T Nation

On Human Perception and Whether Reality Really Exists

Pretty philosophical post ahead. Maybe it’s weird to discuss these things on a lifting forum, but there are some really smart people here that I’m sure can contribute with insightful observations.

Relationship between what is perceived and what exists

I can’t help but have that thought in the back of my mind, about how what can’t be perceived cannot exist. By perceiving, here, I am referring to both the perception that takes place with our senses, and also whatever piece of machinery allows a phenomenon to be (maybe electronically) measured (and hence, indirectly be known of).

If something can’t be perceived and there are no ways to measure it with tools, can it exist? Sure, there likely is a plethora of phenomena that aren’t currently measurable and cannot be studied or stated, but they’ll eventually be. Think about quantum computers. There are some algorithms that have been shown by means of logical proofs to work, but can’t currently be made work yet.

However, can something really exist outside of any organism’s field of perception?

Senses, and why I think this is a hard question

If we now restrict the meaning of “perceiving” to our senses (which, by the way, are by now known to be more than the usually stated five), it becomes apparent that there are lots of things that exist and cannot be perceived.

Take electromagnetic fields. There are some animals (some species of birds) that have a sense that allows them to feel electromagnetic fields.

In the past, I read about an experiment in which scientists gave a subject a belt to wear that would vibrate according to electromagnetic field presence. Eventually, that man seemed to have developed a way to sense those fields even without the belt.

If we somehow expanded our set of senses to sense everything, would the number of things that we could perceive still be finite? Would that set coincide with the set of everything that exists?

Limits of the senses we do have

The above question is something that I haven’t been able to try and find an answer to. Can we even imagine a sense we don’t have? How would you describe to someone who’s been blind since birth what seeing “feels” like? What about a deaf person? And why is it easier to imagine being deaf than blind?

I can imagine what absence of sound feels like. But not seeing anything? That must not be equal to darkness. I once read that blindness looks like what you see past the corners of your vision.

What do you see behind your head? Nothingness. It’s not darkness.

Also, the senses we do possess come with restrictions. We can’t see everything. There is a range of visible light wavelengths and similar restrictions are in place for our other senses (even touch has a “minimal resolution” and we can’t really tell smaller things than that apart with touch).

Limitation or gift?

Is the above just a limitation? Or did mother nature make us that way because, only perceiving a relatively small set of things, we can zoom in on the important stuff for our survival? If we could see all the wavelengths of light, and hear all frequencies, wouldn’t everything just end up becoming noisy and chaotic? Would we not be able to tell the stuff that counts apart?

Given a brain with infinite computational power, would such a being “benefit” from being able to perceive everything?

Reality ⟺ perception?

It feels like reality is just all that we can perceive. It sometimes feels to me like it’s not independent of our perception. Would anything even exist if there were no observers out there to feel it in some way? What does the universe really “look” like free of limitations in perception by imperfect beings like us?

These are some of the points I wanted to discuss. There are more floating around my head, I’ll write them if someone actually finds these topics interesting.

This is the most complicated way to ask “if a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound” that I’ve ever seen.

I joke.

Interested and following.


Heck, that’s actually a hard af question!

And yes, it captures part of what I was trying to convey in my post.

Its hard to know if products of our minds exist because our minds are an abstract created by our brain to interface with the physical world.

Exactly! But as hard of a question as it might be, how isn’t it subject of more attention? Do people not ask themselves such questions, or have they already determined they can’t be answered anyway?

For one, I am not completely convinced that any of this matters. It’s not like it could be anything else or different than it is, so yeah. But it’s still a pretty big point if you ask me.

I guess the question should be: is what we perceive just a product of our minds or does it exist independent of them?

And if it does, what does it look like without the “lenses” we “see” it through?

I thought all of the neuroscience were pretty big as a whole.

I’ve had some ups and downs. Changing ones perception does change their world. At certain points the world as I’ve known it was a barren waste of time and space populated by nothing more than some complex organisms. Other times it’s a great place to be, live and love.

The only thing that changed between those to states was my perception.


I used to pick up pebbles and give them to my son. He’d laugh and giggle and give it a name and call it a cute little pebble.

To him that pebble was as little and cute and cuddly as he perceived it to be.

To the cranky jagoff watching, Im that asshole up the street that keeps stealing his pebbles and giving them to his stupid kid.

It’s all real.

That cranky jagoff is also a loving father of 3 other…

And on it goes.

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We each have our own perceptions of reality. We are a part of reality, reality is the whole.

The “perceptions of reality” I mentioned are not the real thing, they are our attempts to approximate it. Somethings we approximate more accurately than others. We can’t help but try, even if we don’t want to. Sometimes we just make stuff up because our mental maps/models said there’s supposed to be something somewhere

Awe inspiring, breathtaking, euphoric, unable to “blink” your minds eye, nirvana. Anyone that went wouldn’t be able to come back, you’d forget it all as you were seeing it, bug-eyed.
If it’s too much to see or process, it’s too much to remember, so forget it.
hah, just kidding. Couldn’t help it, sorry.

Is it a great place to laugh tho?

This kind of describes latent inhibition, or our brains way of discarding the seemingly insignificant occurrences in life.

I’ve been legally blind before (arguable still am). It wasn’t the absence of light that was the issue, it was the unfocused presence of light.

Not suggesting this, but… I’ve heard LSD, DMT and other natural substances give you the impression that other senses occur. I’ve been told by some that using such substances allows you to let go of our typical mental confinement’s and experience the world differently, adding new perceptions of reality.

Coming from someone who believes in God, I believe that the physical, touchable, things, as well as what we can see, are just mere fragments. There’s so much going that we can’t see, can’t touch, can’t hear, etc. Space, Time, and Matter were created for us. We are more than just blood, muscle, water, chemicals, and tissue. I believe that this entire cosmos was made for us to marvel at, and made for something not confined to the limitations of space, time, and matter to catch a feel for what it’s like to be under such limitations. So I believe this reality we experience is real. It’s real according to the circumstances, but so are things that do not require the validation or acknowledgment that they exist. They exist whether we know they do or not.

Disclaimer: This is my personal belief, please don’t attack me.

I go back and forth between thinking we are in The Shitty Matrix and The Fingernail Theory.

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I had you down as more of a “Fear and Loathing” kind of guy…
That book is a great examination of the relationship between human perception and reality, as is Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception”.

For me, the question is not whether the tree falling makes a sound, but what sound it makes, and that is dependent upon perception rather than upon an independent reality.


Elon Musk has stated that there is only a one in a billion chance that we are NOT merely experiencing a virtual reality created by some advanced technology somewhere else in the universe. This, he claims, is self evident, since the universe is really, really big, and virtual reality technology on earth is progressing so fast, that it is beyond doubt that someone, somewhere, must have mastered it already, and we are, like, in it.

I find this disquieting, since he is considered by many to be a great renaissance man of our time, and I find it to be an offensively stupid proposition.

why do you feel so?

(i’ll come back later and answer the other comments i got, and i also want to add some more stuff to the thread)

His reasoning is facile.

It is not a much more far fetched sounding theory that Hawkin’s theorizing that the entire universe may have originated from a speck no larger than a pin head, but Hawkins uses quantum physics etc. to explain how something almost inconceivable and beyond normal human comprehension can be argued with some basis in logical theory.

But to jump from, “Fortnight is much better than pong, therefore the universe simply must be a virtual reality”, is a lazy half-idea from a man who feels entitled to say whatever polemical nonsense comes into his head.

He is developing a rocket that can reverse and land back on earth, to be relaunched again. That is very, very cool. But that does not make him a savant who can understand and explain the universe with no greater effort than went into the design of the cyber truck.


Depends. If you will excuse the reference to Wikipedia, "In physics sound is a vibration that propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid.

In human physiology and psychology, sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain"

So, the tree definitively makes an acoustic wave, which is or is not considered a sound, depending on your basis for definition.

I’m gona have a light shot at this topic. With just one little concept.

I believe that there are 3 types of reality:

Inner reality: how you experience the world.

outer (expressive) reality: How you represent yourself to the world.

Absolute reality: IS. Doesn’t care if you believe or not that the tree is falling on top of you. It’s where those few absolute laws of reality exists. (let’s not say quantum.)

BTW our outer reality always interacts with inner reality of others. Thus what you experience or communicate is open for interpretation. And that is whatever the other one believes into.

One could argue, that as long enough people believe in a lie. Or more like one interpretation of reality. It might as well be true. And that might even be the case when it comes to a large clusters of inner and outer realities. However absolute reality has a nasty tendency of screwing that perception over.

I use two very limited examples:

I’d say that it explains why economics behave in somewhat unexpected ways. Or why no economical theory can fully explain how it actually works. There are like 12 theories, I know like 6. Each alone can’t explain behavior of economics you need at least 3 at minimum.

But money’s behavior is much related in what we believe it behaves like. Basic economy works because people believe in rules of basic economy. And our believes guide or wallet which in turn makes economy to react on our perceived reality. Finance is highly political thus it’s highly contested and manipulated. Reason why we have financiers and analytics that paint pictures of different perceived realities in order to move and make others move money accordingly.

There is underlying an absolute reality:
Nothing without infinite resources can grow infinitely.
Climate is (very much likely) changing much hotter and unpleasant for us even despite we believe in it or not.
World is not flat despite our perception of reality.
Water is wet

Also interesting side note: a large group of certain someones mainly guilty of this climate mess are making everyone else to pay for it. And painting us a pretty working perception of reality of: that’s how it should be. :thinking:


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I’m not the one you asked, but God seems a better idea/possibility/hypothesis in every way

It’s kind of funny tho, infinite regress, solved
with infinite number of creators

Raises the moral dilemma - is it more better to worship the right god, or to be worshipped by the right underlings!!1!!

I’m going to add a thought I had yesterday while thinking of this thread.

Most comments here seem to be more focused on a “higher level” connotation of the word perception. That is, how one interprets reality philosophically and how one forms an “opinion” with which describes the phenomena around them.

My original question was actually more on a “lower level,” as in less abstract. I am debating whether what we perceive on a sensory level is actually a reliable representation of reality or if it’s just completely made up by our minds.

It’s mind blowing. We think in terms of colors, sounds, taste, and the like, but those are just ways our brains “break up” the everything, the continuum of reality, into smaller pieces that can separately be interpreted and represented by our senses.

Yesterday I thought of a particular condition I had known to exist but never bothered to think about in these terms: synesthesia. People with this condition will “mix up” their sensory stimulae, being able to “taste colors”, “smell numbers,” and in general associate concepts that we are used to perceiving via one sense to other senses. That is literally the definition of mind blowing. It means that when senses misfunction, everything gets melted together into a something that’s more, that saturates our perception and can’t just be described with familiar adjectives that refer to a property that can be told apart with one sense.

If we talk about a sense like sight, it’s harder to see where I’m trying to go. We see an object because it’s there. But take another sense, like nociception (i.e. the perception of pain). Is “pain” there when we feel it? I know what pain serves us to. It’s useful to be alert of something that’s damaging out organism. But the experience of pain… Isn’t it completely made up by our mind? Pain is not an object. There is no such thing as pain in the universe. Yet it’s very real for us. What if it was the same for all other senses? What if reality was something more, infinitely more complex than we make it out to be, but our brains just had to find a way to let us know, “hey there’s an obstacle your way, steer clear,” and that way was to give us a dimension where we interpret light waves as “seeing.”

Also, what does it mean to experience? What’s consciousness? If you take a machine, let’s say a combinatorial system, it’ll have an input device, a CPU, and an output device.

It gets the input, processes with the arithmetic and logical unit of the CPU based on how it’s been programmed, and spits out the output.

Now take a living being with an evolved nervous system. Evolved enough to have proprioception and be aware of being alive. The input is what we get from our sensory organs, and the output can be said to be our actions.

But what is perception? Is it really just a very, very abstract and complex way of processing the data? Because somehow I think that emotions, feelings, and thoughts are probably just a way for our brain to condition itself to take the more advantageous route, but can this be proven beyond doubt to be the case?

Why do we sometimes experience things that we can’t really tell the usefulness of, yet they still have an impact on us? And if our experience is just a way to simplify the environment around us so we can take decisions that increase our chance of survival, then isn’t all of what we know to be reality just a model our brain has created for us, and truth is things aren’t like what we perceive AT ALL?

And if so, what to they actually look like? Do they even look like anything?

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