It is a question that the philosophers love and dread at the same time. Since human beings became intelligent, the thought that the world may not be what it seems has dominated them. We have learned that our senses control how we perceive the world, but as the individuals vary, so do the means of perception. A different being or a distinct vantage point makes the same object look different to the mind. Then, there are illusions and dreams which make us question the premise of present reality. Is reality a dream from which we have to wake, or is it an illusion that will vanish under a new light? Finally, we ask, “Are we real?”
Especially when human beings have become advanced enough to know the building blocks of matter, this question has sprouted roots in the mainstream thought of the people. What seems to be solid is only a cluster of atoms joined by an invisible bond, and a beautiful scene is just a chemical reaction in our brains. We conclude that our consciousness must only be imaginary, too. While humans struggle to find the objective truth about the universe, they cannot know if what they observe is a fact, or a possibility created by perception.
The old question of ‘are we real?’
Uncountable texts throughout time have mentioned this doubt in various ways. While the Vedic texts say that the universe is Maya or an illusion, several philosophers have argued about the world being a dream. Especially with computers, modern scientists propose the possibility of us being simulated by a higher being. The subject of imagination has changed as per the popular belief of a generation, but the concept has always been stable.
So, how do we know the truth? Is it even knowable, and if it is, which theory is accurate? Before we can discuss these questions, we must understand why we feel the urge to answer these questions because the answer to the question, “Are we real?” is irrelevant. An understanding of the importance of this question in our lives is the answer enough.
The myth of consciousness
Living beings have a property we call consciousness that we cannot comprehend. We know that, because of consciousness, living beings are self-aware. They are perceptive of their environment and reciprocate to stimuli, but it is nothing less than a miracle if we think about it. We have the same atoms, molecules, cells, and organs as any other person, but our consciousness is private to us. It makes us believe that our body is unique. Also, it protects its body from harm and strives for its pleasure. If the body hurts, the consciousness feels pain; it possibly cannot be for another body. It limits its actions selfishly and perceives a range of things only concerning a specific body.
The sense of identity
If we give it a thought, consciousness is not at all difficult to understand. Tricked by our ego, we coin unique words for something that is a universal law. One or more fundamental particles make up the universe. Later, these particles come together to become stable atoms, and each atom behaves as a single entity (unless there is quantum coupling). It does not form bonds keeping in mind other particles, and it does not prioritize others. Anything other than its physical composition does not affect its sense of surroundings. Similarly, when atoms form molecules, the molecules become a single entity, and as the complexity increases, cells, organs, and individuals behave the same.
Humans are capable of thought and imagination. Our intelligence has come to a level where we choose to act based on plans rather than subconscious reactions. Later, we create a language and think in it too. So, our sense of identity becomes awareness (Read this article on what is spiritual awareness.) in our minds. While animals have a sense of curiosity, they are oblivious to the emotion of why. This is the reason no living being other than humans can ask, “Are we real?”
Curse of the human mind
As a result, we question our motives. This capability of asking the unique question of ‘why’ separates us from all other beings, but it also gives birth to a more confused state of mind. We see bodies as the sum of their parts. Finally, we recognize the individuality of objects when they are only a part of the system. This ability to see self in everything gives us a new perspective.
Just like our little imperfect universe, this perspective has a restriction. It becomes a flaw in the long run. Projecting a sense of self onto other things only works one way. We may think we know how other people feel, but we don’t. We have tried to perfect communication to the best of our ability, and we have created words and calculations to describe everything. However, no matter how many words we invent, we still cannot get into an object’s mind and see what it goes through. Especially when we study unrelated things like nonliving matter, it becomes difficult to understand behavior.
So, are we real?
Also, when we ask ‘why’ to such objects, we try to look for a purpose in everything. And because the sense of purpose is a unique quality of life, we fail.
For example, we perceive light as colors, but we also know it as electromagnetic activity and electrical signals in our brains. Another example is, for humans, sight comes from light, whereas for a bat, it comes from ultrasonic sound. While infrared radiation is a sense of temperature for humans, it is a sense of sight for a snake. Finally, we are confused about what seeing is and why it is different in different conditions. We can only imagine if we understood relativity like we understand hunger.
Ultimately, we conclude everything is objectively different from what we perceive. We can’t decide if the world is a perception of our senses or our perception is a projection of the world. Is the universe out there, or is it just a fragment of our imagination and our own relative belief?
In summary, I would love to quote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “One last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure. “Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
If a person is confused about the reality of life, I would like to ask them a question. Do we doubt this philosophy when we are afraid or overwhelmed? Don’t we ask such questions only when we are peacefully wondering about the world, trying to solve something, and working out the meaning of our actions? Finally, isn’t this question only valid when we must figure out our motives? If all we must do is figure out our intent, why are we wasting time asking, “Are we real or not?” We should instead wonder what we should do to help make life purposeful while we are at it.