On the Concept of “Reality” and the Place of Consciousness in our Minds

There are almost too many ways to go about talking about “reality” and objective truth, but for the purpose of philosophic contemplation and meditation, I believe it’s best to start from what’s simplest. I’m not going to begin by asking whether or not anything actually exists, or if this is all just a simulation given to the mind, because the two are neither mutually exclusive nor unlikely. A quick search on Youtube of various lectures, discussions, and interviews with leading scientists and educated theorists will show just how wide the potential is for metaphysical phenomena to escape our certain understanding, yet still leave us clues to the truth.

From Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” expressed in his Meditations on First Philosophy, it is plain to see that something exists. Something with the capability of perceiving thoughts and ideas, and using its awareness of these collective concepts to trace its perception along the myriad associations between them, creating a stream of thoughts in its perception and ideas that appear to be the flow of mental activity within the mind. I will call this thing consciousness for reasons that I will address later. Recently, I have been learning more and more about the mind from scientists, philosophers, spiritual leaders and counselors, and metaphysicians alike, attempting to understand as much as I can about the mind, brain, and everything associated with its activity. As an undergraduate in college, I studied philosophy and psychology for the sole purpose of understanding the mind and what makes people what they are. It’s been a personal study of mine, using whatever resources and databases are available, and I have found a vast body of knowledge on the mind and mental activity which I will attempt to use to maybe shed some light on this strange phenomenon of consciousness.

To my understanding, what we call “reality” is an entirely simulated experience; however, it is not simulated by some evil genius, malevolent god, or laboratory computers where our brains are held in storage. This world is the creation of our own minds. Charles Sanders Peirce refers to this as the simulated reality as the phaneron, from the Greek phaneros, meaning “visible, manifest”. It is the totality of our perception, the collective screening of everything of which our minds are aware. Peirce stated that he believed the phaneron did not necessarily correspond to anything “real”. Here, I’d like to note that this use and similar use of the term “real” most likely refers to objective reality in the form of a physical world. This is a very important note to make, because there are two ways of distinguishing that which is real: that which has metaphysical presence like the mind, and that which is. What I mean by “that which is” is that which is existentially given. The phaneron may not relate to objective truth, but it is the subject of our experience, and realism would compel us to treat it as if it were objective truth. Having said that, what about hallucinations? Are hallucinations not “real”? (This is where I think the metaphysical discussion gets a whole lot more fun and interesting)

Realism as opposed to solipsism is a much healthier and more functional belief. If the world acts as though it were real, and you must interact with it, then it would be best to treat it as though it were all real as well, even illusions. If one follows Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy and considers the notion that all of reality is itself a metaphysical illusion, “playing like it’s there when it’s not” as Alan Watts would say, one would quickly discover that our own presence in the world is participation in this illusion. After all, you do have a body that you inhabit, and this body is made of the same materials that the rest of the world is made from, so are we also illusions? What then is consciousness, or our minds? In the unconscious theory of Carl Jung, he presents a formula for human mind that is paralleled by neurological findings on how we have outlined the structure and functionality of the brain. I will try to keep this as simple as possible, but it’s a little difficult to avoid jargon and technical terms now. Basically, the mind is not one stream of consciousness, but two compensating parts, making up for the functional difficulties of the other by inhibiting each other and compensating for the other’s fixations and deficits. The unconscious mind, given knowledge by the evolutionary structure of the brain’s matter, which also determines its functionality by way of how the neurons interact, forms the “animalistic”, base set of knowledge we collectively have that we only understand in terms of symbols. The conscious mind, is our persona. It is a “program”, for lack of a better word, running in our head that takes things that we arbitrarily associate with our identities, and uses them to form an abstract personality that we then believe is who we truly are. The purpose for this is so that our unconscious minds may have some way of interacting more precisely with reality, specifically other unconscious minds. Language is an example of this using abstractions to communicate “interconsciously”. A conscious mind is necessary for using these abstractions to interact with reality as the unconscious mind’s representative. In this way, human minds are dualistic, which is why I advise against conflating mind and consciousness. To me, consciousness is neither the unconscious, nor conscious aspect of mind, but the awareness within mind of its parts’ functions. When our mind collects sensory information from our interaction with reality and displays an imagined, hallucinated physical world for our conscious mind to interpret, it is just like a computer, processing information and executing actions and program-like functions. What determines the aims set by the mind which its functions seek to accomplish? I believe that consciousness, this simple awareness of ideas, can direct its awareness to whatever thoughts, ideas, and perceptions it chooses, but when interacting with our minds, it must do so in a way that the mind’s parts understand if it wants the mind to accurately process this information. Since the mind learns and operates through abstraction, it must navigate these abstractions by using its interest and ability to be aware of thoughts to influence the will, or aims, of the mind. It may be easier to observe if the mind was a singular component with which consciousness could interact, but consciousness directing the mind is like one person trying to guide a boat controlled by two people who almost never agree.

You can follow your mind’s processing of this awareness and the thoughts that then come into mind with a simple trick. Follow your eyes and expectations. Practice meta-cognition, keeping track of the types of thought that come and go throughout the day, and you will find that you have even less control of your body than you originally thought. Ever catch yourself looking at or away from something before you intentionally decided to, or even against what you would prefer to do? This might be awareness of some cognitive dissonance, contradicting influences and wishes in your mind. Pay attention to these moments, and feel what it is that may be causing the discrepancy. Choosing to put your awareness in these moments where problems arise instead of ignoring a fight within your own head can lead to some greatly beneficial insights, and is very useful as a meditative practice that you don’t need to sit down and focus to perform. Simply ask yourself “what was the cause of this hesitation” or “why did it go so far before stopping”. Help your consciousness to communicate with your mind, by focusing awareness on the connection. Your consciousness is the awareness, and will bring the thoughts to your mind’s attention, giving them room to sort out the dilemma. This is absolutely essential to personal growth, problem solving, and learning, and you will only benefit from it. Besides, figuring out how to solve things isn’t just what your mind does, it’s pretty fun too. Don’t worry about how well you do it at first, we grow as we learn, and we all had to start somewhere. Trust that you want what’s good for you and promise yourself you’ll always try, and your mind won’t fail you.

In future posts, I’ll focus more on how consciousness interacts with the mind and reality, how we create the reality we experience, and I’ll also go into times when it seems reality gets a little… strange and unreal. What do you think about reality? What does it mean that we imagine the world?

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