"Waking Life", Reality, Cause-and-Effect, And Other

Posted by Bill Miller on Jun 1, 2016
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At the Wednesdays Awakin Circle last week, the reading topic contrasted the reality of immediate experience versus the mental constructions about the same, past and future, that can get us into trouble.

During the share, Nipun mentioned a 2001 film "Waking Life" - a collection of many brief vignettes that offer a range of philosophical observations about life, consciousness, and existence. Nipun referred to one segment which suggested that our experience of "waking life", were it to be an internally-consistent dream, might leave us unable to tell whether or not we were actually awake. Afterward, I recalled that there actually *was* a test for this suggested in the film: if you are in a room and attempt to turn the lights off using the light-switch, but the lights stay on, then you are in a dream. (I think I've actually had that dream!)

After seeing the film years ago, I'd kind of dismissed it as bunch of pseudo-profound non-sequiturs (a.k.a. "crap"). But in thinking further about the above conversation, perhaps I missed the deeper point.

One way of thinking about actual waking life (not the film) is as a collection of chains of cause-and-effect. Virtually everything we do and experience has a "cause", a stimulus, an initiating set of conditions, and then either by nature or by choice, some sort of consequence follows. You turn on the tap, and water flows down into the glass. Life is stable and manageable because the effects can pretty much always be counted upon to result from the causes.

The point of the above light-switch example (and probably the film in general) is that in the dream state, the normal chains of cause-and-effect are broken - or may not even apply. A fall off a building might not be fatal. Pigs might fly. A familiar journey may shift and become unfamiliar. Story narratives might change chaotically. The various "senseless" elements of the film may simply be intended to illustrate the same.

This lack of control and predictability often makes dreams disturbing, whereas the opposite enables waking "reality" to be comforting and secure. However, phenomenologists point out that we never actually have access to reality in the raw. Everything we perceive and experiences comes as our sense organs are stimulated by raw reality, then our brains interpret that neurological data in a comprehensible form. (For example, there is no 'color' in the universe, only various wavelengths of energy that our brain interprets as "green" or "blue".) Are our senses giving us a true and complete picture? If everyone has a reliable common experience, would we know? And would it even matter?

The goal of science is essentially to reduce experience down to an objective external reality that is independent of any observer. Much of the world seems to cooperate with this, yet around the edges, bizarre quantum effects, dark matter and energy, and the non-quantifiable aspects of life might lead the more intellectually "adventurous" to wonder if some of the aspects even of physical experience may not also be real by consensus.

Is there any practical point to such considerations? I used to have a housemate who was fond of recommending "don't believe your beliefs". Beliefs are usually helpful and convenient guides toward managing one's life. Yet sometimes, they can also become barriers that blind us to new understanding and new opportunities.

Perhaps it is wise to occasionally "turn the light-switch off" on your beliefs, and see if they stay "on" (i.e. consider whether long-held beliefs continue to match up with current experience. Or are you to some extent living in a dream?)


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Comments (2)

  • Richard Whittaker wrote ...

    Thanks, Bill. ... and I'm afraid the answer is yes, but maybe the pronoun is "we" as in "are we..."

  • Bill Miller wrote ...

    Ah, agreed!