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by Jeffrey Sax
June 13, 2002
The following is a quick list of some assumptions that seem to be accepted
almost without question in the scientific community, some to varying degrees.
What if some of them were unnecessary?
1. Our brains are the source of our subjective experience.
This is accepted either completely, or to a very high degree. Even those who
claim an idealist "it's all in the mind" position find it hard to avoid it,
thereby creating self-referential arguments. Is it possible that our brains are
more like a storage and routing device than a command center? What if most of
our thoughts came from the 'outside'? The brain can store certain responses
locally for efficiency reasons, but it does not generate any significant new
information by itself.
The second one is related:
2. Dreams are a product of our brains.
How is it that dreams often contain more surprises than our daily lives? The
part of the brain that creates the plot would have to be different from the
part that experiences it. Why are dreams so easy to forget? If dreams are not a
product of our brains, then where do they come from?
3. We all perceive the same objective physical world.
This is a natural assumption if our wildly varying subjective experiences are,
in fact, products of this same physical world. Give up #1, however, and this
conclusion is much less obvious. There are theories of many parallel universes
existing side-by-side. But people who communicate with each other are still
assumed to be living in the same universe.
This is such an obvious looking assumption that we rarely look for evidence. But
is there really any evidence that this is so? What about conflicting reports
from witnesses? Did the shock shake up their memory, or did they truly
experience different events? If #1 doesn't hold, then how much of our
subjective experience is shared?
Obviously there must be some shared basis for our experience. Otherwise it would
be impossible for us to communicate. The question is whether this basis extends
to our entire physical world, including those parts we do not experience
4. This thing called Time
This is really the idea that the physical world evolves linearly in measurable
steps. Some believe that the universe is one giant calculation, where every
passing moment coincides with a new step in the calculation. There are some who
make a good case for retro-causal effects (Huw Price is an example). But there,
too, time flows in a linear fashion from beginning to end, or end to beginning.
What if every moment stood on its own, and our experience of time is primarily
subjective? The environment we live in, and the events in it, would be of our
own choosing, rather than dictated by physical laws or the unpredictable
actions of others.
5. There is only One Ultimate Truth
Religious experiences of angels and other non-physical beings are often
dismissed as pure fantasy. However, if most of our thoughts live outside of the
physical world, then it becomes a lot harder to dismiss these claims.
Is it possible that, just as much of our physical experience must have a common
basis, there is some common basis for religious or other mythology? And where
do you draw the line? Do we all have to agree on the laws of physics, or do we
have some freedom there, too?