At birth we come into the world with a set of senses fully operational and ready to receive inputs from the natural world around us. We are born able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Our brain processes the information and our personal reality begins to form. The toys in our crib cause us to realize that our world is 3-dimensional. We are also aware of motion. Our mother enters our room, tends to our bodily needs, then leaves. The crib toy above our head spins. Our reality is in a state of development. Our brain processes the information and invents a new “dimension”. We possess no body organ that senses time. It is an invention of the mind so that we can deal with reality. At birth, reality is pretty much the same for all of us. In the months that follow our reality expands as our motor skills mature and as we learn culture from our parents including language, proper behavior and perhaps some religion. We assume that all the information being learned are truths, not knowing at that early age that not all truths are facts. It is apparent that if a person is born into a culture that is geographically remote from ours, that person will have a reality quite different from our own. Reality is personal and will differ from person to person.
Consider the color red. Early in life we learn to identify colors and what their names are. Other people appear to have eyes and a body structure very similar to our own. We assume that they experience the color red in the same way that we do. Then we encounter a color blind person. That individual has difficulty in distinguishing red from other colors.We quickly realize that his/reality has a limitation. The limitation is not terribly serious but it is a limitation nevertheless.
Next consider your dog or your neighbor’s dog if you don’t have one. The dog is anatomically similar to humans having four appendages and a head with eyes, nose, ears and mouth. Just like us, the dog’s brain processes sensory input. The dog has a high level of intelligence and is often trained to assist humans. Dogs have a keen sense of smell such that they are sometimes used to find lost or fleeing humans. Dogs have a reality that emphasizes odors. The dog’s reality makes it possible for it to live a “dog’s life”. This points out that our human senses are limited. Our senses are not developed as they possibly could be. Our reality is limited.
In recent centuries scientists have invented tools that extend our reality. Telescopes extend our vision out into space and microscopes extend it the other direction so that we can observe tiny objects not otherwise visible. Our reality is extended. Similarly scientists have studied chemical phenomena. An atomic theory of matter was proposed and we now live in a world of synthetic materials that was not even dreamed of a few centuries ago. We are surrounded by radio waves that are not detectable by our senses. We detect them with radio receivers and global communication is possible. The point of all this is that in this 21st century our reality includes many things that cannot be directly sensed by our body organs.
Our senses are tricked by illusions. Atmospheric conditions can cause us to see rainbows, double suns and other mirages. Diagrams can drawn on paper that appear to be in motion when nothing is moving at all. Colors can be seen when there aren’t any or at least not the color that we think we are seeing. The artist M.C. Escher drew physical structures on paper that appeared to be quite sturdy but impossible to build in 3-dimensional space. At first glance the Mobius strip appears to be a simple paper ring with a twist and having two sides and two edges. Upon closer inspection we discover that there is only one side and one edge. All of this is caused by our brain processing inputs and trying to make sense of it. The point in this paragraph is that some (maybe quite a lot) of our reality is an illusion. It does not exist. Up until a few centuries ago it was believed that the sun and moon rotated around the earth. After all, they rise in the East, travel across the sky, then set in the West. Then they go around the other side of the planet and rise again the following day. Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the spinning of the Earth. He got into serious trouble with the Catholic church for saying it was so.
In Summary… Reality
- Is created by our brain in response to sensory input.
- Is personal and will vary greatly between individuals.
- Is limited to the degree that our human senses are developed.
- Has been extended by scientists and their work.
- Some of reality is illusion.
Let us now return to the matter of time. In my teens I was puzzled by this. Clearly, time had a past, has a present and will have a future. Caution!! Remember that there is no sensory organ for time. It is constructed by our brain to explain our experience. Philosophers have pondered this for centuries. Now scientists have theorized a “time zero” at which all matter came into existence at one place. Time began and the universe expanded at the speed of light. This is known as the popular “Big Bang” theory. Although it has yet to be proven there is some evidence to support it. We cannot ask what “caused” the Big Bang because that implies that there was some condition that preceded it which is not possible because there was no time!! But we can ask “why” time zero?
Astronomers estimate that time zero was 14.3 billion years ago. That is the age of our universe.*
Early in the 20th century, around 1915, the genius Albert Einstein proposed a theory that united time and space. One cannot exist without the other. The theory has been tested may times without failure. Once again our reality was extended. Time zero was indeed possible and it could be understood. This is the Theory of Relativity. That which was a puzzle is no longer but again, why time zero? Our brain now invents the concept of a god.** God is an explanation for what is unknown. Because of our relationship to the dog and its dog intelligence we realize that there may be an intelligence greater than our own. And then we can attribute time zero as the act of a god.
The theist and the atheist agree that there was a creation event. The theist believes that that the act of creation requires intelligence. The atheist realizes that the human brain is limited and while there is a possibility of a greater intelligence there is no physical evidence of a god via our senses. It is “supernatural”. Like time, God is a construction of the brain to make sense of time zero and creation.
The question of whether a god really exists or exists only as a religious concept is not answerable. At least not at this time. Science may, or may not, produce an answer in the future. In the meantime we must just simply live with the unanswered question. Some people have difficulty with this as it lacks “closure”.
One day I overheard a conversation that my late wife, Mary, was having with her daughter. Mary asked “What would we have without God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing”. Mary’s reality included her God. In fact, that God was a necessity in her life (believe it or not Mary and I got along quite well). My reality leaves the question open. My brain will process its sensory inputs to the best of its ability as the brain of a human being. I will succeed as a human being just as my dog succeeds at being a dog. My limited senses allow me to acknowledge the possibility of a god but do not require me to have a god in my personal reality.
Pantheism, a form of atheism states that God and the universe are one and the same thing. I am comfortable with that.
We are all different and we should not criticize others for being different unless they are harmful to society.
* While we cannot travel back in time, relativity makes it possible to travel into the future and we have actually done this. Astronauts carry very accurate clocks. On long missions into space when the astronauts finally return to Earth they discover that their clocks have lost a few seconds. They have traveled a few seconds into the future. Relativity predicts this. In the movie Interstellar the astronauts dive into a “wormhole”. Upon their return they have aged a couple of months but all of their friends have aged over 50 years. Yes it’s science fiction but entirely in accordance with Einstein’s theory.
Similarly, in GPS satellites time is running slower and they are traveling into the future. It’s not much but it accumulates and a time correction must be made for the satellite to operate properly.
** When referring to a specific God, I capitalize the word. When referring to the general concept of a god I leave it in lowercase. These are not typos. Jehovah, Allah and Zeus should be properly addressed out of respect.
As I mentioned in the article I started thinking about this when I was 15 or 16. I am now 72 and I have finally figured it out. To be sure, all the answers have yet to be discovered and it is unlikely that they will be in my lifetime. The framework has been established and scientists and philosophers will go forward from here.