October 4, 2003

Reality, Thought, Perceptions and Encoding

All of our interaction with reality depends on encoding. We never interact with reality directly; when we see something or hear something, that external information needs to be picked up by our senses, encoded into electrical impulses, and eventually decoded by our brains into whatever chemical reactions are appropriate for reproducing that particular sight or sound. There is always this necessary relay between us and reality; data will always be compressed into electrical signals that our body generates, and quickly decompressed into meaningful information by our brains.

Science deals with the gritty details of this encoding; how fast these impulses travel, what sensory perceptions will result in what physical and chemical changes, how reality is encoded and decoded by the various senses, etc. But even a complete scientific understanding of how the brain and body work together will not result in a complete understanding of how humans think. In dismantling the program we can figure out how and why it works, but we cannot learn how to work with the program. To figure this out we need human interaction.

Think of it as front-end and back-end programming. The back-end involves all the gritty scientific stuff about how humans accept, process and retain data about their world. Think of this as the code that makes up a computer program. You can look at the lines of code and say, “Ah ha! I have discovered the language of perception!” but realize that this discovery does not necessitate that you have learned to speak the language.

The other side (and the side that I am most interested in, not knowing very much about the scientific side and being a worthless CLA major myself) is the front-end interface of sensory information and encoding. What is it that we actually see? Once the code has done all its work and has been translated, what actually appears on the screen? Sensory information is unique in that we only have access to our own data. While computer programs can be copied and distributed and picked apart by any number of computer-savvy persons, I am unable to transfer my perceptions to another person. We can look at the electrical impulses in my brain and map out how all the neurons fire, but until we can transfer those, synapse for synapse, into another person’s brain that will decode them in the exact manner that my brain did, we will never know exactly how other people see the world.

Which is not to deny the belief that we can come up with an objective understanding of the universe. We are fortunate in that our perceptions seem to be consistent enough with reality that we can discover truth and falsity through our interactions with the world. Of course our perceptions are never 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, but that is what meticulous forms of analysis and inquiry, such as the Scientific Method, have been designed for.

The Scientific Method deals with the back-end code of perception, the underlying structures of how the universe is formed, both in reality and in our minds. It deals with physics, chemistry, mathematics, quantum mechanics; the code of reality. It explains sight and sound and touch as a series of electrical impulses, which is not helpful when you’re trying to describe an experience to another person. Science deals with the back-end, but we interact with reality through the front-end of perception, where we actually see, touch and feel our surroundings. Until I can take a cord, plug another person into my brain, pump my experience into their head and say, “It was like this,” we will always need to find other means for communicating our perceptions.

And thus, not too surprisingly, my interest in writing. And photography. And music. The arts are currently the best means we have for communicating our thoughts with one another. I can’t make people feel exactly how how I feel (nor is there necessarily any advantage in being able to do so), but if I hone my skills enough so that I can accurately channel myself into some form of communicative art, I can come close.

Sure. You will never be sitting here on a wooden bridge over a tricking stream, breathing in the perfumed air of an Oregon autumn, near Lost Lake in the middle of the Cascade mountain range, but if I wanted to I could make a damned good effort to tell you what it’s like. And whether I do that in word, image or song, it would be an encoding of my experience. I would need to take my current perceptions, that which I wish to communicate, distill it down into a form that bears no resemblance to either my thoughts or the reality that created them, and transfer them over to you.

Reality > My Senses > My Brain > My Writing > Your Senses > Your Brain

A lot stands to be lost and gained through all those changes in format. What really is the final product? For that matter, what was even the product we started with?

As I look out over this stream I know I am not seeing reality. I am seeing an image that is captured by my eyes, translated into electrical signals and decoded in my brain. A lot of processing needs to take place to simply achieve the effect of a single visual image (such as generating one coherent image by stitching together separate feeds from each eye). But again, science has shown that our sensory perceptions of reality seem to conform quite well to the actual nature of reality. This can be doubted, surely, but I am in no mood to channel Descartes at the moment.

Also, my visual experience of these surroundings is limited by the physical limitations of my eyes. The resulting image would be different if I were wearing my glasses, or if I had the visual sophistication of an eagle. Or a turkey, as a Kentucky 12th grader once told me that a turkey was really smart and could read a book at 100 feet.

When I look over this stream, where are these images coming from? Where in my brain do I sense them? Do I feel the images existing on my eyes, in the back of my head, or where else? Can I move the image around to other corners of my skull? My vision needs to exist somewhere on some sort of mental canvas, doesn’t it? Keep in mind we’re talking actual perception, here, not where in the brain the electrical impulses are firing. The back-end synapse firing can be mapped. The front-end perception of consciousness is troublesome.

And what about when I close my eyes and imagine this scene? Or if I keep my eyes open and imagine another scene entirely? I can see it, but where do I see it? The only explanation I can come up with is that consciousness extends reality into another dimension that exists outside of the sensible physical world. Consciousness creates a new space where objects can exist and interact with one another, albeit inconsistently. Inconsistent, you say? Imagine two billiard balls that collide and as a result reverse direction. Now imagine two billiard balls that collide and turn into a squawking swarm of canaries. Welcome to the inconsistent reality of consciousness. The objects themselves don’t really exist and are not physical matter. They are just electrical impulses in the brain and can be created or destroyed at will.

But then, these words are just electrical impulses in a machine and don’t exist, either. These impulses can be arranged in such a way that these words exist in front of you (direct your browser to siskiwit.brainsideout.com/), and then arranged so that they do not (direct your browser to www.ihavehadenoughofyournonsense.com). In this, it seems that thought and perception must consist of the management of neurons; I tell my brain to do this, and then I tell it to do that. The gray matter itself is conserved, but the impulses change in order to produce different things. Everything, all energy, all matter, is always conserved in compliance with the laws of our physical reality.

Thoughts and perceptions are able to come and go at will, but the matter used to create the mind’s eye has existed since the birth of the universe.

What other powers must be at work, here?