, surely, a machine with no spark inside would be as effective to do what we do? This is an important question that has been derailed by two faulty arguments.  The first is the "homunculus argument" which appears to prove that there cannot be images in the brain and the second is the doctrine of the "specious" present moment which appears to prove that we cannot hear whole words.  These fallacious arguments of previous generations will be ignored for the moment and this will allow us to describe what it is like to be you and me.

Describing what it is like to be us is not just a scientific enterprise because if we know what we are it will inform all our actions and beliefs.


here in the world is our Experience?

If we have a sound, sight or smell it exists while it is happening. An observation could even be imaginary but that still means it exists in your mind and brain as something.

Most people assume that when they look at a page of text they are seeing the page directly.  That the image they see is on the page.  If this were true then how do the grey dots where the black lines cross in the image below get seen as "on" the page?

Of course, the grey dots are created by your brain (CNS) and are not actually on the page outside your body. If the grey dots are not on the page then where are the black lines? It is most likely that the lines in our Experience are some sort of copy of the lines on the physical page and that they are also held in the brain like the dots. This may seem a minor point but if we are looking at a mental copy of the page held in some way in the brain rather than directly on the page there are serious consequences.

Here is another example of something that is not actually on the page outside your body, or is it?

All the horizontal lines in the image are parallel to each other on the physical page so where are the lines that we actually have in our Experience? In our “minds”?  Where is that?

In reality there are four concentric circles in the image below:

Look at the image obliquely if you do not believe that you are looking at a page outside your body that has four concentric circles on it. But where in the world are these mental images of spirals? Let’s take a look.

ow do we see anything?

The sight of the page in front of you is a visual image. It is called a ‘visual image’ because there appears to be an image in front of your eyes.  Images are not found everywhere, we have to use a lens or a pinhole to create an image on a sheet of paper.  We can see this is true when we pick up a white piece of paper and hold it up to the light , it has no images on it. Lenses make images by redirecting and selecting light.  Without lenses or pinholes the light that is reflected from the objects around us goes everywhere and ends up as the plain white light reflected from a sheet of paper.

Our visual image is projected onto our retinas by lenses.  The images on our two retinas are slightly different because each eye has a different view. The images on the retinas are also upside down.

It is hard to believe, but a lot of people have never noticed that when they look through one eye they get a slightly different image compared with when they look through the other eye.

The retina is actually an extruded part of the central nervous system and so we must either accept that our visual image is somewhere in our brain or declare that we are blind.

We can check that our eyes have different images by holding a finger up to this page about 20 cm in front of the nose and looking at the page, first through one eye then the next. If we do this manoeuvre we notice that the image of our finger jumps from one place to another relative to the page. Try doing this now. Place a finger 20 cm in front of your nose and look at the page through one eye then the next. The image of the finger jumps because it is different from one eye to another.

The image has transparent fingers!

If the images in each of our eyes are different what does a finger look like when seen through both eyes at the same time? If we keep our finger in place, 20 cm from our nose, then look at the page with two eyes we will find that the image of the finger goes transparent. We can still read the text of this page looking through the finger. Bits of text that are covered by the finger when viewed from one eye are "filled in" using text from the image in the other eye. This shows that what we see as a visual image is made further back in our brain than our eyes because the whole image is not to be found in either eye. Neither eye contains an image with all of the text present and neither eye contains an image of a transparent finger!

Our visual image is in our brain. At this stage some people might think “I am only imagining my visual image, it is an illusion” but nowadays we have all seen television cameras and the images they make on screens so the idea that our eyes act as video cameras that gather images that are processed and displayed elsewhere should not surprise us. That what we see is not directly the things we sense should be obvious. Our visual images are no more to be dismissed as illusions than the image on a video screen. If you were using a video camera to monitor the world around about, you would not say that the video image on the screen is “just an illusion”, its an image, like our visual image.

The image in our Experience is bright and dull, has colours and its parts occur simultaneously, being laid out as if seen from a point. I am using the word "Experience" because the image, the observation point, the colours etc. all compose a special form, a thing that we do not find in the world except, perhaps, in other animals.

Somewhere in our brains there are some physical events that create the geometry of stuff laid out around a point (the viewing point) and with all of the image present simultaneously. We cannot see anything flowing into the apparent central point, it is just a point that visual stuff surrounds. Nothing flows into the point.

There is no accepted scientific theory of Experience.  Terms such as "emergentism" are expressions of this lack of a theory.  One day there will be a theory.

There are two types of response to the lack of any theory that explains Experience.  The first is that of the true scientist who will attempt to broaden their description of Experience and their knowledge of the world until an explanation becomes possible.  The second is to attempt to find reasons why what we have in Experience cannot exist because once Experience is denied there is no need to explain it.  The first approach will be used below.

Many of those who take the second approach, who deny that Experience exists, believe that it is imaginary or an illusion.   They think “I am only imagining the image, it doesn't really exist as an image”.  You and I both have visual stuff arranged around our viewing point.  If "imaginary" means there is truly nothing there then we can see that those who say our Experience is imaginary are lying.  If "imaginary" means that the view is in our brains then we must agree.  An image in our brains is still an image and leaves us with the problem of how the view that is Experience is created. 

The word “imaginary” might also mean that it is believed that the visual image is not real. We can check the reality of our visual images by moving objects around us, the relative positions of the objects in the world correspond to the relative positions of the objects in our visual images. We have real visual images in our brains containing data about the world outside our bodies. The content of our visual images is closely based on real events in the world. It is not the same as those real events outside our bodies (for instance we saw transparent fingers in our visual image) but it is closely related to those events.

We have looked at our visual image and figured out that it is a brilliant image of the world that occurs in our heads. It has the geometry of objects projected around a point so it seems to overlay the real world. It is such a good model that most people believe it IS the world itself. We all act as if our visual image is the world itself whatever we know about the brain.

Our visual image is stranger still. It is more cunningly constructed than simple optical images such as those captured by cameras. Our visual images are usually stable even when we move our eyes but the simple images produced by a camera are not. As an example, if you move a simple camera unevenly whilst recording a movie the recording becomes chaotic and the scene jumps around, however, if you look around you with your eyes the scene is stable with only your direction of view changing.

How is the image in our brain held stable? It turns out that the image is mainly updated when our eyes stop moving. When our eyes are moving the image stays as it was. Our nice, stable view depends on a separate, stable model of the world existing in our brain that is carefully updated with information from our eyes.

The rapid movement of our eyes from one point to another in the view is known as a “saccade”. Our image of the world is updated at the end of each saccade. Our eyes must perform many of these rapid movements because they take in very little crisp information every time they stop. Look at this page through one eye, most people can only see two or three words clearly on a line unless they move their eye. Each eye has only a small area of the world as a clear image on its retina. Our full visual image is generated by large numbers of saccades and a lot of filling in of missing information. A map of how saccades criss-cross a photo to allow the eye to gather information for a mental image in the brain is shown above.

We can get a feel for how our Experience is updated by saccades by comparing what a line of text looks like when we stare at a word with what it looks like as we continuously read it. When we stare at a word little more than a word or two is clearly visible but when we scan the line several words become clear.

You can see the combined effect of the small area of detailed vision collected by your eyes and the way your visual image is not updated during eye movements (saccadic suppression) by looking at yourself in the mirror. You cannot see your eyes move in the mirror! This experiment of looking at your eyes in a mirror is well worth doing because it is so uncanny.  Give it a try.

Let’s return to our actual Experience. When we look at this page it is obvious that light enters our eyes and, as we discussed above, something is created by the brain that is the immediate image in our Experience. If there were further processes happening the image would contain the results of these further processes. Our latest Experience is the terminus, the end point of all the processes that start with light being emitted or reflected from the page and the last bit of brain activity that composes the Experience containing the page.

If our Experience is the terminus, the end point of the transfer of information from our eyes, then at some place in our brains there is a set of events that observe themselves (even Aristotle knew this). How can a set of events observe itself? One thing is certain, because the image is the end of the line, the terminus, there cannot be any further processes that contribute to our observation.  So what is our observation?


he technical objection to a viewing point
The viewing point appears to be in conflict with simple physical explanations, for example it cannot be due to the flow of light into a point that "sees" the world because there is no room in a simple geometrical point for "seeing".  However simple physics has no dictum that all phenomena must be flows from place to place in space.  Certainly the viewing point cannot be "explained" by simple physics but we can say for certain that there is an observation, made by seven billion people, that the world is viewed as if from a point and this has no explanation in simple physics.  There are conceivable explanations in more advanced physics but whether these can be applied or not is an open question - see Appendix.

Simple physics has difficulty explaining the whole phenomenon of seeing.  If seeing is entirely due to flows from place to place then we end up with a little man, an homunculus, looking at a picture in our brains.  The homunculus is not an explanation however because he would need an homunculus in his brain and so on.  This does not prove that seeing is impossible, it shows that it cannot be explained by simple flows from place to place.  Neither does the homunculus argument prove that science has been defeated. It shows that more advanced scientific theories are needed.  

The homunculus argument expresses how just having a pattern of colours on a page or electric impulses in a network of wires is not enough to create Experience.  Experience has the form of visual stuff seen as if from a point with the point separate from the stuff.  We have Experience but a photograph or hologram does not have Experience, no matter how many times it is copied from place to place.  It is just conceivable that a hologram or photograph might be made of visual stuff but it has no observation point within it.

We can continue our observations whether or not they are covered by existing theory. In doing so we will immediately confront another currently "inexplicable" phenomenon: time extension.  The classical objection to time extension in Experience is that objects that are at different times cannot be experienced simultaneously (ie: at the same time) but as we will find below, our view allows objects to be at different times out there in Experience yet be simultaneous at the viewing point.  We will find that time extension is central to understanding the form of Experience.


hat time is like - sound

The sounds in Experience are not like sound waves in the world outside our bodies. Sound in the world is lots of pulses of pressure in the air whereas the sound in our Experience is noises that each have a pitch, intensity etc. Although the sound in Experience is linked with (correlates with) pressure waves in the world it is not very much like pressure waves.

Imagine a smooth sound or say “Aah”, a nice constant sound lasting for a couple of seconds. If it lasted for a thousandth of a second we could not hear it or imagine it. How much of the sound would we hear at an instant? An instant is no time at all, it is the boundary between the past and the future and has no duration (no length of time). At each instant we could hear no sound at all. For a sound to exist it must have a duration in our Experience. This means that our Experience extends for the time of the sound in Experience. Just listen, you hear whole words and bars of tunes. Our Experience contains whole words extended in time. Were words not extended in time they would not be sounds in Experience.

You may be surprised that sounds extend in time. This surprise comes from our science lessons at school where sound is represented as a wave in the air. Of course, what we call sound is really what we have as sound in our Experience, not pressure waves in the air which only correlate with what happens to our ear drums and with the electrical impulses generated in our brain. The sound in our Experience is different from the physical correlates of sound in the air and in our ears.

Sounds need time. At the moment a sound wave strikes our eardrum the eardrum is stretched to a particular position. If we were able to fix this position, holding the eardrum stationary, we would hear no sound at all. The sound only happens as the eardrum changes over time: sound happens in time. The vibrating of our eardrums becomes a pitch, or musical note in our Experience but a musical note is not like a vibrating eardrum or a wiggly wave in the air. It is only related to wiggling air waves and vibrating ear drums.

Sounds extend in time. The existence of sounds in Experience as objects that stretch through time is obvious to all of us yet most of us live as if only the instant between the past and the future exists. Which is peculiar because an instant contains no time at all.

When we have a sound in our Experience extending in time, the parts of the sound are separate and do not overlap each other. Time is like another independent direction for arranging things that is separate from the three independent directions in space (up-down, left-right, forward-back). Lets listen more closely.

A bird’s song is conventionally supposed to be entirely in the past yet we hear the bird song now. The listening point is now and the song is spread out in time over there, at the position of the image that is like a bird’s head in our Experience.

Sound in Experience is modelled by our brains to create a “virtual reality” in almost the same way as we model vision. As we found with vision, what we call "sound" is a model in our brain.  This auditory clip shows how we fill in missing sounds and misplace the order of events:

Sound Test:  Clip of Phonemic Restoration.

(Warren, R. M. (1970) Perceptual Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds. Science 167, 392–393).

(Sound Test: click on the icon above to hear the clip demonstrating phonemic restoration and attend in particular to the temporal position of the cough).

Our brains take in the data about pressure waves in the air around us and create short clips of sound in Experience. The brain process that makes these clips can involve filling in sounds that are not actually in the data reaching our ears and can also involve changing the order of sounds. Each clip that our brains create as Experience containing the sound is about half a second to a second long. Longer sounds involve successions of clips. Notice in the sound clip of the word “legislate” in the “Sound Test” above the missing phoneme is inserted at the correct position in the word which entails knowing how the word ends (when the missing phoneme occurs the word could still be legi--late or legi--timate, legi--ble etc). To do this insertion the clip in Experience must be delayed by about half a second. Our model of the world, our Experience, is about half a second behind the real, physical now.

In the same way as we can simultaneously have events distributed over space as a view in Experience at a viewing point we can simultaneously hear sounds distributed through time at a listening point:

Where more than one sense is involved the viewing point should be called an “Observation Point”.  (Like the "viewing point" the observation point is a geometrical phenomenon, not a point that receives a flow).


he technical objection to time extension
Time extension has been recognised since the birth of psychology but has been labelled the "specious" present.  Specious means fallacious, misleading, deceptive etc., time extension is thought to be so daft that we should not even think about it with our time extended thoughts.  The argument that scuppered the observation of time extension for generations of philosophers and psychologists runs as follows:

...what we perceive, we perceive as present—as going on right now. Can we perceive a relation between two events without also perceiving the events themselves? If not, then it seems we perceive both events as present, in which case we must perceive them as simultaneous, and so not as successive after all. There is then a paradox..

In other words successive events cannot be perceived simultaneously ie: at the same time.  The logical case seems open and shut, that is until we actually consider our observation.  Our observation consists of a geometric form in which sounds and other events are spread out in space and time around an observation point that is now.  The geometry of our time perception is not that of successive batches of events arranged in 3D space but is that of a peculiar view arranged around a point in space and time.

There is no simple "logical" rebuttal to time extension because extensions in the time and space of Experience are angular separations in the view.  All we can say for certain is that we don't know enough about space and time to explain how events can be out there but also at a point. 

What we do know is that we have time extension in our experience and those who apply arguments based on an antiquated idea of time to rebut this should understand that observation usually trumps theory. It is the idea of time in the classical argument, in which events are in an opaque, 3D sandwich with a layer for each moment of time, that is wrong, not our observation. 


magination and Experience

When we look at this page then shut our eyes most of us can imagine the page fairly well, or at least the general layout of the page on the screen or paper. If we reach out to touch where we imagine the text to be we find that our finger is near to the text on the screen. The space of our imaginary images overlaps the space of our visual experience. If we say “hello” then say “hello” using our inner speech without actually verbalising the word we notice that the two “hellos” are at the same place in our Experience. Everything that we think or sense is out there in Experience which is a model of the world in our brains.

Suppose we decide to think about a particular apple that we can see. If we shut our eyes and imagine the apple with its green and red skin and small stem it is out there in Experience.  The apple is modelled in our visual experience and when it is taken away we can model it in our mental image in Experience. Nothing flows through the observation point into our mind to be thought about, what actually happens is that the visual image of an apple is replaced by a mental image of the apple. Our thoughts (inner speech) are similarly in Experience.


brief description of Experience

The discussion above of visual illusions, the two, different, upside-down images in our eyes and how the constant visual image is maintained by intermittent saccades showed us that our visual images are in our brains, not on the things that provide data to create those images.  We make a visual model about the world in our brains.  A similar process occurs in the case of sound.  What we hear is also a model of events that happened in the world.

All that occurs for us is out there, in the internal model that is Experience. Our observation point is not the centre of any flow, it is a geometrical phenomenon, it is a point and nothing is in it. Actions, thoughts and all of our current experience are out there in the model, in Experience.

This description of what actually happens is different from the way most people believe things happen. The conventional story is that when we see an apple there is an apple shaped image in the fruit bowl and when we think about the apple we transfer information about it from the image in the bowl through an impossible, single optical focal point inside our two eyes into our mind which generates words and reactions in some sort of psychical space. The common belief about how Experience occurs bears little relation to our observation.

When we examine what actually happens we find that our experience, both sensory and internal, is laid out somewhere in our heads and becomes a simultaneous observation, as if from a point, due to some cunning, as yet unknown, physics that creates a geometry. The key feature of Experience is that everything we see, think or compute happens “out there” in the model. Events are in the world and Experience contains a model of these events. Even our mind and thoughts are in the space and time of Experience. The observation point is separate from Experience but contains nothing, being a geometrical phenomenon.

We separate the sensory from the mental by shutting our eyes and suppressing what we hear to give ourselves the peace to think. However, both the sensory and mental happen in Experience.

The observation point is no more than a connection between the different times and places of Experience.  We are in our Experience and not something behind our observation point.. 

A Meditation on Motion

Try standing and very gently doing a quarter spin with a sway.  Your body is clearly detached from the rest of the view.  Close your eyes and continue the slow movement. The swirl extends for a half second or so.  Bodily motion is the perfect brother of music because they have a similar time extension.  Your bodily motion is extended in time and space, it is a four dimensional object in your Experience.  It is this four dimensional nature of experience that separates your body from the rest of the model of the world around about. Your body can swirl within a seemingly fixed background.  Without this four dimensional body within Experience our bodies would just be fixed on a fixed background at any instant.

A Reflection on Time

There are two ideas of time.  In the first events are arranged in a direction that is different from the three directions of space.  In the second idea of time events make records on physical things and we mysteriously see or hear these records. The first idea is most like our Experience because we can have whole words emanating from a single place such as the mouth of a person speaking.  The succession of events is not laid out in space in our experience, it is laid out in time. The first idea is also consistent with current physical theory in which time is a dimension - a separate, independent direction for arranging events.  If time exists this may imply that we are eternal. There will be much more about time in the following articles in this series.

What are we?

In this section we found that our Experience contains things that are simultaneous such as patches of colour.  This means they all occur at the same time, in our case at the observation point.  Don't get too hung up on this observation point, it is just a cute bit of geometry - see Appendix.  Our Experience also contains things extending through time and although these events occur extending in time, out there, in Experience, they are also simultaneous at the observation point.  Whatever we are, time is crucial to our being.

If our Experience extends in time then time exists.  Could our Experience only "appear" to extend in time?  Every measurement of the brain shows that all of our sensations from colour to smell consist of processes evolving over time and that at any instant nothing happens.  If our observation were evolving with no more than an instant available then it would only be like our observation if someone outside of it, if another observer, put it all together as something extended in time, but then we would be that second observer.  The idea of a real, time extended Experience is unavoidable.

If time exists then we are eternal and if we are eternal then every moment contains our being about to do what is already laid down.  If we have free will then every moment might contain our being about to do something different from what is laid down so that we can embark on a different path. 

In the next section the possibility that the light and sounds in our experience are connections to our past is explored.

Next section: Qualities and how its all connected. The nature of the contents of Experience and the viewing point.


Click here to comment on Twitter:


Click here to mention this article on Twitter:


Copyright © 2007 Free Software Foundation, Inc. <https://fsf.org/>

Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.