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Roses Aren’t Red and Violets Aren’t Blue, Believing That They Are Won’t Make It True!

Written by Jeff Drake
12 · 03 · 18

You probably recognize the simple poem I slightly modified and turned into a title for this blog. It’s from an old English nursery rhyme that was something oft recited during my childhood and probably yours, too:

“Roses are red, violets are blue. Sugar is sweet, and so are you!”

I changed the words to emphasize a point I am going to try and make – namely, that not everything in life is as it seems to be. You might think that this goes without saying, but I would argue that when it comes to disagreeing with experiences our senses are telling us are “real” in our everyday life, we still find it difficult to argue with our senses, even when our senses are not telling us the truth, rather than consider that we might actually be very wrong about what we are perceiving, that what we are observing isn’t real at all.

A case in point is, of course, color. Take a moment right now and look at the objects surrounding you – the chair on which you sit, the device in your hands being used to read this blog, the paint on the walls, the carpet, etc. What do you see? No doubt, lots of stuff and many different colors. I may be telling you something you already know, but the objects you are looking at actually don’t really look like those colors.

Going back to the rhyme, roses are in fact, not red and violets are not blue (putting aside the fact that in the USA only 3 states have violets that are really considered blue). Those colors are actually being created in your head! Wait, what? That’s right, the colors you see are coming from your brain and are not part of the objects you are looking at!

The Oxford dictionary defines color as the property of an object that allows it to absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. So, a red flower, for example, absorbs all colors except for red, which it reflects. You might think, “Cool! So the rose is red after all, because that’s what it reflects.” But you’d be wrong. This is easily demonstrated by simply taking a rose, putting it in a room by itself and bathing it in blue light. If you do this, suddenly the rose is no longer red, it is black. But the properties of the rose haven’t changed at all i.e., it is still the same rose, so the rose is still absorbing and reflecting the same wavelengths of light it always has, so by Oxford’s definition the colors have not changed. Yet, red and black are different colors. This is because colors do not exist in the physical world, instead colors exist only in our brains when we visualize the world. And colors do not necessarily depend on light at all. If you think about it, have you ever had a technicolor dream? This is a good example of perceiving color without the use of any light, except the one inside our heads.

I could go on about why the colors we see don’t reflect reality (pun intended), but this is not a blog about color, it is to blog where I want to point out things we see in everyday life that are not “real”, at least, not the way we think they are. Believe it or not, I’m not doing this for grins, I’m actually trying to lead up to a specific thing we experience in everyday life which is very different from its reality, it’s a thing that causes most of us rebel, or scoff when first told that what we are experiencing is not what’s really happening. We tend to think, “You must be smoking dope to believe that, because I don’t see things that way at all!”

How about this one: We can never really “touch” anything. Huh? That’s right, as I sit here banging on my keyboard, my fingers – although my body and brain are telling me that I am touching the keys – are not really touching the keys at all. And try as I might, my fingers will never touch the keys. Instead, what is happening is that as I type away on my computer, the electrons in my fingers are being repelled by the electrons in my keys. On an atomic level, my fingers are always just hovering above the keys. We think we are touching things in the world because that’s how our brains interpret the world. Our brain tells us we are touching something when the sensation of touch is being given to us by our electron’s interaction with the electromagnetic field permeating spacetime. Yow! Sorry, but I think that’s something cool to think about!

Along this same line of thinking, we’re told by science that the chair you are sitting on is in fact, made up of things called atoms, which in turn are made up of even smaller subatomic things, all of which contain mostly empty space! So why don’t we fall through the chair and hit the floor? Again, the answer has to do with atoms, electrons, their nuclei and the charge these things have. Have you ever played with two magnets? When you try to push two magnetic north poles (N) together, you can’t. The magnets are not touching, but still you cannot push them together. Now, imagine much, much, larger objects consisting of thousands of magnetic N poles. When you try to push them together, you still can’t, even though there is a lot of space. And if you were billions of time bigger than the space between the magnets, you’d think the surface was solid.

All of us have had a class or read a book, or seen the above information presented in a TV show somewhere, so that we have grown to generally accept the scientific fact that although everything we see in the world appears physical or solid, below the surface, at the subatomic level, the physical world is really made of subatomic particles with lots of space between them. We’ve learned to live with this knowledge, because knowing this is the way things are doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. The physical world we live in is really an emergent feature of the subatomic world that makes up reality. (That’s a whole other discussion).

Still, there are certain scientific concepts which cause us some angst or a negative reaction at least, when we first here about them. Why? This is probably because what we experience is so vastly different from what science tells us is reality. We’ve come to learn how to live with the knowledge that the subatomic world is scarily different than the world we experience. It’s taken repeated scientific experiments over many years to prove to us that the subatomic world really exists, and I’m hopeful that some of the more difficult to accept current science will eventually succumb to the same type of experimental assault, and eventually we’ll learn to live with these new concepts, too.

One such concept is… time, or rather, the passage of time. This is a prime example of a subject that brings both philosophy and science together (which I love), because science itself is still struggling with defining what we mean by time. As physicist Sean Carroll has pointed out, philosophy and science have slightly different aims, but their “subject matters often overlap”[1]. According to Carroll, when it comes to “time”, “…the philosophical perspective is absolutely helpful, even to physicists like himself.”[2] His argument is that philosophers really try to understand the logical inner workings of something. Physicists he says, are often just happy to “…get a theory that works. A theory that makes sense is just too much to ask for sometimes.”[3] Quantum physics is another area where the theories work, but don’t seem to make much sense. Physicists are happy enough that quantum theory works, while philosophers really want something better. Time is, of course, another area where we have different theories of how time works in a physical way, given certain well-defined circumstances, but “…there are still philosophical questions.”

Here’s a startling scientific fact involving time: At the subatomic level, the fundamental laws of the universe are timeless. By this, I mean that these laws work the same without any regard for time. Run the mathematics forwards in time or backwards in time and the laws are still valid. The only exception to this is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, sometimes called the law of entropy, which essentially says (some poetic license here) that everything in the universe is heading towards disorder. This is a one-way street, so to speak. Things in the universe start orderly and then become disordered. It’s why you never see a fried egg jump back into its shell or a broken glass regroup itself. This 2nd law is the only law in which time is asymmetrical (if you think of any two things as being symmetrical, they are exactly the same. Two things that are asymmetrical, are not exactly the same).

If you want to visualize an example of scientific laws that works the same both forwards in time or backwards, watch a video of a billiards game that is focused just on the table and several balls hitting each other. Here you can see several of Newton’s laws (1st, 2nd and, 3rd) at play, as well as scientific concepts such as force, kinetic energy and torque. If I were controlling the video for you and played the clip forward and then reversed the clip and played it backwards, you would be unable to tell me which clip was going forwards in time or vice versa. There’s no visual cue really to tell you what the direction of time is, yet the fundamental physical laws at work are just as valid in either direction! This is really weird to think about. At the subatomic level time is meaningless, but at the macro level, the level in which we exist and experience life, time has a definite and irreversible direction – ever forward towards the future.

This leads me to the crux of this blog. For the one scientific theory sure to evoke disbelief these days by many, if not most, is the theory that our experience of the passage of time is an illusion. It’s not real. Time does not flow like a river. Certainly, the jury is still out on this, as there are other competing theories of time scientists and philosophers are pursuing, but there is mounting evidence that this particular theory is true.

I have found that some of the concepts involved with defining time itself and describing how the passage of time may not be what we think it is, are often hard to wrap my head around. This is one reason I am always on the hunt for good examples and analogies that can help me better understand. Recently I got very lucky and came across an author named, Dr. Bernardo Kastrup.[4] He authored an article titled, Do We Actually Experience the Flow of Time published by the Scientific American Blog Network[5]. In this article, Dr. Kastrup provides some really excellent analogies. These analogies are not only clear and descriptive, they are fairly easy to understand and are some of the best analogies I’ve found on the subject (and believe me, I’ve been searching). To avoid possible misunderstandings by an inaccurate rendition, I will quote extensively from this article below, rather than my usual paraphrasing. After all, Dr. Kastrup says it best.

In his article, Dr. Kastrup asks:

…do we actually “experience” the flow of time? We certainly experience something that looks like it. But if we introspect carefully into this experience, is what we find accurately described as “flow”?[6]

To answer Dr. Kastrup’s question, which he does himself below, requires us to take a closer look at what we mean when we say that we experience the flow of time. Sure, we’re experiencing something we each call the “flow of time,” but is that really what we are experiencing? And – he asks us – just what do we mean by “flow” anyway?

Dr. Kastrup reminds us that we can only really experience the flow of time if “…there is experience in the past present and future.”[7] He then asks us, “…where is the past? Is it anywhere out there? Can you point to it?”[8] Of course, in answer to his challenge, we have no real choice but to say that we cannot, which then forces us to ponder, “What is the past?”

Dr. Kastrup answers by telling us:

What makes you conceive of the idea of the past is the fact that you have memories. But these memories can only be referenced insofar as they are experienced now, as memories. There has never been a single point in your entire life in which the past has been anything other than memories experienced in the present.[9]

It only takes a moment of thinking about his statement above before we can see the truth in it. And this statement is true for events that happened 20 years ago, or 20 minutes. Although our memories may only take a few seconds to recall now, as I sit here, the past as such, is physically forever out of reach.

Okay, so we can’t point at something in the past, can we do so for the future? Dr. Kastrup points out that we have the same problem with the future i.e., we don’t know where it is, and we can’t point to it. Why? Because:

Our conception of the future arises from expectations and imaginings experienced “now,” always now, as expectations or imaginings. There has never been a single point in your life in which the future has been anything other than expectations or imaginings experienced in the present.[10]

Here, Dr. Kastrup has put his finger on a problem. For, if we can’t really experience the past or future, “…how can there be an experiential flow of time? “Where is experiential time flowing from and into?”[11] In answer, he uses an excellent analogy to explain, using something we are all familiar with – space:

Suppose that you suddenly find yourself sitting on the side of a long, straight desert road. Looking ahead, you see mountains in the distance. Looking behind, you see a dry valley. The mountains and the valley provide references that allow you to locate yourself in space. But the mountains, the valley, your sitting on the roadside, all exist simultaneously in the present snapshot of your conscious life.[12]

So far, so good. This analogy makes perfect sense, right? Next, Dr. Kastrup asks us to consider an “…entirely analogous situation”, only this one “…occurs in time.”[13]

…right now, you find yourself reading this essay. As you read it, you can remember having done something else – say, having brushed your teeth – earlier today. You can also imagine that you will do something else later – say, lie down in bed. Brushing your teeth and lying down in bed are respectively behind and ahead of you on the road of time – your “timescape” – just as the valley and the mountains were on the road of space. They provide references that allow you to locate yourself in time. But again, the experiences of remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as that of reading this essay right now, all exist simultaneously in the present snapshot of your conscious life.[14]

This is another solid analogy that we can easily grasp. However, while this might be all well and good, Dr. Kastrup tells us that we run into a problem when:

…we then construe from this that there is an experiential flow of time. Such a conclusion is as unjustifiable as to construe, purely from seeing the mountains ahead and the valley behind while you sit on the roadside, that you are moving on the road. You aren’t; you are simply taking account of your relative position on it. You have no more experiential reason to believe that time flows than that space flows while you sit quietly by the roadside.[15]

Next, Dr. Kastrup carries out a preemptive strike on one possible objection we might raise here, namely that, “…you actually did brush your teeth earlier. So time definitely flowed from then to now; or did it?”[16] Not so fast, he tells us, for:

All you have supporting belief that it did is your memory of having brushed your teeth, which you experience now. All you ever have is the present experiential snapshot. Even the notion of a previous or subsequent snapshot is – insofar as you can know from experience – merely a memory or expectation within the present snapshot. The flow from snapshot to snapshot is a story you have to tell yourself, irresistibly compelling as it may be. Neuroscience itself suggests that this flow is a cognitive construct.[17]

Lastly, Dr. Kastrup asks us to try this thought experiment:

Suppose that you could return to your past – say, back to the moment when you were brushing your teeth. In the corresponding experiential snapshot, the present would lie between, say, the memory of your having stood up from bed and the expectation of your dressing for work. But once you landed on that snapshot, you would have no experience of any temporal discontinuity: you would look behind in memory and see yourself standing up from bed; you would look ahead in imagination and see yourself dressing for work. The tape of history would have been rewound and you would have no memory of having time-traveled; otherwise you wouldn’t have actually time-traveled. Everything would feel perfectly normal – just as it feels right now.[18]

Dr. Kastrup concludes this thought experiment by asking us who is really to say that we haven’t “…time-traveled a moment ago?” How do we know that “…time always flows forward?”[19]

Again, this is a case of question asked and answered! He tells us that:

…whether time flows forward, or doesn’t flow at all, or moves back and forth, our resulting subjective experience would be identical in all cases: we would always find ourselves in an experiential snapshot extending smoothly backwards in memory and forwards in expectation, just like the desert road. We would always tell ourselves the same story about what is going on. A mere cognitive narrative – based purely on contents of the experiential snapshot in question – would suffice to convince us of the forward flow of time “even when such is not the case.”[20]

Dr. Kastrup then concludes – and rightly so it seems to me – that thus, “…the ostensible experience of temporal flow is…an illusion.” (my italics).

Pounding the final nail into his argument, he tells us that:

All we ever actually experience is the present snapshot which entails a timescape of memories and imaginings analogous to the landscape of valley and mountains. Everything else is a story. The implications of this realization for physics and philosophy are profound. Indeed, the relationship between time, experience and the nature of reality is liable to be very different from what we currently assume…To advance our understanding of reality we must thus revise cherished assumptions about our experience of time.[21]

[1] Youtube video, “What is Time? By Sean Carroll.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] From his website: “Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in computer engineering with specializations in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing. He has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the “Casimir Effect” of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). Bernardo has authored many academic papers and books on philosophy and science. His most recent book is The Idea of the World: A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality, based on rigorous analytic argument and empirical evidence. For more information, freely downloadable papers, videos, etc.,” please visit https://www.bernardokastrup.com/.

[5] “Do We Actually Experience the Flow of Time?” by Bernardo Kastrup, Scientific American, November 14, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

Let us know what you think…

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.