Sunday, October 28, 2012

Everything Is Nothing

If perception is truth, then there is no such thing as truth.

The squares labeled A and B are the same shade. Don't believe me? Click here.

Rene Descartes once posited that the only proof that we exist is the fact that we are conscious of ourselves thinking. His famous quote, "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am) has a great deal of meaning for those of us who are constantly in search of the meaning of life. I have already posited that life has no intrinsic meaning outside of what you choose to give it. In this post, I'll go one step further to demonstrate why there is no such thing as truth.


The Deception of Perception

When you look at your hand, you see what appears to be an extension of your body. You believe that your hand is actually there. You believe you are waving it around. You feel it's mass and weight. You believe that your hand is real. Correct? Well then how do you explain people who have lost their hand who have phantom limb syndrome? Why is it that they still perceive their hand to be there? Is their brain lying to them or was their hand never removed?

What if I were to tell you that you don't actually exist? Would you believe me? Probably not. What if I were to tell you that there is a copy of you floating around out there in a version of this universe too far away for you to see that is only slightly different from you, would you believe me? Again, probably not. Do you know why you don't believe me? Your first answer would be because you can't perceive such a thing. In other words, you can neither taste, touch, smell, feel or see that other version of yourself. Perception is undeniable proof, right?

Are you sure about that?

Your mind, the interpreter

What if I were to tell you that your perception is only a function of an algorithm in your brain? Everything you see around you doesn't actually exist in the way you perceive them and I'll prove it to you. Take the the sky and the ocean for example: when you look at them from afar, they appear to be blue. Yet, if you've ever flown in an airplane or scooped up seawater in your hands, you'll know this to be false and yet, your vision tells you that the sky and the ocean are both blue. So is it that the ocean and water change color when you look closely at them?

Or is your perception fooling you?

Do you notice that when you see an attractive person for the very first time, your mind races with awe and anticipation? Do you also notice that when an even more attractive person stands next to them, that whatever you perceived as being attractive about them slowly disappears? Do you notice that this principle not only applies to beauty, but to everything else that you can perceive? If things really are the way we perceive them, then why does our perception change depending on context? Why doesn't our perception seem to be consistent?

Have you ever traveled to the end of a rainbow? Why not? You can see it, can't you? Do you ever wonder why people's eyes change color? Do you notice that some textures also do the same thing when you look at them from different angles? Have you ever wondered why some people see ghosts and others don't? Isn't it interesting how the same food can have a wildly different taste to different people from different parts of the world? Isn't it odd how two people with the same body mass in the same room can feel two very different temperatures?

The answer to these riddles is simple:

Perception is a function of your mind. Your mind hides inside a muscle called your brain. Your brain is a wetware based computer. This computer is a highly evolved interpretation engine. The interpretation engine works by utilizing the experiences recorded by your brain. This is very important to note because your brain interprets reality; it cannot relay reality exactly as it actually is. There is nothing in your biology to enable that. Note that I said interpret, not relay.

Your mind, the liar

Your body is a lot like a computer. There is a central processor (your brain) and input mechanisms (virtually everywhere else on your body). The input mechanisms produce electrical signals based on its environment. These signals are then interpreted by your brain. Your brain is actually being fed second hand information. It is being told what is out there in the world by your eyes, ears, skin, nose and tongue. Your brain cannot see, taste, touch, smell or feel at all.

On a deeper, physical level, the objects that you see and touch around you are not even solid. Most of matter is empty space. You are mostly empty space. Technically, you should be able to pass right through a wall, except that the mathematical probability is too low. Notice I said probability, not possibility. You can pass through walls. The odds are just so low that if you tried to do it now, you'd probably break your nose and suffer a rather unpleasant concussion.

Your brain tells you what it thinks is blue or grey, rough or smooth, sweet or sour, pungent or mild, hot or cold. All of these sensations only exist inside your brain. They don't exist in the real world. Consider your vision. There is no colour in the real world. Colour is a function of your brain. Color comes from the visible spectrum of light. There are many other spectrums of light, but you can't see them, because your brain doesn't know what color to assign to them.

Consider temperature. There is no hot or cold in the real world. Temperature is a function of your brain. People born in Norway feel very comfortable walking around in -16° C weather in loose fitting clothes, while people in Africa would feel positively dreadful in only 16° C weather, and wear several layers of clothing. Yet, if an African were born in Norway, they would have become adapted to the weather and find the 45° C weather in parts of Africa to be dreadful.

Consider sound. Air vibrates and you can hear it. However, electromagnetism is also a form of vibration, but you can't hear that. You can't hear light or electricity. In fact, if the frequency at which air vibrates is too high, you can't hear it. It's not that the high frequency isn't being received by your ears. Rather, your brain doesn't know what sound to give that frequency. If you think this is a biological limitation, then consider that dogs can easily hear ultra high frequencies, while other animals can detect very subtle changes in the electromagnetic field.

Consider taste. I absolutely hate the taste of Japanese food, and yet, I love the taste of Cantonese dishes. Some people would consider me to be absolutely crazy. How could I possibly hate Japanese food? (especially since I can read and write Japanese!). Well it's the same function as our ability to see colours or hear sound. If you grew up with a sweet tooth, then Japanese food will be less appealing. Most people don't have a sweet tooth and so Japanese food will appeal to them. Consequently, that's exactly why I love Cantonese dishes.

Consider touch. When you scratch an itch, all you're really doing is overloading the sensory interpretation engine inside your brain with another sensation (the scratch). That's why the itch disappears. Your brain has to make a choice of which sensation to feel. Even headaches don't actually exist. They're electrical signals that can be interrupted with with a drug called acetaminophen, just like an itch. You can train your brain to not interpret pain. Some people are even born with a notably rare genetic mutation that disables them from feeling pain at all.

Ignore the pain—no, seriously

In fact, your brain doesn't even have pain cells. That's why neurosurgery is often performed when the patient is still awake. Curiously, when you stump your toe, the pain is processed inside your head, not in your toe. That's why there is a noticeable delay between the moment you stump your toe and the moment the pain  is manifested. In fact, you can still "stump" your toe even if your foot was amputated or if the pain is then unexpectedly simulated in a mirror.

So why do I go to such great length to demonstrate the innate limitation of our capacity for sensory perception? Well this is to make the point that whatever you perceive to be reality, is actually based on an interpretation passed down by your brain. Since these interpretations are neither consistent, accurate nor wholly exempt from interference, is it still fair to say that perception is reality? Take your dreams for example. Do you notice that while you're dreaming, you believe your dream is totally real until you awake from it? So why do you trust your brain?

The Perception of Deception

Let me ask you another question: how do you know that you're not dreaming right now? Your immediate answer may be that the lucidity of your current perceptions intone that you are consciously awake. But don't you feel exactly the same way when you're having a rather vivid dream? What if you are actually awake while you are asleep and asleep while you are awake?

How can you prove empirically that you're awake, when your brain regularly lies to you about that which is real, irrespective of whether you're awake or asleep? You might be asking yourself, "why would I need to ask myself this question when I'm awake?". Well that's just the thing: Your dreams regularly fool you into believing that you're awake when you're asleep!

How will you know the difference before you awake?

Are you awake right now?

There are no absolutes

I believe that I have successfully demonstrated that your brain lies to you (not intentionally) for the regular, mundane, everyday requirements of perception. It does this so frequently and with such regularity that the falseness of your perception becomes the truth of reality. Whatever you perceive to be real is only real inside your head. Technically, all of our reality is invented by our brain. It doesn't exist the way we perceive it—we only perceive a tiny bit of it.

...and even that, is an illusion.

So if much of our reality isn't exactly as we perceive it, how is it that we can perceive deception? Think about it. How do you differentiate that which is true from that which is false? Is there any absolute standard for discerning truth? We might say, Of Course! We use proof! But isn't proof also subject to interpretation? If you disagree, then consider that Pluto was once considered a planet, until we discovered more objects the size of, and bigger than Pluto.

We didn't realize that Pluto isn't a planet until we were able to build better machines to help us see the universe in greater detail. Either way, the truth of our perception turned out not to be true at all. I make this point to bring up a very simple question: If truth exists on a shifting scale of perceptions, then to what extent can we even refer to anything as the absolute truth?

Doesn't absoluteness insinuate complete totality (and ergo, consistency)? In other words, if it were absolutely true that Pluto was a planet, then wherever in the universe we discovered worlds with the same state as Pluto, wouldn't they also be considered planets? Apparently not. Why couldn't we just have faith that Pluto is a planet? Because evidence can dispel faith.

If so then why do so many people believe in religion?

Detecting Deception

When Pluto was demoted from planet status, there was a great deal of uproar in both the scientific community and in the wider public. The modern day shamans who call themselves astronomers (from the religious community of scientists) tell people what to believe in much the same way actual shamans like the Pope, an Imam, a pastor or other spiritual leader would tell religious believers what to believe, and they would believe it—without any evidence at all.

I have no proof that Pluto isn't a planet simply because I don't have access to a telescope powerful enough to validate the declaration. It doesn't mean however, that I can't go out and try to get access to one. Yet, I believe the evidence that scientists tell me, because it seems to make sense (even though I haven't read their research). So why would I believe it on faith?

Can scientists be wrong? Well, of course! The truth is that scientists are constantly aware of the fact that what they perceive to be true today may not be true tomorrow. That's why there's a process that involves peer review. A true scientist is always prepared to be wrong, provided that the evidence is strong. It doesn't mean however that deception cannot occur.

So what shall we say then of those who believe in something for which there is no hard evidence? They too claim something to be true (and even absolutely true) without anything more than circumstantial evidence at best. In the same way I am willing to take scientists at their word without examining the evidence, many often believe in religion without any evidence in the first place. That's what makes these sets of people far easier to deceive than people who have proof at their disposal that they haven't yet reviewed. This is a problem.

The truth about truth

Based on everything we've examined so far, wouldn't it be fair to say that the only thing that is absolutely true is an idea in its purest form as purely created in our mind? None of our perceptions are absolutely true. Our faith in reality isn't absolutely true. By extension, our faith in cosmology (and to a lesser extent, religion) is only as true as far as we're willing to believe it. One believed, it becomes true, if only in our minds. Outside of our mind, it is relatively true.

With that said, if it is difficult enough to measure the truth of something when that something is essentially nothing that our brains have decided to turn into something. If that sounds confusing, it is only a testament to the truth about the truth. For if reality is perception and perception is an illusion that we take for granted as the truth, then there is no reliable frame of reference for that which we would consider to be truth. Perception is only fractionally true, which technically means it isn't true. If perception is truth, then there's no such thing as truth.


Remember the Success Kid meme? As it turns out, he was actually eating sand—which is a perfect example of how so many of our popular ideas are based on false perceptions. Pictured: success kid, then and now.

Everything you think you believe is only as true as far as you're willing to believe it. Truthfully, (and this is me transferring a pure idea directly to your mind), we need to create a frame of reference upon which to base all other forms of truth. Otherwise, we will never advance our thinking beyond that of primitive animals. We invented time to organize our lives. We invented mathematics to advance our investigations. We invented morals to keep the cohesion in our societies. We had to start somewhere, even if it meant initially believing in what's clearly a lie.

In the same way, we invented religion for all the right reasons based on completely wrong information. We've long since corrected that information, but we believe in religion anyway, not because we believe that it is true, but because it has become an indelible part of what makes us human. If you truly believed your religion, you wouldn't be comfortable with the fact that so many others existed and would thus doubt your religion, which would make you an agnostic.

If you're not agnostic, that means your belief in your religion is only as deep as your belief that a rainbow is actually there, in the sky, hiding between the clouds, taunting your brain's ability to make sense of something that doesn't exist. Ergo, the only reason you have never questioned your belief is because you actually don't believe it. It only serves as a frame of reference for many of the related ideas you take for granted, like morality, faith and goodness.

...none of which are things that actually exist.

This is why what is moral in one country does not necessarily apply in another. This is why good and evil are so relative to each other. This is why politicians on opposite sides of a policy regularly debate each other in the halls of government. This is why so many religions exist. This is why there are so many cosmological theories. This is why even in the contiguous United States, what is legal in one state could be illegal in another — there is no such thing as truth.

We just made it all up.

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com


  1. No! I don't want to believe that the two squares A and B are the same shade. I just DON'T! I have spent the last 5 minutes carefully staring at the two squares and toggling the link and as soon as I click the link again, A is once more darker than B!

  2. As I read this I remembered an article I had read about people who have the ability to see more colours than the average person (tetrachromacy) and thought that the world that they see must be substantially different from the world that I think exists, and wondered if that means their version is more true than mine... Subsequently had a headache and then went to bed :-). But one also has to wonder if there exists the possibility of people with 5 cones and more... Ow' headache again. Gone to sleep

    Good read though

  3. Well, this is an interesting progression in thought...

    All that, only find out at the end.. "just made it all up."