The strangest possibility: The physical world may be exactly what it seems to be

Is the physical world really made of abstract, mathematically-defined atoms?
Mystery has to do with deeper truths hiding behind mere appearances. What we see and hear is just appearance; the physical world, as it is in itself, consists of unexpected and mind-boggling truths—or so we imagine. Yet, perhaps the greatest of all mysteries is hiding in plain sight, right under our noses. Indeed, if we ponder our situation carefully, we come to the startling realization that the strangest possibility of all is this: the physical world may be exactly what it seems to be. This possibility, if true, would force us to part with our dearest narratives about the nature of reality.

According to the mainstream story, the physical world consists of particles and force fields defined in purely mathematical terms. These particles and force fields have only abstract, quantitative properties such as mass, charge, momentum, position in spacetime, spin, etc. But they entirely lack intrinsic qualities: the physical world out there, in and of itself, has no smell, tone, taste, color or texture. Instead, these qualities are supposedly generated by our brain, inside our skull. The red you see exists solely inside your head; out there there are only electromagnetic fields with a certain—quantifiable—frequency of vibration. The texture you feel exists only inside your head; out there there are only geometric arrangements of molecules. That we attribute color and texture to things out there is merely a projection, a psychological artifact of our cognitive apparatus. All the qualities you perceive around you right now are—or so the story goes—inside your head. Your real skull is beyond everything you perceive, encapsulating your whole experiential world like an invisible eggshell beyond the horizon. This—absurd as it may sound when rendered explicit—is what is supposed to be going on.

What motivates such a counterintuitive story? The main reason is that we all seem to inhabit the same world. If you were sitting next to me right now, we would both describe my living room in a mutually consistent manner. Yet my perception of the room would be different from yours in the details, given our slightly different perspectives within it. There thus appears to be a non-mental environment outside our respective perceptual fields, which is occupied by both of us and modulates our experience of the room. This environment is supposedly the physical world out there.

There are other reasons. For instance, although we can change the world of our imagination by a direct act of volition—I can imagine a pink elephant in my living room right now, if I wish… Oops, just did it—the same is not the case when it comes to the physical world. Unlike the images in our mind, the physical world has an autonomy that seems to place it outside our mind. Ergo, it must have no qualities, for the latter are essentially mental. Moreover, there are undeniable correlations between our inner experiences and measurable patterns of neural activity in our brain. This suggests to some that these experiences are somehow—nobody understands how, not even in principle—generated by our brain.

But the question is: Is there an alternative narrative that honors our intuition that the physical world—concrete physicality itself, as we normally understand it—consists of qualities of experience, such as color and texture? That what is physical is the touch I feel in my hands, the smell I feel in my nose and the taste I feel in my tongue, as opposed to abstract mathematical relationships? Can this narrative also make sense of the facts that we all seem to inhabit the same environment, that we can’t change it through a direct act of volition, and that patterns of brain activity do accompany experience? The answer is yes, as I have extensively and painstakingly elaborated in my book, The Idea of the World.

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In such a short essay, it is impossible to go into the argument in any depth. But in very general terms, the story goes like this: the physical world is exactly what it seems to be, in the sense that it consists solely of the concrete qualities we experience as physicality—namely, the colors we see, the smells we feel, etc. Therefore, the physical world exists entirely within our mind… But not within our head! Our body is itself part of the physical world, so it is our body that is in our mind, not the other way around.

Does this mean that all reality is our private dream? That would follow only if the physical world were all there is. But we know that, in addition to the qualities of perception—that is, color, taste, smell, etc.—there are other mental categories, such as thoughts and feelings. So even if all perceptions are fundamentally private, we may still be immersed in a shared environment constituted by transpersonal thoughts and feelings.

In other words, the physical world is private, all right, but there is still a non-physical world of transpersonal thoughts and feelings—to which we have no direct access—surrounding us and which we all inhabit. What we experience as our perceptions of the world ‘out there’ is merely the outer appearance of these transpersonal thoughts and feelings; just as our brain and its neural activity is the outer appearance of our own private experiences. The whole physical universe is akin to a brain scan image of the mental activity of a mind at large, in which we are immersed.

So there is indeed a great mystery behind the appearances: What are these transpersonal thoughts and feelings that present themselves to us as the physical world? Although the latter is nothing more than our perceptual experiences—which we merely describe by means of abstract mathematical relationships—it points to something non-physical, ineffable, concurrently immanent and transcendent. While being exactly what it seems to be, the physical world still hints at something beyond itself. Therein lies the mystery.