As I noted in a previous post about Lisa Feldman Barrett's book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, I'm enjoying the book more now that I'm past the introductory chapters.
One reason is that Barrett doesn't just describe how emotions are made. She embeds that description in larger issues. For example, her "Emotions As Social Reality" chapter starts off with the classic question, If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present to hear it, does it make a sound?
Even though I should know better, when I ponder this question my first intuitive reaction is to visualize a big tree falling in a forest with no one around, and it sure does make a sound.
But that's my imagination talking, not reality. Meaning, I forget that the question says no one is present to hear it, and that includes me -- even though I'm just visualizing the tree falling, not experiencing it in physical reality.
It's easy to make this sort of mistake. After all, for each of us, the only way we know anything about the world and our surrounding universe is through the human brain. So for us, reality basically is synonymous with "how we experience reality."
This is true even on the cosmic level, though scientists likely are less prone to this thinking error.
I wonder, how would the universe appear if there was no consciousness in it? I wrote about this back in 2007 in Consider a cosmos with no consciousness.
I try to imagine a cosmos with no consciousness. No human awareness. No animal awareness. No plant awareness. No alien life form awareness. No angelic awareness. No awareness of any kind. None at all.
(Note: I consider “consciousness” and “awareness” to be terms pointing to the same mysterious phenomenon, as this Wikipedia article implies).
Now, this is where the thought experiment should end, because it’s already failed. For I’m aware. And awareness, or consciousness, obviously can’t envision a cosmos with no awareness, for the same reason I can’t picture what the world would be like without me in it.
Nevertheless, I keep forging ahead because the experiment is so intriguing, ignoring the impassible existential abyss that’s stopped me in my tracks.
I consider a universe with no life, no awareness, no sentience. It’s easy to do. I think: “What a marvelously simple thought experiment!” The universe appears to me just as it does now, planets, stars and galaxies filling the fabric of space, yet with nobody conscious of it.
Obvious questions then crash the party of my thought experiment: Who is doing the considering of this cosmos with no consciousness? From what perspective is this entity contemplating the universe?
It dawns on me that this entity, namely me, is equipped with eyes that translate a certain wavelength of electro-magnetic radiation into perceptions of which I’m aware. Photographs of distant galaxies, for example, from which I derive some of the raw imaginative material for my thought experiment.
So my envisioning of the cosmos as illuminated by light is terribly anthropomorphic, a fact I’m reminded of every time I walk the dog and watch her spending enthralled minutes sniffing a bush that my smell-impaired brain considers to be nothing special.
So not surprisingly, Barrett's answer is:
A falling tree itself makes no sound. Its descent merely creates vibrations in the air and the ground. These vibrations become sound only if something special is present to receive and translate them: say, an ear connected to a brain...Even after the brain receives these electrical signals, its task is not complete. The wave must still be interpreted as the sound of a toppling tree. For this, the brain needs the concept of "Tree" and what trees can do, such as fall in a forest.
A tree is indisputably real, though. So is a forest. And so is the cosmos, or universe. While these things appear the way they do to us only because of how human consciousness operates, there's little or no doubt that something would be there whether or not humans or indeed any other form of awareness is.
This is similar to how Barrett views human emotions.
A third and final riddle is, "Are emotions real?" You might think this question is ridiculous, a classic example of academic indulgence. Of course emotions are real. Think about the last time you were thrilled or sad or furious. These were clearly real feelings.
But in fact, this third riddle is like the falling tree and the red apple: a dilemma about what exists in the world versus in the human brain. The riddle forces us to confront our assumptions about the nature of reality and our role in creating it. But here, the answer is a bit more complex, because it depends on what we mean by "real."
Barrett explains that some things fall in a perceiver-independent category, such as subatomic particles. If there were no humans, there would still be subatomic particles. (Such was the case for virtually every moment of the universe's 13.7 billion year existence, until very recently.)
She goes on to say that "Emotions are real, but real in the same manner of the sound of a tree falling, the experience of red, and the distinctions between flowers and weeds. They are all constructed in the mind of a perceiver."
So these are examples of social reality. Human civilization, Barrett says, is literally built with social reality. Money, to offer another example, only has value because we human give it value. Otherwise money is just a piece of paper or electronic digits.
Yet this doesn't make money less important to humans (though it is utterly meaningless to our dog and other animals, or to a person who lacked the concept of "money").
Likewise, I see the notion of God as akin to that of money. It has immense value to people who imbibe the concept of "God" with meaning. But for those of us who don't embrace that concept, "God" is just a word that, like "money," only has meaning to those who create that meaning in their own mind.
Unlike a tree, there's no evidence that God exists outside of the human mind. Thus God has even less significance that a tree falling in a forest with no one present to hear it, since that tree possesses an independent reality while God doesn't.