Sunday, June 21, 2009

Life Creates the Universe, not the Other Way Round

Lynn has put up a piece on “biocentrism, a belief that life creates the Universe… An "external" reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.” (more…)

It’s good to be reminded of this. In western philosophy, this position is known as Idealism, “the theory that maintains that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas. It holds that the so-called external or "real world" is inseparable from mind, consciousness, or perception.” Kant was an idealist, while Buddhism maintains that the universe is Mind created.

Idealism is contrasted in the philosophy of perception with Realism “in which the external world is said to have a so-called absolute existence prior to, and independent of, knowledge and consciousness.” And in the philosophy of mind it is contrasted with Materialism “in which the ultimate nature of reality is based on physical substances.”

All this can sound fascinating but ultimately still just an idea. That Idealism is not just another philosophical position, Buddhist or otherwise, was imprinted on me quite forcibly about 25 years ago when I read Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.

Sacks is a neuropsychologist, and his book tells the strange tales of some of his patients, all of whom who had various brain dysfunctions. There was, for example, the man who could tell you what something was in general - e.g. that it is a playing card – but not what is was in particular - e.g. that it is the Jack of Hearts. And there was another patient who had the opposite brain damage, so that he could tell you it was the Jack of Hearts, but not that it was a playing card.

Then there was the person who had lost his sense of ‘left’, and could only experience the right-hand half of anything. So he would eat a meal with his right hand, and would eat only what was on the right half of his plate, and then pull his plate round to the right and eat the right half of what was now there, and so on. These patients did not necessarily have a sense that anything that was amiss, even though they had not always been like that, because the part of the brain itself concerned with that function had been wiped out.

As bizarre example piles on bizarre example (including, of course, the man who mistook his wife for a hat), the reader realises in what a profound and basic way his/her external reality is created by the brain. You realise that Idealism is not just a philosophical position, and that the function of the brain is not to order and make sense of a 3-D reality ‘out there’: that 3-D reality itself is created by the brain. It’s quite shocking when it sinks in.

And this brings me back to the start, the idea that “Life creates the Universe”. I find this idea so refreshing. Our basic western conditioning is that the material universe created life, and that is all we are. This deadening materialism is something we all have to struggle against if we have any spark of imagination. So it’s great to see it turned on its head, and see that science itself, pursued far enough, subverts the philosophical materialism that it has done so much to bring about.

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