From the moment a person is born, he becomes subject to the steady indoctrination of the society. Part of this indoctrination, possibly the most persuasive, holds that reality is what the hands can touch and the eyes can see. This understanding, which is quite influential in the majority of the society, is carried without question from one generation to another.
But without being subjected to any indoctrination, a moment of objective thought would make one realize an astonishing fact:
Everything we confront from the moment we come into existence—human beings, animals, flowers, their colors, odors, fruits, tastes of fruits, planets, stars, mountains, stones, buildings, space—are perceptions presented to us by our five senses. To further clarify this, it will help to examine the senses, the agents that provide us with information about the exterior world.
All of man's sensory faculties—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch—function in the same way. Stimuli (lights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures) from objects in the external world are carried through nerves to the sensory centers in the brain. All these stimuli that reach the brain consist of electric signals. For example, during the process of vision, light rays (or photons) radiating from sources in the exterior world reach the retina at the back of the eye and, through a series of processes, are transformed into electric signals. These signals are transferred along nerves to the brain's vision center. There, a colorful, bright and three-dimensional world is perceived within the space of a few cubic centimeters.
The same system applies to other senses as well. Cells on the surface of the tongue transform chemical traces into electric signals that become tastes. Odors are transformed into electric signals by cells in the epithelium of the nose. Special sensors lodged beneath the skin transform impulses of touch (such as the sensations of hardness or softness) into electric signals, and a special mechanism in the ear does the same with sound. All these signals are sent to appropriate centers in the brain, where they are perceived.
To clarify the point, assume that you're drinking a glass of lemonade. The hard, cool surface of the glass you're holding is transformed into electric signals by special receptors under your skin and sent to the brain. Simultaneously, the smell of the lemonade, its taste, and yellowish color all become signals that reach the brain. Likewise, the clink you hear when the glass touches the table is perceived by the ear and transmitted to the brain as an electric signal. All these perceptions are interpreted in the brain's relevant centers, which work harmoniously with one another. As a cumulative result of these impulses, you sense that you are drinking a glass of lemonade.
Concerning this important fact, consider the thoughts of B. Russell and L. J. J. Wittgenstein, two famous philosophers:
For instance, whether a lemon truly exists or not and how it came to exist cannot be questioned and investigated. A lemon consists merely of a taste sensed by the tongue, an odor sensed by the nose, a color and shape sensed by the eye; and only these features of it can be subject to examination and assessment. Science can never know the physical world.50
In other words, it is impossible for us to reach the physical world. All objects we're in contact with are actually collection of perceptions such as sight, hearing, and touch. Throughout our lives, by processing the data in the sensory centers, our brain confronts not the "originals" of the matter existing outside us, but rather copies inside our brain. At this point, we are misled to assume that these copies are instances of real matter outside us.
This obvious fact has been proven by science today. Any scientist would tell you how this system works, and that the world we live in is really an aggregate of perceptions formed in our brains. The English physicist John Gribbin states that our senses are an interpretation of stimulations coming from the external world—as if there were a tree in the garden. He goes on to say that our brain perceives the stimulations that are filtered through our senses, and that the tree is only a stimulation. So, he then asks, which tree is real? The one formed by our senses, or the tree in the garden?51
No doubt, this reality requires profound reflection. As a result of these physical facts, we come to the following indisputable conclusion: Everything we see, touch, hear, and call "matter," "the world" or "the universe" is nothing more than electrical signals interpreted in our brain. We can never reach the original of the matter outside our brain. We merely taste, hear and see an image of the external world formed in our brain.
In fact, someone eating an apple confronts not the actual fruit, but its perceptions in the brain. What that person considers to be an apple actually consists of his brain's perception of the electrical information concerning the fruit's shape, taste, smell, and texture. If the optic nerve to the brain were suddenly severed, the image of the fruit would instantly disappear. Any disconnection in the olfactory nerve traveling from receptors in the nose to the brain would interrupt the sense of smell completely. Simply put, that apple is nothing but the interpretation of electrical signals by the brain.
Also consider the sense of distance. The empty space between you and this page is only a sense of emptiness formed in your brain. Objects that appear distant in your view also exist in the brain. For instance, someone watching the stars at night assumes that they are millions of light-years away, yet the stars are within himself, in his vision center. While you read these lines, actually you are not inside the room you assume you're in; on the contrary, the room is inside you. Perceiving your body makes you think that you're inside it. However, your body, too, is a set of images formed inside your brain.
Millions of Colors in a Pitch-Black Location
Considering this subject in greater detail reveals some even more extraordinary truths. Our sense centers are located in the brain, a three-pound piece of tissue. And this organ is protected inside an array of bones called the skull, which neither light, nor sound, nor odors can penetrate. The inside of the skull is a dark, silent place where all smells are absent.
But in this place of complete darkness occur millions of color shades and sound tones, as well countless different tastes and smells. So how does this happen?
What makes you perceive light in a location without light, odors in a place without smell, sounds in total silence and the objects of all other senses? Who created all of this for you?
In every moment of your life, a variety of miracles take place. As mentioned earlier, anything your senses can detect in this room you're in, are sent as electrical signals to your brain, where they then combine. Your brain interprets them as a view of a room. Put another way, while you assume that you are sitting in this room, that room is actually inside you, in your brain. The "place" where the room is assembled and perceived is small, dark, and soundless. And yet a whole room or a whole landscape, regardless of its size, can fit into it. Both a narrow closet and a wide vista of the sea are perceived in the exact same place.
Our brains interpret and attribute meaning to the signals relating to the "external world." As an example, consider the sense of hearing. It's our brain that in fact interprets and transforms the sound waves into a symphony. That is to say, music is yet another perception created by our brain. In the same manner, when we perceive colors, what reaches our eyes is merely light of different wavelengths. Again, it's our brain that transforms these signals into colors. There are no colors in the "external world"; neither is an apple red, nor the sky blue, nor the leaves green. They appear as they do simply because we perceive them to be so.
Even a slight defect in the eye's retina can cause color blindness. Some sufferers perceive blue and green as the same, some red as blue. At this point, it does not matter whether or not the outside object is colored.
The prominent thinker George Berkeley also addresses this fact:
In conclusion, the reason we see objects in colors is not because they are actually colored or have a material existence in the outer world. The truth, rather, is that the qualities we ascribe to objects are all inside us.
And this, perhaps, is a truth you have never considered before.
Mankind's Limited Knowledge
One implication of the facts described so far is that actually, man's knowledge of the external world is exceedingly limited.
That knowledge is limited to our five senses, and there is no proof that the world we perceive by means of those senses is identical to the "real" world.
It may, therefore, be very different from what we perceive. There may be a great many dimensions and other beings of which we remain unaware. Even if we reach the furthermost extremities of the universe, our knowledge will always remain limited.
Almighty God, the Creator of all, has complete and flawless knowledge of all beings who, having been created by God, can possess only the knowledge that He allows them. This fact is related in the Qur'an thus:
God, there is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Sustaining. He is not subject to drowsiness or sleep. Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to Him. Who can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them but they cannot grasp any of His knowledge save what He wills. His Footstool encompasses the heavens and the Earth and their preservation does not tire Him. He is the Most High, the Magnificent. (Surat al-Baqara, 255)
Who Is the Perceiver?
In order to perceive, no external world is necessary. Given the right kind of stimulation to the brain, sensations of touch, sight, and sounds, can be recreated in the brain. The best example of this process is dreams.
RüDuring dreams, your body typically remains still and motionless in a dark and quiet bedroom, and your eyes remain shut. Neither light nor sound nor any other stimuli from the exterior world is reaching your brain for it to perceive. Yet in your dreams, you still perceive experiences very similar to real life. In your dreams you also get up and go to work, or go on vacation and enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Furthermore, in dreams you never feel doubts about the reality of what you experience. Only after you wake up you realize your experiences were only dreams. You not only experience such feelings as fear, anxiety, joy and sadness but also see different images, hear sounds and feel matter. Yet there is no physical source producing these sensations and perceptions; you lie motionless inside a dark and quiet room.
René Descartes, the renowned philosopher, offered the following reasoning on this surprising truth about dreams:
In my dreams I see that I do various things, I go to many places; when I wake up, however, I see that I have not done anything or gone anywhere and that I lie peacefully in my bed. Who can guarantee to me that I do not also dream at the present time, further, that my whole life is not a dream?53
We are therefore looking at a manifest truth: There is no justification for our claiming that we establish direct contact with the original of the world that we claim to exist and to be living in.
Is Our Brain Distinct from the Outside World?
If everything we know as the outside world is only perceptions produced internally, what about the brain which we think does the seeing and hearing? Isn't it composed of atoms and molecules like everything else? The brain, too, is a piece of tissue that we perceive through our senses. This being so, what is it, if not the brain, that perceives everything—that sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes?
At this point, we face the obvious fact: that man, a being of consciousness who can see, feel, think and exercise reason, is much more than a mere assemblage of atoms and molecules. What defines a human being is the "soul" granted to him by God. Otherwise, it would be highly unreasonable to attribute his consciousness and other faculties to a three-pound piece of flesh:
He Who has created all things in the best possible way. He commenced the creation of man from clay; then produced his seed from an extract of base fluid; then formed him and breathed His Spirit into him and gave you hearing, sight and hearts. What little thanks you show! (Qur'an, 32: 7-9)(Surat as-Sajda,7-9)
The Being Nearest to Us is God
Since a human being is not merely a lump of matter but a "soul," then who makes that soul feel the sum of perceptions which we call the external world? Who continues to create all these perceptions, ceaselessly?
The answer is obvious. God, Who breathed into man His spirit, is the Creator of all things. He is also the real source of all perceptions. The existence of anything is possible only through God's creation. God informs us that He creates continuously and that whenever He stops creating, everything will disappear:
God keeps a firm hold on the heavens and the Earth, preventing them from vanishing away. And if they vanished no one could then keep hold of them. Certainly He is Most Forbearing, Ever-Forgiving. (Surah Fatir, 41)
This verse is describing how the material universe is maintained under the might of God. God created the universe, the Earth, mountains, and all living and non-living things, and maintains all these under His power at every moment. God manifests His name al-Khaliq in this material universe. God is al-Khaliq, in other words, the Creator of all things, the Creator from nothing. This shows that there is a material universe, outside our brains, consisting of entities created by God. However, as a miracle and manifestation of the superior nature of His creation and His omniscience, God shows us this material universe in the form of an "illusion," "shadow," or "image." As a consequence of the perfection in His creation, human beings can never reach the world outside their brains. Only God knows this real material universe.
Another interpretation of the above verse is that God constantly maintains the images of the material universe that people see. (God knows best.) If God wished not to show us the image of the world in our minds, the entire universe would disappear for us, and we could never again make contact with it.
Faced with such facts, one must conclude that the only absolute being is God, Who encompasses everything in the heavens and the Earth:
What! Are they in doubt about the meeting with their Lord? What! Does He not encompass all things! (Surat al-Jathiyya, 54)
Both East and West belong to God, so wherever you turn, the Face of God is there. God is All-Encompassing, All-Knowing. (Surat Al-Baqara, 115)
What is in the heavens and in the Earth belongs to God. God encompasses all things. (Surat an-Nisa', 126)
When We said to you, "Surely your Lord encompasses the people with His knowledge"… (Surat Al-Isra', 60)
… His Footstool encompasses the heavens and the Earth and their preservation does not tire Him. He is the Most High, the Magnificent.(Surat Al-Baqara, 255)
God's knowledge and ability surrounds us from the front and back, from right and left—that is to say, He encompasses us completely. He observes us everywhere, at every moment. He holds absolute control over us, from inside and outside. He, the Owner of infinite might, is closer to us than our own jugular veins.
50. Orhan Hancerlioglu, Dusunce Tarihi (The History of Thought), (Istanbul: Remzi Bookstore, 6th edition, 1995) p. 447.
51. John Gribbin, In the Search of the Big Bang; Taﬂk›n Tuna, Uzay›n Otesi (Far Beyond the Universe), p. 194
52. Treaties Concerning the Principle of Human Knowledge, 1710, Works of George Berkeley, vol.1, ed. A. Fraser, Oxford, 1871
53. Macit Gökberk, Felsefe Tarihi (History of Philosophy), p. 263