The Spooky Nature of Self and Knowledge

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When Einstein famously wrote of “spooky action at a distance,” he picked an odd way of describing things. The word “spooky”, with origins tying to spectres, ghosts, and other strangeness, is not one you see every day and certainly not one you see coming from renowned scientists. Yet, seemingly, Einstein’s use is an appropriate one because the nature of reality that he was attempting to refute is genuinely vague and uncanny. Contrary to Einstein’s hopes, concerns about nature acting “spooky” have been repeatedly proved wrong. We now know that nature and all things in it are indeed spooky and much more akin to these immaterial ghosts that you may have believed in as a child than to the solid and scientific certainty in which you steadfastly anchored your worldview as an adult.

There is simply no doubt that we are living an illusion. Science and the unbending logic of mathematics and philosophy have clearly, and repeatedly, shown that the world as we believe we know it simply does not exist. If that wasn’t bad enough, the person who we think we are really doesn’t exist either!

Let me explain.

  1. For us to know anything about what we think in the world around us, conventional wisdom holds that we learn it largely through our senses. What could be wrong with that? It seems pretty self-evident. However, since Descartes, philosophers have shown that there are real difficulties with that position because there are so many instances where we cannot trust our senses. This could be as simple as Kanizsa-type optical illusions, the fact that when we are dreaming we actually think we are awake and sensing, the way that our brain actively makes up for blind spots in our field of vision, etc. In other words, our senses cannot be fully trusted.
  2. To make matters worse, even if we could trust our senses, they really aren’t all that effective for more complex tasks. They are ideal for identifying threats against ourselves on a sub-Saharan savanna but not so much for thinking about and sensing “reality.” For example, we only sense less than 1% of the visual and auditory spectrum. In addition, we are incapable of experiencing so much of the electromagnetic spectrum to the point that we are surrounded by birdsfishshrimp, and countless other animals who have senses much more refined than us. They see, hear, and feel things that we cannot. If we did encounter those experiences, it stands to reason that our notion of reality would be different.
  3. Furthermore, our memories have been shown over and over again to be faulty, at best. In fact, memory itself is a really lousy way of understanding your continuity in the world due to its unreliability for even basic recollection.
  4. It gets worse, and weirder! So much of our daily existence is based on what philosophers call “secondary qualities.” These include such key human experiences as seeing color, hearing music or any sound, taste, smell, the sensation of hot or cold, etc. As you know, those things don’t exist out in nature. The color of the sunset or the taste of the apple are not scientifically real. What actually exists are wave formations that make up the color and chemical compounds that make up the apple. Our minds create all of these secondary qualities from those stimuli. So, no, rainbows are not real – they exist only in your mind. The same with the taste of coffee or the smell of a rose. Chemicals are everywhere but characteristics (bitter, sour, sweet) are not. They are our perceptions.
  5. Now even weirder! The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (and so many others) pointed out that not only do secondary qualities not exist “out there” in reality but nor do they in space, time, or causation. That would be an interesting tid-bit from the history of philosophy if had not been proven to be true by contemporary physicists. Let that sink in for a minute. Time, space, and causation do not exist in genuine reality. Things are indeed getting spooky!
  6. But wait – there’s more! The very nature by which we talk about things (using language and metaphor) also impacts how we think of and experience them. While subject, objects, predicates, and adjectives all make sense in grammar – how are we to know that they are part of the real world? In fact, we have strong evidence that our language contributes much to what we call the real world. If this discussion was in Sanskrit or among medieval Westerners, it would not be the same discussion.
  7. It gets weirder!! We haven’t even started looking at your “self” yet. For example, would the fact that 90% of the cell life in “your” body actually belongs to the microbes in your gut surprise you? In other words, well over 90% of what you think is materially you is not you at all but rather a complex microbiome that has taken up residence in your large intestine.
  8. What about the rest of my cells – those are certainly me? Not necessarily. The cells you had yesterday or back when you were a child are pretty much all gone. Maybe 1% of the cells you had as a child are still in you. This is the Ship of Theseus problem. If an object has had all of it parts replaced over time – is it still the same object? If so, what makes it the same?

To be honest, I could go on at book length outlining the reasons why we simply don’t have solid knowledge on who we are or what the world is. This has been pretty much a “given” in Philosophy since the 1700s and science since the very late 1800s. Things are not what they seem yet we lumber about thinking that the world as we perceive it is the actual real world. This, in philosophical terminology, is called “naive materialism” or “simple realism” and has been discredited so many times that one would think none of us would buy into it. However, for a bunch of sociological and other reasons it is the operating framework that most of us use in our daily lives.

What is the bottom line? Our senses are not enough when it comes to understanding the world around us or the nature of ourselves. Our brains are good at identifying and consuming high energy foods, scanning for potential mates, and protecting ourselves and our families from obvious and imminent physical threats. These are ideal traits for primal survival and reproduction – they just aren’t so good in terms of understanding the nature of reality or the self. By using the tools of philosophy, mathematics, or quantum physics we see that things are not at all as they seem.