Of course the world’s real, you say. Realness is the solidness of things. But most real things aren’t solid. Air for instance. Sound. Vision. And what about thought? Ok, so realness doesn’t necessarily mean solid. Maybe it means physical, as in things made from atoms or the particles inside atoms? Everything we know about is made from those, isn’t it? Air, sound, vision, all of our physical sensations and experiences? No. In fact everything we know about is made from something that isn’t physical: Our consciousness. Everything that we are, and even who we are – it’s all made from our consciousness.
As consciousness, we’re not physical beings. Conscious awareness is the one and only thing we know about that isn’t physical, and isn’t made from atoms or their component particles. Conscious thought has no texture, dimensions, weight or etc. We can’t measure it by the same means we can measure anything else. Consciousness is something totally different from the physical world. Even more interesting, if we had no consciousness, nothing else would exist for us, because we wouldn’t know about anything, real or otherwise, in a conscious sense. And not knowing about anything in a conscious sense, is the same as not knowing about anything period.
So is the world real? Is anything real? What does real mean? First off, why do we think physical things are real? There are two reasons: They have ‘real’ qualities. And we experience those qualities consciously. But there’s a third component to realness for us: We know that we have a conscious experience of the qualities of real things.
Think of yourself as three people in one. There’s your physical self (the body that you’re consciously aware of). Then there’s the self in your mind who’s consciously aware of that physical body (and, as it happens, is also conscious of being surrounded by other physical things). And thirdly there’s your more astute mental self who recognizes that you’re conscious. (Not just of physical things, but of non-physical ideas as well.) You might say this third, smarter self is conscious of being conscious. This third self is the most important part of you, but it tends to forget it’s there, being so busy with life’s physical concerns. So you might have to take a mental step back to become aware of ‘knowing that you know’.
Note: It’s not possible to know that you know that you know, and so on; once your third self knows that you know, anything else is just part of knowing that you know.
Things can have some consciousness without knowing they do. Those two conscious versions of you I mentioned are actually just two of many evolutionary levels of consciousness in each of us, all interacting in such complex ways it would be impossible to separate them. While your higher level conscious self is aware of these ideas as you read this, and knows it’s conscious of them, the lower levels of your consciousness don’t even know they’re conscious. Many organisms with some consciousness don’t know they have it. Think of a cow. It’s low-level conscious of physical things, but I doubt that it’s aware of being conscious. Even for the most advanced non-human organisms – like apes and dolphins – being conscious is probably little more than an interesting extension of the physical sensations they experience. Without the crucial ability to know that you know, you wouldn’t be ‘reading’ or actually ‘thinking’. You’d lack the necessary dimensions of mind to understand anything in the special way that defines human beings. You’d be no different than most other animals.
Consciousness is an iceberg. There’s a lot more to your mind than you’re consciously aware of. Besides the stuff you’re aware of right now, there’s also the deeper stuff that you access on unconscious levels of yourself. (The information in your memory that you’re unaware of until you retrieve it.) Because that’s happening constantly, your unconscious levels are as much a part of your moment to moment self as your everyday thoughts and feelings. But let’s get back to the interesting stuff.
Would the physical world still be real if we were not conscious? Everything in our personal world is made from conscious experiences. So without consciousness there’d be no ‘we’; there’d only be the physical world of atoms. What you think of as your physical self is made entirely from atoms; it didn’t just come from that world of atoms – it was never anything more than part of it. Atoms aren’t conscious. So your physical self, brain included, was never consciously aware of anything. So the real question is: Can the world be real for physical things that have no consciousness? In other words:
Does our consciousness brings the physical world into existence? Yes. By telling us that physical things exist, our conscious perception brings the physical world into existence for each of us. And yes, the physical world would still exist for everyone else’s consciousness if our personal consciousness didn’t exist. But would the physical world exist on its own account if nobody’s consciousness existed to perceive it? And if it did exist, what would it look, sound or feel like without consciousness to see, hear or feel it?
That depends on whose consciousness we’re talking about. As human beings, we know the physical world only from our personal conscious viewpoint. But other organisms, conscious or not, have their own personal view of the world, and most of them perceive it in ways that would be alien to us. (An extraterrestrial consciousness might perceive physicality in even more alien ways.) Consciousness (such as it is in other creatures) is tailored by evolution into a myriad shapes and sizes by all manner of different nervous system, brains, bodies and environments.
What’s real for other organisms? As your human self, your conscious interpretation of the physical world is a series of purely conscious ideas. It’s our human degree of consciousness that’s actually responsible for the qualities of our physical experiences. But if you were an organism with a negligible amount of consciousness or none at all, your physical experiences wouldn’t be ‘experiences’, they’d be straight-forward biomechanical causes and effects governed by electrochemical processes, as they are for the simplest organisms.
You can’t imagine being less conscious of reality. But maybe you can imagine gradually reverting through earlier evolutionary levels, and along the way your conscious perception of the physical world making less and less sense – in human terms – as your higher level brain functions (and thus your human knowledge and understanding) diminished. Instead of what you know now as conscious awareness, you’d perceive the physical world as fewer and simpler experiences. Eventually the last vestiges of consciousness would disappear, replaced by an instinctive awareness of physical sensations, some originating internally, others externally.