Monday, October 12, 2020

Do we perceive things as they are, or as we are?

Reviewing some passages I transcribed 10-20 years ago on this subject.

One possible worldview is: The external world exists as exactly-whatever-it-is, and we perceive it and interpret it.

"Here is the argument. Outside our heads there is freestanding reality. Only madmen and a scattering of constructivist philosophers doubt its existence. Inside our heads is a reconstitution of reality based on sensory input and the self-assembly of concepts."
— Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

"Consciousness, by which I think [he]...means apprehension, is a state of a mind, and does not include its object (say, a body) as a part of itself."
— W. D. Ross. The Right and the Good. (1930) London: Oxford University, 1946. p. 71.

This arises in distinctions like "ontological" or "metaphysical" (what exists) against "epistemological" (what we know).

"These are the four elements present in awareness: metaphysical, epistemological, mystical, and moral dimensions — four ways of revealing, or "translating," the mystery of the Divine and applying it to our human condition. First, the metaphysical, as grounded in the transcendent One, is limitless vertical truth. The epistemological, or what we can know, is moment by moment a horizontal reality pointing to its vertical Source. The mystical, from the horizontal into the boundless, is the spacious verticality of the Divine. Finally, the moral combines transcendent vertical awareness with the horizontal — appropriate attitudes and actions in everyday life. In its spiritual expression, developing from its moral character, awareness is love in action, and the attributes of limitless sensitivity, kindness, compassion and mercy — actual acts of living.
Wayne Teasdale. A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2002. pp. 198-199.

Another possible worldview is: The sensations, emotions, and values we attribute to nature might be not in nature itself but in ourselves.

"We think that the grass is green, that stones are hard, that the snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of a stone upon himself."
— Bertrand Russell. Quoted in David Berreby. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2005. p 141.

"Nature gets credit which in truth should be reserved for ourselves, the rose of its scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves and should turn them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellence of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."
— Alfred North Whitehead, quoted by Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (1972)

"The spiritual and emotive quality of nature does not reside in brute facts but rather originates from the transmutation of these facts into new values by human imagination and fantasy."
— Rene Dubos, Beast Or Angel?: Choices that Make Us Human. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. p. 197.

But what are we?

We could have evolved without consciousness.

"Consciousness, in survival terms, is an irrelevancy. It is perfectly possible to conceive of a world inhabited by all sorts of life-forms, from the simplest bacteria to the most spectacularly cerebral of creatures, in which there never stirred a single conscious feeling or experience. In fact, such a world could be imagined that was outwardly indistinguishable from our own. It might appear to be full of diversity, sophisticated behavior, intelligence, and even wit and charm, and yet involve no subjective experience, no inner feeling of being, whatsoever.
Many attempts have been made by evolutionary biologists to explain why consciousness should have come about and what possible advantage it might have bestowed on its owners. For example, it has been suggested that being conscious allows us to understand how other members of our social group feel so that we can better interact and communicate with them. Consciousness, it is sometimes said, helps us to see the world from each other's point of view. But the circularity of this argument is readily apparent. It might indeed be a survival advantage to appreciate how the other fellow feels if conscious feelings and experiences are already a fact of the world, but this offers no explanation of why consciousness should have come about in the first place. Exasperated by their failure to discern an obvious purpose for consciousness, some researchers have dismissed it as peripheral and almost accidental — an inconsequential spin-off of the brain's other activities."
— David Darling. Zen Physics: The Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p 172.

Consciousness — or, at least, the 'I' who is conscious — may be an illusion.

"If the ego were to disappear, or rather, to be seen as a useful fiction...the thinker would be seen to be no more than the series of thoughts, and the feeler no more than the feelings."
— Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, p 70-71

And maybe these "things," these other beings that we perceive in nature, are part of us.

"[Among the foragers,] only a fool would imagine himself as somehow exclusively a human being. Through language and artifice one could recall and vivify the primal linkage (we might call it an evolutionary connection) to other forms of life, animal and plant. Language and art underscored Homo's bestial and vegetal identity, a hyphenated identity: 'I can be a frog or a fox and still be a person.'"
— Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. p. 18.

Here is another angle to tackle the question: The world includes that which is and what we perceive about it. Is there a distinction between what-exists and what-we-know? Maybe, maybe not. The other angle is that there is something else beyond these matters, outside this world.

"Kabbalah invests these two words with cosmic, metaphysical significance. Yesh comes to refer to the created world, this one in which we spend most of our time. But yesh connotes much, much more than merely the material or the physical. It includes spatial, temporal, intellectual, even emotional reality also. The key notion here is that all the things of yesh have definitions, beginnings and ends, and, above all, boundaries. Living in the world of yesh is not bad — indeed, it's obviously inescapable and often beautiful. Yesh is only dangerous if you think that's all there is."
Lawrence Kushner, "A Kabbalah Lexicon" in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Complex or simple?

"Intelligence is: (a) the most complex phenomenon in the Universe; or (b) a profoundly simple process.
The answer, of course, is (c) both of the above. It's another one of those great dualities that make life interesting."
— Ray Kurzweil. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. p. 118

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