THE REAL WORLD
Do any of you remember a movie that came out a few years ago and become something of a cult phenomenon calledWhat the !#%& Do We Know?Actually I discovered that it was produced by a cult called Ramtha. I’m not at all sure I spelled (bleep) correctly, but it may not matter. It was rather interesting. Half of it was documentary with scientists and religious leaders discussing the implications of quantum theory and the story line working out those implications in a young woman’s life. Turns out at least one of the scientists later accused them of editing his remarks in such a way as to have him saying the opposite of what he really meant. The message of the movie was that quantum theory states that through your perception of reality you create that reality, and if you change your perception you change your reality. Most scientists would not agree that you can construct reality that way, but one of the really significant implications is that truth is tentative. And that I believe.
One of the first things you have to learn if you want to think independently and seriously about issues of importance is the tentativeness of truth. This tentativeness is based on both the limitations and the power of individual perception. One of the most useful books I ever read was one that I was given as a child,Flatland, byA. Square, written in the late nineteenth century. Some moderns are turned off by the author's seeming gynophobia and ideas of an aristocracy based on genetic superiority, but these are tangential to his basic message. In fact, when someone mentioned them to me I realized that it was an aspect of the book that I had completely forgotten and was not particularly shocked by when I re-read it, since what he was really talking about was far more important. (Besides, in his preface to the second edition, he repudiated those opinions with great good humor.) The book told of a two-dimensional universe. The inhabitants of this literal plane were geometric figures, from straight lines to circles, observable by others only as points or straight lines. It was not necessary, actually, to make them geometrically regular, since if you think about it you can see that any figure, no matter how shapeless, will be perceived as a longer or shorter straight line in such a universe, but it made the concept easier to grasp to have the inhabitants be polygons of more or fewer sides. The actual shapes of the figures could only be determined certainly by feeling, though sight-recognition was managed by the fading through distance of the ends of the line of any polygon with more sides than a square. The author, a square living in Flatland, was visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional universe, whom he could perceive only as a circle, andsee onlyas a variable straight line with gradually fading ends. The sphere took him to his own universe, finally convincing him that a third dimension did exist. However, when the square then postulated the possibility of further dimensions, the sphere was unable to conceive of such a thing, and when he returned him to his two dimensions, he was persecuted and finally confined in an insane asylum for his insistence that three dimensions existed.
What the book teaches is that our sense perception of reality isabsolutelylimited by our frame of reference. That may be the only absolute we know. Statements about the nature of the physical universe can be made, therefore, not as being absolutely, but only relatively, true — relative to the understanding of our perceptions — and there are some who doubt even that relative truth as the limitedness, individuality and world-shaping power of the perceptions is clarified.
An entertaining speculation which occurs to us all is the impossibility of knowing whether the perceptions which we as individuals call by the same name are actually interpreted in the same way by the mind. Is the color that I call blue and that you also call blue actually sensed the same way? If my mind could use your optic nerve might I not see that color as what I call purple, perhaps? There are plenty of instances of that in color-blindness, of course, that show us that perceptions that have the same name might not really be the same. My red/green color-blind son will see a color that both he and I call red, but there is plenty of evidence that what he is seeing is quite different from what I am seeing.
Besides being limited and idiosyncratic, perceptions are affected by expectations. You often perceive what you expect to perceive or what you want to perceive, and your reactions to the object of your perceptions are shaped less by the object itself than by what you understand it to be. That becomes clear to a preacher listening to reactions to a sermon. People hear whatever they hear sometimes based less on what is said that what they expect is to be said. One time inMadison,CT, a woman got up during the discussion after the sermon and said that she disagreed with everything I had said that day. She then said whatshethought on the topic, and I could not distinguish her opinions from my own. Luckily, others had heard what I had really said and told her it was the same as her formulation so I didn't have to respond, but I realized later that she just needed to disagree with me that morning, so she heard what she could disagree with, though it wasn't what I had said.
Since our world is clearly the product of our perceptions, it is easy to think that it has no objective reality outside of those perceptions. René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, discovered that he could doubt the reality of everything except his own doubting, his own thought, and therefore his own existence. Pressed, I can go him one better, doubting my own existence as well, but that is not particularly productive. It is interesting how completely many people, in realizing the power of their perceptions, have accepted the notion that there may be no objective reality outside their own thought, without taking the further steps taken by Descartes toward an understanding of objective reality, and staying instead within a universe invented and controlled by themselves: their attitudes and perceptions.
I suppose there is no pragmatic reason why you should believe in something you can't even perceive correctly, much less understand, and thinking that reality is controlled by you rather than impinged upon by something outside of yourself often works quite well, if what you want most is to avoid pain and be in control. People can spend their whole lives that way, and when outside reality does impinge they can deny either its reality or its effect. I know a man who thinks that way who recently experienced the deaths of his mother and his closest friend within months of one another. What was upsetting him more than the loss he endured was that he was allowing it to upset him. However, once he got his mind straightened out again, he knew that they and his affection for them had no reality outside himself, so he had never really had them or lost them at all, and he merely had to decide not to feel unhappy or lonely, and he would be all right. He was proud of having achieved that.
There has been a much healthier manifestation of the recognition of the ways in which our perceptions shape reality in the ideas of holistic health. It is a new version of the ancient slogan,menssanain corpore sano., which means a healthy mind in a healthy body. Now, rather than being the ideal, a healthy mind is considered to be thecauseof a healthy body. If you are under stress or unhappy you will become ill, and if you keep yourself cheerful and have the right attitudes, you will be healthy — perhaps even having a remission of a fatal illness as did Norman Cousins who laughed himself to health. I do not question that there is truth to the notion that you can have a great deal of control over your own physical well-being, mostly, I would argue in eating and exercising properly, but also by having optimistic attitudes, and seeing the world as a good place with good outcomes.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the only world that we can perceive is the one that our limitations, and to some degree our expectations, allow us to perceive; and we can shape that world to our own specifications to some degree; I believe that there is an objective reality, one that existed before I was born and will exist after I die, that has its being separately from my perceptions, and can even impinge on me in ways that I do not specify or even desire, or even through my unhealthy expectations, psychological make-up or actions arrange for myself against my own desires. Though I can and should doubt that it is precisely as I perceive it, it seems to me the height of arrogance to doubt that it existsexceptas I perceive it, or that I make all the arrangements for it, even as it pertains to myself. I believe that you exist, that this pulpit exists, that this church, town, world exist outside of me, uncontrolled by me, and impinging on me according to your and their own free will as well as according to my own, and would continue to exist were I not perceiving you.
As far as the relation of our perceptions to reality, I thinkFlatlandhas another suggestion for us. It is clear that our perceptions can give us only partial truth, but I suspect that itispartial truth and not mere subjective speculation. Though the two-dimensional square could not perceive the three-dimensional sphere as a sphere, he could perceive it as a circle, which is what a sphere would be in a two-dimensional universe. Although full reality couldn't be perceived, what was perceived had a relationship to reality. It was not merely a subjective invention.
It seems reasonable to believe that there is a real world, and we have some inkling of it even through our limited and biased perceptions. I even suspect that could your optic nerve be used by my mind, what you call blue, unless one of us is blue/yellow color-blind, will also be what I call blue. Although we cannot perceive without sophisticated instruments that much of this solid wood is not solid at all, but space between the molecules that make it up, which are themselves, scientists suspect, ultimately, as you break down their atoms, mere energy points, we know it is true; but the grosser perceptions which perceive merely a piece of furniture shaped as a pulpit also probably perceive a part of reality. It really is a pulpit, and if I inadvertently hit my knee against it I will really get a real bruise. Not only that, I don't believe that should that happen I subconsciously wanted to bruise my knee, nor even that my expectations of my own clumsiness allowed me to be hurt.
Which brings me to the point of all this philosophical speculation which I find fascinating in itself, but which I probably would not have gone into at such length had there not been a concern that I have about our seeming tendency to think that our perceptions are the only controlling factor in our lives. Even the useful character of the holistic health movement is, I believe, flawed in the same way as the human potential movement which says that if you are sufficiently healthy-minded all you want will be practically handed to you on a silver platter. They give us a new handle that we can use in the universally pleasurable activity of blaming the victim. That has always been something we have liked to do, because if we can say that the problems people have are their own fault, then we can go on believing that nothing will happen to us as long as we keep on thinking and behaving in such a way as to have no difficulties, and the blame is focused so that we need not fear that we might have to share it. When something does happen to us, of course, we have then no recourse but to blame ourselves. The cry of "Why me?" can no longer be answered, "Why not me?" as it can in an objective universe where rain can fall on both the just and the unjust, but a reason must be found, and the problem then rationalized away or increased in difficulty by guilt.
I strongly believe in taking personal responsibility when it rightly belongs to you. I do not believe in taking it when it is not yours. I had a friend who broke her arm and agonized over why she had some subconscious need to do so. I suggested that it might possibly have been a simple accident caused only by happenstance or momentary abstraction. It had never occurred to her as a possibility. So deeply have we become imbued with this way of thinking.