A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim


Recently I have run into a string of theists who suggest that I am unable to perceive reality, or that my notion of reality is as much a fairy tale as I suggest theirs to be. These assertions are most aggressively made when I tell them that creationism and/or intelligent design are not scientific models and therefore do not belong in science classrooms. When I explain that science is based on observations of physical reality, observations that either of us can make for ourselves should either of us choose to pursue that avenue, they inevitably regress to the suggestion that I cannot even define physical reality. To this end, I’ve decided to take up that challenge.

Although reality would seem to be an objective, unequivocal truth, any attempt to conclusively define it quickly deteriorates into solipsism. One begins by trying to establish the certainty of one’s own existence by identifying with the thoughts that one perceives as arising in one’s own mind. From this definition of self (I think therefore I am) it becomes clear that there are perceptions that arise exclusively within the mind (thoughts) and perceptions that arise exclusively from without (senses). Continuing further, reality can be defined as an objective interpretation of that which can be perceived outside of the mind (sensed).

There seems to be no way of conclusively defining reality without acknowledging the role that one’s own senses, and therefore one’s own mind, play in determining that reality. In point of fact, one’s very notion of reality is nothing more than an internal model (thought) of that which has been externally perceived (sensed). To make matters even more complicated, there exists the possibility that the very notion of reality is nothing more than a dream, that it has all been generated internally (thought).

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated by my own mind, then I am the god of that reality: I have created it; I can manipulate it to my own will, without limit; nothing occurs within it that isn’t the product of my own will; and I am the only facet of it that will continue to exist when I have ceased to dream of it.

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated not by my own mind, then I am deceived. If my thoughts are even my own, which is questionable, then the senses that I have do not reveal anything other than that which the deceiver wishes me to perceive. Such a deceiver, therefore, is determining my notion of reality and therefore corralling my notions thereof. Under such circumstance I am unable to conceive of such a deceiver by any definition other than that of a malevolent trickster, a demon.

Finally, if in fact the physical reality of which I have a notion is not a dream, that is to say that it exists independent of my notions of it, then it is something which I can only come to know through my own senses. To this end, other people whom I encounter have their own minds, independent of my own, and they too have the ability to sense the same physical world of which I am a part. Furthermore, it is possible for us to compare what we have sensed to determine whether or not our models of reality match; that is to say that we can actually exchange thoughts about the nature of the reality which we have independently sensed.

Physical senses can often be deceiving though. I might perceive that there is a bat hanging in a tree only to later realize that it was a shadow. For this reason, determination of reality requires extensive investigation. The most powerful tool we have in determining physical reality is the model of collaborative investigation put forward by science. One need not be a scientist to benefit from the model it puts forth though.

For instance, to determine the amount of money taken in at a restaurant, several people act independently to count that money at different stages. Each server counts the money they have taken in and makes a note of that amount. The head server collects all their money and counts it, as well as calculating the sum of the values entered in their notes. The accountant makes another count of that money and the money is counted yet again at the bank. If, at any given point, the amounts counted and noted by different people do not add up, the discrepancy is not adequately explained away by simply declaring that one person or the other has a different perception of reality.

If the owner of the restaurant finds that the revenues are not to his liking he may have the thought that a thief exists. Simply thinking that the thief exists does not give rise to the existence of the thief, however. The determination of whether or not a thief exists requires an investigation, an audit of the paper trail and perhaps surveillance of the staff. If the investigation fails to prove the existence of the thief then a rational owner would have to at least entertain the notion that no such thief exists. He may cling to the notion that a thief exists simply because he does not find the revenues appealing, but that notion is not well grounded in reality.

Having such notions does not make a person less of a human being; on the contrary, I suggest that such notions are very much a part of what it means to be human. To be a rational human, however, one must accept that notions of reality do not always reflect reality and that there is in fact an objective reality to be investigated. It is this objective reality that I define as reality. It is the investigation of this reality that I call science, and it must, for the sake of rationality, remain unpolluted by notions that are not founded upon physical evidence. The notion that there is a god of some sort manipulating or propagating our reality is one that is not, and by most definitions of god cannot be, supported by the evidence and therefore it must remain outside the science classrooms of our children.

I realize that creationists and proponents of intelligent design feel that their notions of god are being discredited by objective investigations of reality, but like the aforementioned restaurant owner they should at least entertain the notion that no such god exists. It is important that young scientists learn what it means to investigate physical reality and follow the evidence as it becomes uncovered. If there truly is a god then physical evidence for that god will eventually be discovered or else god is a deceiver, a malevolent trickster – a demon, and therefore no god at all.

Objective investigation of physical reality shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that prayer does not have the efficacy of medicine, surgery, engineering, or even sound investment strategy. Objective investigation of physical reality has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the fallacy of the cosmological model, deluge mythology, historicity, and even some animal husbandry practices of several passages of religious scripture. Objective investigation of physical reality has revealed no evidence whatsoever that supports the notion of a god.

I acknowledge that reality is not easily defined and my own attempt at it may fall short in the opinion of many. I have, however, at least made a sincere attempt to define it and to question my own perception of it. The only answers I can arrive at are that I am god, I am deceived by a demon, or that there are no gods or demons. The last of those three answers surely seems the most reasonable and rational. If my definition and/or conclusions fall short, then I leave the ball in your court and ask: What is reality?

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Comment by Albert Bakker on May 28, 2011 at 6:36pm

You know, I know that reality exists outside my mind for the very simple reason that I couldn't make it up if my life depended on it. The solipsism thing never impressed me much.

Reality exists. The question what reality is, to my mind is more about what can we know about it, than the meta-question what reality is onto itself. It seems to me to be unanswerable in the sense that it is all there is, containing even what is not real because those exist as figments of the imagination that is therefore thus a part of reality. Imagination is in essence the art of recombination of representations of existing things.

But we have to understand reality with our minds and we (sometimes struggle to) make intuitive sense of it by relating it to our sensory input. Even if we know our senses can be unreliable, even dangerously so and are predisposed to perceive of aspects of reality in accordance with evolutionary/ biological functionality.

But the way to probe reality is indeed as Hawking, Mlodinow a.m.o. stated that through the lens of the (scientific) model and beyond this, the philosophy of model interpretation, often leading to new and sometimes better models.

Now Hawking and Mlodinow's philosophical meta model of science, that of model dependent realism, holds that nothing can be said of reality beyond the model. But as long as we can specify the questions the models don't provide answers for, we can be sure reality is not identical to the model and therefore exists independently and uniquely, in the sense that there is one and only one reality, despite the possibility of equivalent but different models of it.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 28, 2011 at 6:47pm
I fully agree; I only entertain the solipsism notion for the sake of thoroughness.  Essentially, if we can't be certain that there is an objective reality to be probed, then the very evidence (scripture, miracles) used to support theistic beliefs is equally well thrown into doubt.  If those scriptures exist, and miracles occurred, in physical reality, then our other determinations about that reality must be agreed to be equally valid.  Everything we observe about physical reality outside of scripture and claimed miracles, however, dictates that the scriptures and claimed miracles are inconsistent with that physical reality.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 28, 2011 at 8:59pm

Insightful observations, Joseph.  Typically what we refer to as 'me' is our 'mind'.  It appears that that 'mind' is a product of brain, which itself is a product of physical reality.  If this reality does not truly exist, being perhaps a dream, then we do in fact exist in some other reality.  Perhaps we then will one day wake up to that reality, although if we retain our memories of this experience then we will be even more troubled because we will already know that what seems like reality can be, and in fact has been, nothing more than a dream.


To that end, all we have for the time being is this reality, and a rather eloquent model of it that seems to be shared by all involved.  We can discern a difference between our thoughts and our senses.  We can communicate with other people about what they've sensed and the models they have created from those senses.  We can even establish a common model of this reality with those who base their models on what can be sensed, those who can differentiate what is senses from what is purely thought.  Theists, unfortunately, rarely fall into this category.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 28, 2011 at 9:35pm
Well, if Yahweh exists then he not only created everything, he created a ton of evidence to suggest he does not exist, even more evidence to refute the only manual that he is purported to have provided us regarding his existence, and has aggressively manipulated reality to create non-believers.  Given such a track record of cosmic level deception, how can believers have any confidence that they aren't being completely deceived as well?  Maybe when we die we just cease to exist, but when believers die they get a quick glimpse of Yahweh giving them the finger and screaming 'PSYCH" just before he casts them into an eternal lake of fire.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 28, 2011 at 10:07pm
If I were living in heaven for eternity with magical powers I would probably recreate this reality exactly as it is, making my existence as the creator seem completely implausible, just to see who would be stupid enough to believe, against all available evidence, that I existed.  Then, when I got bored with watching them fiddle about, I would squash them like bugs.
Comment by Albert Bakker on May 29, 2011 at 3:04am

One of the many problems I have with dualism is that in order for consciousness to exist outside the brain it then nevertheless has to have some feature that allows it to interact with the material brain.

If it doesn't then the brain wouldn't exist at all, because it is energetically an extremely expensive organ that would have then been heavily selected against. Also it is then a completely superfluous add-on that doesn't do anything, can't do anything and is for all intents and purposes if not equal to then perfectly equivalent to non-existent.

If it does then free consciousness is in principle accessible for detection with specially designed instruments. And as a matter of fact it should be very easy too, because the energy regimes where it interacts with matter must be extremely low if it takes place inside brains. In fact it is very hard to conceive of a scenario in which it wouldn't have been detected by now.

Deism is excluded from the realm of possibilities if therein the God concept is even in principle permitted to interact with the world (read: the whole of reality) at any stage of it's evolution and if it is safely kept away from that window of falsifiability, then it is an unnecessary add-on, just an unparsimonious irrelevancy to get rid off asap.


About "me" the concept of identity and continuity of being. There exists no such thing as an immutable core to a being beyond the genetic/ developmental predispositions they are endowed with. The illusion of such an unchangeable meta-'me' is to be sought in the continuity of the biographical narrative.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 29, 2011 at 9:18am

I recently watch (and embedded here) a video about the beauty of 'chaos'.  It happened to tie together a few mathematical concepts in a way that I could manage more intuitively.  In particular it tied a lot of these concepts into fractal maths, and had a great visualization of zooming to perpetually find the details to be reflections of greater parts.  That really helped clear up a lot of my thinking about 'consciousness'


I do believe the physical universe is as real as it gets; that our physical self, including the brain, is a product of that universe; that the mind is a product of the brain and reflects a model of the physical reality around it, the brain, the physical self.  I conceive of this entire chain as a feedback loop, sort of like what you get when you point a video camera, that feeds to your monitor, at your monitor.


To this end I feel as though 'self-awareness' is a sort of trick, and that we may have much less 'free-will' than we perceive.  We're plugged into this running dialog, with no dialog of our own - we ARE the dialog.  Various centres of the brain running various processes that all combine over and over at higher order into a type of feedback loop that forms consciousness and in the ensuing interference a sense of self arises - a side-effect.


Removed entirely from that loop, what am I?  The physical universe is finite so I might as well try to imagine now that it is gone - and with it all the memories stored in this physical brain, and everything upon which those memories were formed.  Every physical desire removed as well since I receive no stimuli from this physical from.  Things that I learned before language, like moving my hand in front of my face, form a very different type of thought - I can't 'hear' those thoughts, I just 'am' those thoughts, but those thoughts go when the physical form is gone.  The 'audible' and 'visible' thoughts become meaningless outside the context of this physical universe.  One is left then with nothing but the vagary of intent - but intent of what?

Comment by oneinfinity on June 2, 2011 at 7:46pm

Great essay. I'm about 99.9% in agreement with your point view, the only difference being that I give solipsism a little more of a nod because it really is a hard argument to get around. So i guess I'd say that either nothing exists except my perceiving whatever-it-is, or there is an objective reality and the empirical sciences are the most "reasonable and rational" method by which we can "know" anything about that reality. There is really no evidence to support solipsism except the argument, so it's easy to just kind of push it aside as being highly improbable, while epistemologically it does seem that objective reality is knowable through observation and experimentation, and that predictions can be made and things can be done (send spacecraft to other planets and such). 


Another thing that came up as I was reading the comments is the idea of the "narrative." As Albert said, "the biographical narrative," and then your comment of "we ARE the dialog." In culture studies courses I've had this idea of "narrative" comes up all over the place. For example something like American culture. What exactly does that mean? It's certainly not something that exists in external reality. It's something that exists as an idea, as a narrative that people have in the heads that "tells them the story" of what it means to be "American" Of course there's not one coherent story but there are common elements, there are just about as many stories as there are heads that it exists in. I would say that all knowledge is really a form of narrative. The stories that science tells about reality happen to make a lot more sense than the stories religion tells because you can see the material from which the tale has been woven, with religion it's basically just spun out of pure fantasy.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on June 2, 2011 at 8:54pm

@oneinfinity - Thanks for the feedback.  As far as solipsism goes, there is one more avenue that I've been considering, in the form of freewill.  I've come to consider our notion of reality in terms of a feedback loop - like a camera with its output fed to a monitor and also pointing at that monitor.  In that way, I sometimes wonder if our sense of 'self' is not just an interference pattern generated by that feedback - like the electronic scream generated by putting a microphone up to a speaker.  It could very well be that our sense of 'self' is just an illusion, along with freewill; we've identified ourselves as the dialog and identified with the decisions being made in that dialog - we can't possibly want anything outside those decisions because as 'self' we actually don't have a separate narrative to offer.


This concept would apply to patriotism, nationalism, or any other form of in-group because we identify ourselves within the narrative of those groups, just as we identify ourselves within the narrative of our own minds.

Comment by oneinfinity on June 3, 2011 at 8:30pm
I actually think that model of the "self" makes a lot of sense. Our sense of self really is just a mix of current sensory perceptions mixing with snippets of memories and commentary in your internal "dialogue" (just the idea of talking to yourself is already splitting up the self.) I don't recall for sure if I've heard you express elsewhere a disdain for postmodernism, but I think you're ready for some Derrida and Foucault and such. The "fragmented self" is very much a postmodern idea.


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