Inside Looking Out: Illusion vs Reality

The struggle against illusion or falsehood, and the pursuit of reality or truth, is an ancient quest.
In our art the endless effort to relate those brushwork images on our canvasses to those “real” aeroplanes out there is well known. One result is schemes like orthographic plans and Descriptive Geometry designed to tie the variables to those constants.

In Science the effort to get to grips with that reality on the other side of our observations of the natural world has resulted in grandiose concepts like Quantum Physics and Relativity Theory. Yet the issue persists annoyingly. How do you relate that impersonal, sensationless Something beyond with the tangible diversity of everyday space-time existence? Here again, there is that confusing, frustrating, circularity. The Chicken or Egg paradox. Some , not unlike “post-modernists”, even question the need to assume such an objective reality beyond our subjective sensations and constructs. The debate has been much in vogue recently in cutting edge scientific circles.

Those artists who think beyond the brushstrokes, the paychecks and the bright lights, who have an inner hankering after The Very Big Picture, may find interesting this piece of correspondence with New Scientist magazine, one of the premier science journals. In its 50th Anniversary Special issue, dedicated to "The Biggest Questions....", a catalogue of leading scientists contribute their views on a range of fundamental issues. Worth reading.

My thoughts here are in line with previous writings of mine on the subject of Art.

17 Nov 2006


The Editor
New Scientist
84 Theobald's Road
London WC1X 8NS

Dear Sir
Re: What is Reality? by Roger Penrose: NS 18 November 2006 pp 32-39

Congratulations on another excellent issue.

It was interesting to read great scientific minds like Prof Roger Penrose grapple with the apparent paradox of reality. This conundrum is hardly novel, and echoes Zen koans: "What is the sound of a tree falling….in a distant forest?" "What is the clap….of one hand?" Writer Michael Frayn* has recently revived the issue of this "central, irresolvable paradox" in his own eloquent way : "The world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in turn. We are supporting the globe on our shoulders, like Atlas - and we are standing on the globe that we are supporting.....". That solid, predictable universe beyond us which makes our lives meaningful is in turn meaningless without our very lives, our senses, our thoughts. An old philosophical complaint sums it up well: "When you seek the Mind, all you find is Matter; when you seek Matter, all you get is Mind!" Which has also become for science as well as philosophy the seemingly intractable "Problem of Consciousness".

Yet things cannot be otherwise, and it all boils down to some simple facts of life. From the moment the first lipoprotein film in some primeval swamp folded in on itself and formed the first living cell, the universe bifurcated into subject and object, inside and outside. The apparently problematical nature of reality is a consequence of this new discontinuity-in-unity, this Moebius Strip which is the new game of life. Seen in the proper light, the paradox vanishes. The cells which survive to evolve are those which successfully mirror internally their external surroundings, first at the sensory/instinctive level and latter on, in humans and perhaps other animals with complex central nervous systems, at the verbal/conceptual level. This internal model/virtual reality enables the organism to relate effectively to its environment.We are all simulators or virtual reality generators( another good definition for life?). Across the living world, organisms have evolved a surprising range of sensory abilities, and therefore are each keyed into astonishingly different virtual universes. Infrasonic, ultrasonic, infrared, ultraviolet, olfactory, a professional painter I am especially fascinated by the stomatopods, who have 8 types of colour cells in their eyes to our 3. Your body is your universe. Every birth collapses an undefinable potential universe into living space-time existence. Every death collapses this scenario back into the dreamless sleep of timeless, spaceless primal oneness. Every time you step on an ant you squash an entire little universe....trees, mountains, sun, moon, stars and all.

It is no surprise that the only universe for any creature is its own, that its only reality is its own sensory interface with the reality external to it, however much it may extend this interface by means of add-ons like microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators, and so on. We each live in a unique simulated space in parallel with and interlocked with the countless other such living universes of fellow organisms, each one centred on its own discrete and complete perspective on it all. That is the essence of "consciousness". It is no more than the juxtaposition of sentient organism against the rest of reality. By its nature this outlook called "consciousness" is not any "thing", and seems as ephemeral as a rainbow to attempts to isolate it physically. It is a view from an inside looking out. It comes down to the same thing as subjective space, which is the only space we know and in which our private reality resides. That private reality....the contents of consciousness....varies from the limited and diffuse world of an amoeba to the highly focused and complex worlds of higher organisms.

Objective, impersonal reality, untainted by private sensation, must ever remain an inference and construct, however successfully these may seem to approximate to that reality.Yet outright solipsism makes no sense here: this would be like insisting that the shifting visual shapes of a chair as I move around it are each discrete images with no underlying link with each other. Or pretending that while sitting indoors, what is visible via the window panes is a fictitious display disconnected from any reality beyond. It forgets the origins and purpose of the biological simulations which connect us to the world, and again makes a paradox of an entirely natural situation. Likewise it should be little surprise that our conceptual and mathematical projections should also " work" or "fit" when applied to external reality......any more than that its air and light and food can nourish and sustain us. Or that males and females are attracted to each other and have complementary anatomies. Living creatures at root remain continuous with the greater whole they evolved in, like flowers on the same bush....and our experience of it is a basic part of that continuity. There's no call either for any narrow anthropism..."consciousness" in the present sense is a fundamental feature of all life, whatever its form.

We artists, at least those of a realist/representational bent, have had to confront these issues of virtual vs.objective reality in our own way. We have long had to come to grips with illusion. Pick up any good book on visual perspective, and you will have there the rudiments of the conscious field, and its mathematical relationship with reality. We tend to take the tricks of perspective for granted, but they are the key for the understanding of the conscious field. Long before Heisenberg, we were aware that the observer was central to his reality. As an aviation artist, my art routinely demands the exacting portrayal of very complex machines and the creation on canvas of the space in which they move and have their being. For me, the phenomenon of Visual Art is a natural extension by humans of the virtual reality creation by all life. Representational art is a direct window into human consciousness.

We mortals are heir to illusion...but at least we may strive to avoid delusion. That is central to the game for all intelligent life. Maybe the views of artists are beyond your brief here......but once upon a time, back in the Renaissance, we were all in the same boat.

Yours sincerely

Ronald Wong BSc(Hons)
88 Windmill Avenue
St Albans
Herts AL4 9SN
Tel: (01727)869917

* The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe, Faber and Faber 2006