[#29] The Stories we Tell, we who are Told by Stories

By Piet Hut

We never see the world 'as it is'.  We always see the world through the lens of the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and about ourselves.  And the self we think we are is part of the stories that emerge from the same source that our experienced world emerges.

When we dream, we identify ourselves with the elements of the world that we associate with one particular person in that world, even though all the other people and everything else in that world is also created by and in our mind.

 When we are awake, we do the same, and we are convinced that doing so makes sense, equally convinced as when in an ordinary, non-lucid dream.  Now what do we make of this?


Physics offers us a picture of an insentient world of atoms (or quarks and gluons, or molecules; you can pick your entry level of analysis).  These building blocks are taken to be not alive and not sentient.  Life is considered to arise as a latecomer, an emergent property, under the right conditions, similar to the way wetness arises from a large number of water molecules, even though no single H2O molecule can be called wet.  And consciousness, too, is considered by most scientists to be an emergent property of the interplay of neurons and other components in our brains.

 Cognitive scientists, starting from that generally accepted reductionistic picture, face a deep conundrum.  The slippery properties of a bunch of water molecules can be traced back, through precise calculations, to the interactions of molecules that are in itself not wet.  In general, a house is a different thing from a bunch of bricks.  No single brick can give shelter, yet a house can.  But there too, we can precisely trace the way that of bricks and tiles are put together to make walls and roofs, and thereby provide shelter.  But what about the brain?


We don't know yet how to trace the complex structure and dynamic processes that make up a living brain exhibiting consciousness.  In due time we are likely to find ways to trace the emergence of forms of intelligence from a deeper understanding of the pathways of information flow in a brain. But there is no guarantee that whatever we find can 'explain' the emergence of first-person consciousness, as opposed to third-person information processing.

The main two examples we have of an experience of living in a world, are dreaming and waking.  In the case of a dream, after waking up, we know that our inference of living in a world as independent actors is wrong: our dream body and dream mind are not doing the dreaming, as carriers of consciousness.  Rather, this role is played by a form of consciousness, residing fully outside of the dream world.  In other words, the dream world is in some sense contained in consciousness, rather than the other way around.

 In the case of waking experience, it is possible in principle that our whole world is similarly created by a different world, complex enough to produce our whole known world as a kind of virtual reality; the image of a computer simulation is sometimes used, and taken with some degree of seriousness by at least some physicists -- after all, physicists have traditionally taken more liberty than most scientists in coming up with wild ideas.

 If we instead follow a more sober path of analysis, what do we find?  While awake, we are aware of being situated as a self in a world that is mostly other.  We are surrounded by other people, animals, plants, non-living things, that together populate a whole Universe.  This 'being aware' we consider, upon reflection, to be the content of conscious experience, and that experience in turn we assign as something the self owns.  We talk about 'my' experience, 'my' consciousness.

the world we experience is a form of induced hallucination

However, when we take that sober story, whether in an everyday sense or a specific scientific sense, in both cases we have to conclude that what we experience is a form of induced hallucination.  Even if the world is truly objectively 'out there', what we experience is given within our experience, similar to the way a world appearing within our dreaming experience.  The main difference is that the hallucination called dreaming is fed completely by memories and habits of our mind, without corresponding to an external world.  And the hallucination called 'being awake' has a very precise correspondence with the structure of at least part of the real world we live in.

This correspondence is only partial, since we can see only part of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, and it is an incredible accomplishment of science and technology that in the last hundred years or so we have learned to detect more and more aspects of the natural world to which our senses have no access; gravitational waves are the latest trophy.


Even so, no matter how much we are convinced that of course the world around us is real (even if we might be hard pressed to explain exactly what we meant with the word real), still, we have to admit that the world we experience is constructed. It is constructed on so many levels: from the physical light that hits our eyes, to the chemical processes in which cones and rods are activated in our retina, to the complex biological processing going on in our brains, to images that form in our mind, to the cultural processing that leads us to identify those images through concepts and words and ideas embedded in an astonishingly complex weave of natural, biological, cultural, and more and more also technological factors that all play a role.

So in the end, the world we are aware of is constructed, produced in a similar way that hallucinations are, but based on sense impressions; and we are also aware of a deeply held belief of the reality of a world outside our awareness that gives rise to the world in our awareness in a (mostly) reliable and (reasonably) accurate way. This much every scientist can agree on.  And most scientists then draw the conclusion that our deeply held beliefs are warranted.


The conclusion is inescapable: on an empirical level, that is, based on experience, it is ultimately not correct to talk about "the stories we tell".  Rather the 'we' that we identify with, the 'self' that each of us encounters as the seeming owner in charge and in possession of all that we think and feel and act upon, that `we' is being told by stories, as a content of those stories.

 According to modern science, those stories can be considered as emergent properties from a complex system of structures and processes in our brains.

 Older traditions, quite different ways of knowing, posit a God, or a multitude of gods, or forces in Nature, or a Principle like the Tao, or an open form of Emptiness as the source of the stories that create the we that we sense we are.

 What unifies pre-scientific and scientific explanations is that in both cases, we cannot escape the fact that we have to overturn the notion of "the stories we tell", and replace that notion by "the we that stories tell."

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.