The Physical World and the Human Mind

By Fernando Caracena ©2018

From birth, a person’s consciousness emerges as mind experiences the physical world through the senses of a body. Initially the mind has no preconceived thoughts, but becomes self aware through interactions with the physical world. Yet the ability to have conscious thoughts depends on having innate structures of the mind, which are subconscious and remote from ordinary analysis. According to Noam Chomsky, the ability to learn and use language, for example, is an innate capability of the human mind. In Plato’s cave analogy, rational human beings looking at shadows projected on the walls of a cave developed notions of reality, based on those shadows. In doing so, they missed all the color and beauty of the three dimensional world of our experience.

In the Allegory of Cave from the Republic, Plato took it for granted that those interpreting reality through shadows already had a rational faculty that was capable of making sense of the world of the shadows. After being temporarily confused when presented with the three-dimensional world that originated the shadows, they were able to readjust their sense of reality and understand how the shadows emerged from this world. The implication of Plato’s cave analogy is that our own three-dimensional world could also be some form of dumbed-down richer world waiting to be experienced through the human mind itself.

The Swiss developmental psychologist JeanPiaget has shown us how our conscious minds develop in stages vis-à-vis the physical world. In his theory, "[Piaget] concluded that children were not less intelligent than adults, they simply think differently. Albert Einstein called Piaget's discovery "so simple only a genius could have thought of it." Einstein wrote,

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.

Further thoughts, suggest that Einstein was addressing the same set of ideas that are presented above,

A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its area of applicability.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.

The great thinkers in various branches of human thought appear to agree that we gain a new freedom of spirit if we are able to raise our consciousness above the mundane, physical world and its illusions. The goal is to increase our freedom through increased understanding, and through that understanding, increase the quality of our living.


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