Chapter 3

The real and the imaginary

What the conclusion we have come to above at least seems to imply is that for every finite way of consciousness there is an existence which accounts for its being this particular way of being conscious and no other. I think at this point what we have to do is handle the vexed question of those finite ways of being conscious we call "images," which certainly don't seem to report any existence. We recognize that there are no unicorns.

So here we have a new effect, which we can state in the following way:

(a) No definite way of being conscious is possible without consciousness + the mind + existence. But imaginary experiences are ways of being conscious, and are aware of themselves; and (b) they recognize themselves as not the effect of some existence (i.e. something "out there"), but as "spontaneous" acts of the mind.

That is, the type of consciousness called "perception" seems to be what we have been describing; and it recognizes itself as not "spontaneous," but as being caused by some existence different from itself (i.e. something "out there"). But how can the mind itself (which is one something) and the consciousness (which is also one something) account for the differences in imaginary experiences (which are many), if identical effects have identical causes?

First of all, let us see if we can "resolve away" the problem into a non-problem. If we say that both perceptions and images are caused by the interaction of the mind and some existence, then there is no way we can account for our having these two distinct classes of consciousness. The cause of both classes would be the same, and identical causes have identical effects. (Of course, if we say that all experiences are like the imaginary ones, and there is no existence in any case, then there is no way to account for the distinctiveness of any way of being conscious, as we saw in the preceding section.) So there has to be a difference between the types of experience called "perceptions" and those called "images."

The only other possibility I can see for making this a "non-problem" is that when we are imagining, we are actually reacting to some existence, but are not aware of doing so. There is a certain plausibility in this, because we do have hallucinations, where we don't recognize what is going on. But note that a hallucination seems to be a perception, and we think we are reacting to some existence, but we later find out that there was nothing "out there." Hallucinations, in other words, seem to be cases of being fooled in the opposite way, which rather reinforces the idea that some of our experiences are not (direct) reactions to an existence.

But when we imagine and recognize we are doing so, we are precisely conscious of being spontaneous. We seem, at least, (often deliberately) to be "making up" whatever experience we are having; and it is a little hard to see how consciousness (which is, after all, conscious of itself--that is, the "two acts" are actually one and the same thing) could be erroneously conscious in a positive sense of being something which it isn't. What could get in the way of an act and itself by which it could be fooled about itself?

Of course, this same question could be raised about hallucinations, though less forcefully; but it certainly has to be handled. If the act of consciousness is consciousness of itself, then how can it ever think that it is a reaction when in fact it is not reacting to anything?

But we mustn't let difficulties overshadow sanity. Even if we can be fooled in some cases, to say that we are always fooled, and that all our experiences are actually all of one type and not the other, is another form of madness; as a matter of fact, psychosis is precisely the type of madness where the distinction between the real and the imaginary is blurred for the person.

I think the solution to this problem lies in the fact that when we have a way of being conscious, this is, as I said in Conclusion 25 of the preceding section, the effect of the mind and existence. The mind makes all the ways of being conscious "mine" and no one else's, and the existence makes this way of being conscious (we can now say) this way and no other one.

But if we notice something else about our consciousness, we may perhaps be on the way to the solution to this problem: My "stream of consciousness," as I add ways of being conscious to it, becomes different from the way it was before, without being a different stream of consciousness.

That is, your consciousness now is having the experience of reading this page, something that it did not have before. Hence, your "whole" consciousness (most of which is now unconscious, remember) is now a different whole from what it was before you read what you are now reading; it "contains" this way of being conscious.

Further, this "whole" consciousness (outside of the present) is somehow not totally non-existent, because consciousness recognizes that it can recall past "parts" of it and make them an aspect of the present consciousness; so as Aristotle would say, these past ways of being conscious are "potentially" conscious in the sense that they can be "reawakened" into present, actual consciousness.

And as I said, the presence of the past as "part" of my consciousness is necessary for me to recognize the present way of being conscious as "only this one" or as finite; because if I weren't aware of being conscious in other ways, then for me this moment of consciousness would exhaust what it is for me to be conscious, and I would not be able to be aware of its finiteness.

Thus, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 2: Something connected with the unity of my "whole" consciousness must make the past consciousness "potentially conscious" in the present.

And what this has to mean is the following:

Conclusion 3: The mind, in its interaction with existence, not only produces the particular way of being conscious, but stores this way as "part of" my stream of consciousness.

What this amounts to is that once you have had a way of being conscious, which demands an existence, it is somehow "in your mind," and is at least in principle recallable; so some aspect of the mind as integrating consciousness into "mine" also preserves each moment of my consciousness, making it "potentially conscious."

In order to solve our problem, however, we need to make some hypotheses about this "storage." First of all, the ways of being conscious must be stored in such a way that different aspects of a given complex way of being conscious are stored independently, somehow, so that these aspects are not necessarily always integrated into just the complex way of being conscious that they originally were, but can be recalled as "attached" to new complexes--perhaps new complexes that we have never perceived as such.

That is, we can explain unicorns by saying that we have actually perceived horses (or pictures of them), and pointed, twisted horns, and curly hair, and cloven hooves, and so on; but we have never perceived all of these as the experience of one animal. Having had all these experiences, even though each was "attached" to a different thing as it was originally perceived, we can now assemble the parts into this unity we call "imagining a unicorn," and construct as it were a "reawakening" of a "perception" we never had as such.

And we seem to recognize that we are doing this when we exercise "creative imagination." It is as if consciousness is searching through a filing system (which is itself unconscious, as can be seen from the fact that when we're trying to recall something we've forgotten, we somehow "know where to look for it," but we have to do something to our mind to "awaken it" before we can "look at it and recognize it" as what we were looking for). The consciousness awakens images, clips off pieces, sticks them together (recognizing that it is doing this), and behold, there is the unicorn--which we recognize that we "made up."

So we seem to be on pretty solid ground. In order to be aware that a given way of consciousness is a finite case of consciousness, the other ways of consciousness have to be "present as not present in my consciousness," or somehow stored as potentially conscious. Thus, the mind has an aspect which is the cause of the "storedness" of my past experiences as "mine." But since there is no real demarcation between one way of being conscious and the next (they flow in an unbroken stream from "one" to "the other"), then it must be possible for them to be "chopped up" into "this way" and "that way." Hence, the storage involves, somehow, the storage of the past as differentiated from other past experiences.

And this is all we need to explain not only recollection of the past, but creative imagination.

But we have still not solved the problem of how we can distinguish imagining (and recalling a past way of being conscious as past) and perceiving. One might answer, "Consciousness is conscious of itself, and when it is reawakening what is stored in the mind, it recognizes that it is doing this, and when it is the result of the mind actually interacting with some existence, it is aware of this also."

This must be generally true, but it can't be the whole story, because if that were the case, we could never have a hallucination, which (if the theory above is true) must be a reawakening of a past experience (or even a new combination of past experiences) without realizing that this is what is happening, because consciousness assumes that the experience is the result of the interaction of the mind and some existence.

So the new aspect we have to add to the storage and reawakening, it seems to me, is this:

Conclusion 4: Since the mind itself is unconscious, then whether consciousness is imagining or not, it finds its "material" for the form it takes on outside of consciousness.

Thus, the consciousness cannot be absolutely certain of the origin of its way of being conscious, in the sense in which it is absolutely certain of itself. The unconsciousness of the "stored form" in the mind allows for the possibility of consciousness's being fooled when it becomes conscious in a definite way: the way could either be an interaction of the mind and existence, or a recalling of a past interaction or a recombination of past interactions.

That's one half of what we need. It explains how consciousness can be fooled, but not how it is not always fooled. The second half seems to be this:

Conclusion 5: When we deliberately recall or deliberately make up a way of being conscious, we do so at a very low level of vividness, whereas when we recognize ourselves as reacting to some existence, the level of vividness of the experience is much higher.

So apparently, this "storage" of ways of being conscious in the mind makes it possible to "reawaken" them dimly, though there seem to be various "levels of dimness," because we seem to classify recollections as "more past" based on how dim they seem to be as we recall them. "I can barely remember that," we say of something that happened a long time ago, while the experiences of a minute ago are much more vivid.

Of course, the importance of a past experience affects the level of dimness; and one says of his wedding day, for instance, "I remember that as if it happened yesterday." That is, the level of dimness of this (important) experience is the same as the level of the ordinary experiences of yesterday.

Obviously, we have different levels of experience of perceptions also, from those that we barely notice to those that are so "strong" that they are painful. In general, however, the least vivid perception is considerably more vivid than the least dim recollection; and so in general the two experiences fall into two entirely different classes.

Now if we make the hypothesis that consciousness uses these two different levels of vividness to distinguish whether the consciousness is "spontaneous" and not a reaction to some immediate existence acting on the mind, but a reawakening of a stored form, then we can account not only for the distinction between perceiving and imagining, but for hallucinations also; and this theory allows for a prediction of a different sort of "hallucination" from the one usually called such.

Apparently, there is a dividing line of vividness somewhere, below which consciousness classifies the experience as "imaginary and spontaneous," and above which it classifies the experience as "response to some existence."

Now if for some reason a recall of a past experience becomes super-vivid, then consciousness would classify this as a perception, not an act of imagining. And thus we have hallucinations. No one is fooled by ordinary imagining, because it occurs at such a low level. If you imagine your mother pointing to the words you are now reading, you can see what I mean. The experience of the page is so much more vivid than the image of your mother's hand that you can picture her doing this better if you close your eyes (and therefore imagine both of them). If you have a very vivid imagination, you can "all but see her," though even then the difference is enormous.

But with a hallucination, the image is so vivid that it seems not to be a spontaneous act at all, but an actual perception. Of course, most hallucinations seem to belong in the category of "barely perceived" perceptions. For instance, someone asks, "Do you smell smoke?" and you start sniffing, and--yes, you do seem to smell smoke. Or is it your imagination? Here the "odor" is so faint (if there is one) that it's on the borderline of imaginary anyway, and you doubt whether you are actually perceiving.

(Let me parenthetically note here that a hallucination is different from an illusion, in which the experience as perceived is distorted somehow from what you know the existence to be, as when the oar appears bent in the water. Your eyes are built to react as if light always travels in straight lines, and the light coming from the underwater portion of the oar gets deflected at the surface, and so you have the illusion of the oar's being bent instead of the light. But in this case you are reacting, but reacting "wrongly." In a hallucination, you seem to be reacting when in fact you are spontaneously acting.)

Now if my theory of hallucinations is true, then we can predict that there ought to be a kind of "reverse" hallucination, where you are having a perception that is so dim that you classify it as a recalled experience instead of a reaction.

And we do in fact have this experience; it is called déjà vu: that experience where you know that you are actually perceiving something but you think, "I could swear this happened to me before," even though you couldn't say where or when.

This experience is at least as common as hallucinations, and to explain it by some extrasensory perception seems a little far-fetched. And since it is the experience which would be predicted if borderline experiences get confused as to classification, then I think we can say that our theory about the true explanation of perceptions vs. imaginings has got to be on the right track.

Now if we add to this what is known nowadays from science and don't just stick to phenomenology, the theory becomes all that much stronger. Obviously, the "mind" as the "unifier of consciousness" and the "storer of past experiences" is the brain. We know that there is a certain amount of energy in the brain's nerves all the time, flowing back and forth in "waves." We also know that certain nerves, when stimulated above a certain level, produce definite forms of consciousness, and the brain has been "mapped" as to where the different types of consciousness (seeing, hearing, feeling, emoting, etc., etc.) are. As the "brain-waves" scan the brain, various nerves get activated, and the "wave" integrates these, presumably, into a Gestalt, or single whole of perception or imagining.

So far so good. On the assumption that consciousness can seize control of the flow of energy in the brain, directing what energy is there into various areas, then we have the "deliberateness" of imagining. The level of vividness of imagining would be due to channeling energy that is already there into new "pathways."

Perceiving, however, involves new energy coming into the brain from the various senses (the eyes, the ears, etc.); and this energy is directed by the "input" into definite parts of the brain: the input from the eyes goes to the visual center, the input from the ears to the auditory one, and so on; and it raises the energy in these areas far beyond where it would be if the residual energy were put into them.

This would result in two experiences in consciousness: (a) the recognition of the high level of vividness, and (b) the awareness of "being out of control" as to what actual experience is happening. When you look at this page, you are aware not only of the vividness of your perception of the page, but you also classify it as a perception because you can't make the words you see be anything but what you see, the way you can turn the unicorn blue or increase its size, or chop off its head, or whatever. Your consciousness recognizes itself as passive, as reacting, not as active or spontaneous as in imagining.

Everything is perfectly consistent with our phenomenological theory so far. Now one thing we also know about the workings of the brain is that energy gets directed by a "program" that is "there," as well as by deliberately taking conscious control. This program (instincts, drives) controls the energy flow in a complex way, and often acts below the conscious level (in fact, when the drives are consciously active, they show up as emotions).

Now if we suppose that some instinct, operating below the conscious level, channels an extraordinary amount of energy into a given "pathway," consciousness would experience this as (a) a more vivid than simply an imaginary experience, and (b) as not something that it consciously did itself; or, in other words, we would have a hallucination. And, of course, if the energy coming into a given nerve-complex was so little that the "threshold of consciousness" was barely passed--especially if this were due to the person's consciously "borrowing" from this energy to pay attention to other things also--then we could have the "reverse hallucination" of the déjà vu.

Note that hallucinations could also be produced chemically, by taking a pill (or smoking a joint) that increased the energy in the brain without that extra energy's coming in from the sense inputs. The experience would then be that of a perception, because (a) it would be very vivid (indeed, perhaps "more vivid" even than perceptions), and (b) there would be no sense of conscious direction of the form of the experience. The energy would simply be "spread all over," enhancing whatever happens to be being perceived at the time (as in marijuana), or distributed randomly, producing images that are not reactions, that overlie or even supplant the consciousness of what is "coming in" from outside, as in LSD, peyote, jimson weed, or other truly psychedelic chemicals.

These, if they were vivid enough, might be so "burned into" the nerves in the brain that the nerves afterwards would be open channels for energy, and any restimulation of them would drag a great deal of the energy in the brain down this pathway; in which case, the "trip" would be repeated with a fresh hallucination. And, of course, if this became widespread, then it would be impossible any more for consciousness to recognize when it was hallucinating and when it was really reacting to energy coming in from outside the body--and we would have a psychosis. And psychosis is in fact one of the effects of taking hallucinogens.

If the brain is the mind, and if the brain is a "receiving set" for energy from outside that comes through the senses, and which gets stored in such a way that past experiences can be recalled and recombined in controllable ways, then taking psychedelic chemicals is like taking an electrical probe into your radio-tape recorder, and touching the various parts of the transistors and so on at random with this electrical energy, and listening to the noise you get when you do that, and recording it on your cassette. You may get some interesting sounds; but the probability is that if you do this, you will burn out transistors and generally foul up the radio, and it will be useless for receiving programs any more--and may very well break down completely.

Stay away from those things. If you want "new experiences," go to sleep and dream; this is good for your brain (as we will see much later). The possibility of wrecking this delicate receiving-storing instrument is too great and the instrument is too valuable to have any "interesting experience" worth it.