Getting Lucid about Consciousness
– Experience might be a virtual reality –
Waking up from a nightmare, you suddenly realize that what seemed real was in fact a dream. You were inhabiting a world cooked up by the brain, not realizing you were lying in bed. You were comprehensively deluded about your situation.
In what are called lucid dreams, you become aware of the fact that you’re dreaming – you become undeluded. Knowing that you’re dreaming allows you to appreciate something quite remarkable while you are dreaming: that dream reality can be just as vivid and detailed as waking experience. Having had a few lucid dreams myself, I can testify, as have many others, that the dream world seems just as present, tangible and real as what we experience when awake.
As people learn about lucid dreaming, an interesting fact about the brain will become known: it is a virtual reality generator. But an even more remarkable fact is waiting in the wings: waking experience is virtual reality too.
This seems daft on the face of it. When we’re awake, the world is solid, out there, a 3-dimensional reality with us walking around in it, looking at it, manipulating it. There’s nothing virtual about it. It’s clear that this is real reality, right?
Well, it’s real as reality can get for a brain. As Thomas Metzinger, Antti Revonsuo, Rudolfo Llinas, V.S. Ramachandran and other neuroscientists and philosophers
now surmise, consciousness is more or less the same thing when we’re awake as when dreaming.
That is, the brain constructs a conscious phenomenal world, with ourselves as part of that world; this is what we experience, or rather is our experience. The difference between waking and dreaming experience is that the former is responsive to perceptual input coming in via the eyes, ears, and other sensory faculties while the latter is not. Both are virtual realities, but one has the crucial property of being constrained, in real time, by the real world outside the head.
Lucid dreams help us to see that in being conscious we construct a simulated world, we do not directly grasp reality. This realization should keep us humble in our knowledge claims, especially those based primarily on uncorroborated personal experience. Our conscious subjective realities are very selective takes on what exists outside the head, versions of reality that have been shaped by evolution. We get closer to the way the world really is by engaging in the scientific project, which does its best to transcend the distorting effects of subjective realities, which are often colored by motivational biases and perceptual limitations. Science models the world not via a selective phenomenology, but via testable hypotheses that end up amalgamated into our best theories. From a scientific perspective, conscious experience is epistemically adequate for personal and social purposes, but not a particularly perspicacious rendering of reality. Both science and consciousness, however, are essentially representational projects, one collective, the other personal.