The Bubble of Simulation: Subjective Experience as a Virtual Environment
by Michael Hoffman
Published in Crash Collusion zine, probably issue 10, pp. 21-22, 1996
When exploring the realms of fringe experiencing, it is helpful to understand that even ordinary experiencing is similar to a remarkably detailed and consistent hallucination of a world. In the loose cognition state of awareness, which occurs in advanced meditation, schizophrenia, and psychedelics, the veil of perception loosens and becomes a visible patchwork or mosaic, showing clearly that the world is only present to awareness in the form of dynamic mental models made of mental constructs. Loose cognition tangibly switches on the philosophizing mode, because the mind is fully confronted with its isolation. Philosophy of Mind, which comes from the West and includes skepticism, is a recent, vital approach to studying how the mind internally represents various types of objects and entities which constitute the world. Philosophy of Mind is about to collide with Transpersonal Psychology, from the East, which is also building up models of our innermost subjectivity and studying how the mind constructs its experienced world and the sense of being a person separate from that world.
Sitting at my desk reading about the philosophy of perception, I consider its strange implications for my apparent perception of myself in the scene of my study. Because this type of scene feels natural and intimately familiar, it is a typical example of how the mind internally recreates or simulates the external world, from simple material objects such as a cup, to more complex objects such as other people, and highly complex systems, such as the minds's own thoughts about the mind.
Holding my coffee cup, I have the consistent impression of solidity and weight, but the feeling of roundness is a convincing illusion constructed entirely within my own mind. This fully compelling illusion that I am directly perceiving the cup itself is due to the perfect consistency of the mental impressions. While it is impossible to determine whether the external cup in fact exists, I can handle the cup to test its consistency within the local, subjective fishbowl of experience, but I cannot prove that there is in fact a cup out there.
I can only perceive the (alleged) external world in the indirect form of my mind's self-created subjective experiencing. As long as the impression of my desk is consistent, the mind draws a shorthand identification of the mental construct of the desk with the alleged desk itself, failing to maintain the subtle distinction between the symbol 'desk' and the hidden (alleged) referent desk. But during a schizophrenic break, the mind's model of the desk loosens and partly disintegrates, warping and rippling. The perfect consistency of the perceptual construct is broken, and like a drastic glitch in a film, the medium of representation becomes exposed and the illusion of direct access to reality is disrupted. The mental construct veil then points to itself as much as it points to the actual desk.
A book is usually experienced as a fixed, rigid object, with sentences arranged into a definite structure. But when the mind studies a book in a loosened state of cognition, the sentences and the meanings swim around noticeably, producing a cut-up effect. It is difficult to read while cognition is loosened, but the thinking occurs at a deep level, where complex meanings and possible connections can be built up, enabling the mind to seek hidden networks of significance in the most mundane books. When normal, tightly bound cognition returns, the book becomes innocent again.
I hold the book and the cup of coffee in my hands, and I move my arms and hands to turn the pages of the book. How do I experience my hand and control it? My hand, arm, and body might be substantial, but I can only experience them in the form of rich mental constructs. The relationship of my arms to my mind is essentially the same as telepresence, the control and monitoring loop between remote robotic equipment and a human operator. The mind includes a cybernetic control loop between the ego and the nerves in the arms. The ego performs the cybernetic role of the controller apparently residing inside the robot-like nervous system of the body, and once the mind gets the cybernetic feel of it, controlling the body feels as natural as driving a car.
Does my body move, or is there just a stream of shifting images and kinetic feelings? Awareness peers out from nowhere, and in information space, inserts itself into the apparent configuration or shape of a body. This convincing body with arms and legs extending out is known to me as a convention of illusion. It is only known to me as a detailed cartoon giving the impression of a 3-dimensional body. The experience of motion through spacial dimensions is a pre-programmed mental scheme to keep track of information, by constructing dynamic information structures, complex spacial models which seem to be real -- simply given and non-arbitrary. During the loose cognition state of meditation or schizophrenia, awareness can be perceived as stationary, or non-mobile, the mind merely synthesizing the convincing subjective effect of movement. It is possible to feel, or "see with the third eye", that the only place where the experiences of motion and the controller actually reside is in information space.
Ontic solipsism is the denial that other minds exist. I cannot tell whether any conscious creatures exist outside my mind. In my experience, dynamic tokens arise and act consistently like self-existent entities. They are like spirits in my head, constructed by auxiliary functions of my own mind, and kept separate from my self-construct by mental categorizing. After the experience of a love-bite from my cat, I swiftly moved my apparent arm toward the appearance of a cat, and although I heard a smacking sound as the cat-image fell to the floor, I cannot tell whether there is in fact a referent 'cat' object in the external realm. The cat-image ran away and disappeared, and is missing from the photograph I took of this scene. Maybe I never apprehended a cat at all -- but my hand has tooth marks.
I am not sure my friend exists; all I have is a picture of him. Every time I perceive this allegedly existing person, that glob of perceptions in my head acts in a consistent pattern. When I tell my friend-symbol in my mind that as far as I know, he might only be a mental image, a mere complex idea, that friend symbol jokes nervously with me, reliably. Other minds, including cats and people, might not exist at all, except as apparently self-willed images in my mind, separate from the control system that I call my self-control. My center of personal activity has a certain type of interactive control over these "other mind" constructs that arise in my thought.
As I look out into this room during a schizophrenic break, not only is the impression of the desk wavering and disintegrating into component perceptions, not only is my friend looking more and more like a cartoon created by a loose mind, but the perception of myself is splitting into two layers: a distant, hypothesized object on the other side of my wall of senses, and a mental fabrication immediately present to awareness, merely posing as that object. In loose cognition, it is easy to apprehend the self-symbol as such: a convenient cognitive self- deception. All experience is in the form of mental constructs, which serve as a cartoonish reproduction of the world, and I only know this inner dweller in the form of a mental construct, the cartoon demon of "myself".
Taking a fresh, loose look at my own cognitive functioning, it appears that the activities of my mind are themselves misconstrued, and my thinking and assumptions about my own cognition are only trustworthy when compensated by deeply pervasive skepticism. For example, I definitely perceive the experience of something called "will" or "self-control", but that perception changes during advanced meditation, when it appears that my will just emanates from within me by itself -- from a place within me that I cannot see. My willed actions then appear to emanate from beyond my awareness.
Eastern and Western philosophy have only met very recently. The work to combine them has barely begun. It's a commonplace idea in Eastern philosophy that faith in external reality is extravagant. This idea combines easily with solipsism, which is one of the core ideas of Western philosophy. In magical, pre-rational awareness, and in modern ego-consciousness, there is confusion between the realms of the mind's symbols and the objects referred to by those symbols, which leads to the assumption that mental constructs are not symbols but are the represented objects themselves. In transcendence or mastery of perception, the mind learns to be skeptical about its own perceptions and hypotheses. The advanced mind learns to draw conclusions that are always held with reservations about its ability to perceive the world, including the partly hidden, partly hallucinatory inner world and its delusional inhabitant.