Our Perception is Arbitrary
We think of reality as being external to us, but basically what we think of as reality is notions in our minds.
- Sometimes we misperceive something and believe a part of reality to be one way while actually it’s another way, for example, in the case of a mirage.
- Many people disagree on certain key facts about reality, due to different ways of thinking, different indoctrination, and differing predilections. Take for example the “evolution” vs. “intelligent design” debate.
- Alteration of the brain (whether through chemicals like LSD, poking around in it, or damage) can alter our perception of reality and even cause us to change our basic outlook on life.
- Scientifically, we know that “everything we know” about reality is collected by sense organs by way of complex chemical and physical processes, then sent via nerve cells to the brain, and then processed by various centers of the brain on both the conscious and unconscious levels.
To take the last point further, it would seem to follow, given the “arbitrary” nature of our sense organs, that the reality we construct from their signals is also relatively arbitrary compared to reality-as-it-is, or “that from which the signals originate.” Why does vinegar smell one way and vanilla another? Why does blue look one way and red another? Also, we perceive color in 3 dimensions (yellow<->blue, green<->red, and dark<->light), though in actuality any given color constitutes a continuous spectral envelope, and not to mention that the light we see constitutes only a 28th of the entire electromagnetic spectrum (logarithmically speaking). And our visual plane is actually 2-dimensional (with apparent depth added by way of parallax), while reality is obviously 3-dimensional, at least on our scale of reference. (If we could see in 3 dimensions, we would see not just unobstructed objects’ surfaces which are facing us, but all the objects behind them as well as their complete insides.) Just to give a few examples.
But I said that it’s arbitrary compared to “reality-as-it-is”, but can that phrase have any meaning? If perception of reality requires a modality of perception, then wouldn’t that modality, per its own limitations or its being distinct from other modalities, necessarily be arbitrary? Or could we imagine an omniscient frame of reference? But even if we do that, do we know whether God has a choice in how He conceptually frames reality? I.e., He may know everything, but can He organize that in his mind in many possible ways? And also, if the sum total of all that exists is infinite in content and variety, then any particular conception of reality has to be qualified by limitation—otherwise knowing everything at once would add up only to some sort of whiteness or singularity—and therefore it has to be “arbitrary” per its given parameters of limitation.
By the way, a somewhat tangential point to consider here is that, while we beings of limitation model reality in a way that’s imaginative of things existing outside of us, an omniscient being probably makes no distinction between the “inner” and “outer,” and that also brings into question whether he has any “modality of perception” as such. But again, if He doesn’t, would it just be the singularity/whiteness for him? Or would He have a mind that organizes Himself and reality at once (their being one-and-the-same) in some way? Or would that in itself also be a “modality of perception”? (That borders on being a semantical question.) It’s interesting to note that His having a mind might also imply some sort of self-organization on a meta level, for example, an organization of “soul” versus “body” versus “mind.”.. especially If God indeed created us in His likeness.
Oh, I also wanted to mention that, when you consider an analysis that reduces reality (or, at least, everything we can know about reality) to a model and memory in the mind, it definitely seems to bring into question just what the nature of “illusion,” as being the opposite of something’s reality, is. I would posit—at least under this framework—that an illusion is what we call something after we update our model of reality to something more comprehensive and self-consistent, which semiotically defies a fact that was previously thought to be the case. If you never find out the mirage isn’t an oasis, you’ll never call it an illusion.. if you never call it an illusion, how are you to argue that it was? I suppose, if you did, you would refer to external information about the surroundings which you’re not hypothetically aware of when you don’t call it an illusion. But of course, those proposed circumstances (that negate it being an oasis) are still an imagination of the mind, despite their being proposed as meta to what you know in the hypothetical.
The Tree in the Forest
(It’s like the question about the tree in the forest when nobody’s around. Obviously if a tree falls it physically must make a sound. The question is, in a sense, about whether the tree really falls if it falls. The paradox comes in when one imagines a tree to be falling, and then tries to imagine the absence of anybody to know about it. If you don’t know about it how are you imagining it? This paradox exploits the fact that what we take for “reality” outside of us is mental content. It helps the paradox that we’re slightly more aware of the perception of sound being self-centered than we are with visual imagery.)
Another point about “reality as it is” is that we tend to think that there’s “what we know of reality”—which is necessarily ideational—versus “reality as it is”, which, presumably (except to the Berkeleyan idealists) is not ideational—it’s simply made of dead matter. But the problem here is that we cannot possibly conceive of or talk about such a reality (or such an aspect of reality) non-ideationally. So basically, if we posit a non-ideational reality, we can necessarily have no idea what we’re talking about. There can be no greater dichotomy to consider than the proposed dichotomy between the ideational and the non-ideational (because all other dichomoties involve conceptualizable counter-items which are thereby subject to the process of comparison). Considering that we can necessarily know, speculate or prove nothing about non-ideational reality, it may prudent, per Occam’s razor, to do away with the idea of a non-ideational reality altogether—in other words, to adopt Berkeleyan idealism.
Some may object and say that ideation, a product of consciousness, is only an “emergent property” of non-living matter, limited to the brains of organisms, and that therefore it’s injudicious to simplify one’s ontology by making consciousness primary and apparent matter secondary. I have three arguments against this:
1. It’s your own mind and thoughts that you were first aware of from the day you were born. Beyond that there was only sensation—sight, hearing, etc. Over time you developed a model of the world based on the consistencies in this sensation over time and space and your interactions with it. (“Your interactions with it” can be analytically broken down to how your sensations change in reaction to conscious volition; i.e., even observing that your leg moves after willing it so is a modicum of sensation.)
So the inner world of mind or consciousness therefore precedes the development of the “outer world” in time. It’s also primary to it in terms of contingency, in that you can have inner thought without positing an outer world, but you cannot posit an outer world without having thought. This makes mind or consciousness, in some sense, epistemically primary to the external world. And since epistemology deals with how we know things, it therefore takes precedence over metaphysics/ontology in the analysis of anything.
2. We must necessarily use thought/ideation to conceive of the possibility that the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of brain-matter. So what’s happening now is that one’s personal thought gives rise to and thus accounts for the notion of dead matter, and then imagines that this dead matter gives rise to and accounts for his mind/thought. In regard to primacy or accountability, this is like the Oroboros—the snake that eats itself: it is a logical paradox.
3. In a normal reductive relationship, there are certain invariants and contiguities that make it reasonable to assume an “identity” or equivalence relation between the two concepts—that is, between what’s being reduced and what it’s being reduced to. For example, a car may reduce to a set of car parts working in certain conjunction, and in that case both the car and the car parts are material items. You can see, touch, hear, smell and taste them. In the case of atoms, you can’t possibly see them, but we have indirect evidence that they play in the arena of matter by the usual means—mass, inertia, physical effects and affecters, etc. I’m not proposing that these contiguities or invariants are sufficient conditions to assume equivalence—only that they’re necessary conditions.
Now the problem with reducing mind to matter is that none of these invariants and contiguities exist between what we think of as the contents of mind and what we think of as physical items. Basically, when we say that an idea reduces to a certain neurochemical pattern or process, it doesn’t mean anything. We have no epistemic basis on which to link the two concepts in any sensical way that comprises identicality. While we may claim identicality in a kind of limp-wristed, ivory-tower fashion, it lacks any kind of fundamental coherence; it’s more like a placeholder for a concept standing in as an actual concept—a kind of understanding by proxy. The best we can scientifically do is to correlate physical causes and effects with consciousness’ activity.
Brains in Vats
Some people speculate that we’re “brains in vats” or similar, that all of reality is an illusion, being fed to us via some artificial means. I think that while this is not logically discountable, it’s unlikely. In truth, I have no doubt that this speculation is false (except perhaps in an abstract/spiritual sense), but as for what I can argue I’ll just say that it’s unlikely. Going back to Occam’s razor, the indirection required for a brain-in-vat-like scenario proposes an unnecessary “additional entity,” roughly speaking. Accurately speaking it just complicates things. In order to have a brain-in-vat-like scenario, this scenario must exist within some actual reality, with all of its complexity, and that reality in itself is, prima facie, no more or less likely than this reality. And then add the element of indirection and deception, for example you could add an “evil demon” (who actually cares enough about you to constantly, and consistently, fool you).
Not only that, but this sort of elaborate indirection takes more energy.. as a sort of universal decree, reality tends toward the path of least resistance or lowest energy consumption. That’s why rivers run downstream, electronics can short-circuit, and people generally care more about living their own life than about what you’re doing at the moment. Performing such an elaborate hoax as a brain-in-vat-like illusion—even if it’s by an evil demon—takes more energy, and therefore is less likely.
And thirdly, if it is all a brain-in-vat-like illusion, the longer it runs, the more complexity it has and the more observant its subject is, the less likely it is to continue without any noticed kinks/inconsistencies exposing it for what it is or at least raising a justified doubt. For example, in The Matrix, the same black cat was seen crossing twice, which they then inferred probably implied a “glitch in the matrix.”
Simulation Theory Debunked
Similarly, the idea that the universe is a computer simulation heavily violates Occam’s razor. People reason that advanced civilizations would run many more simulations of worlds than there would be actual worlds, therefore we’re probably in a simulation, but they forget that that introduces a much vaster realm of existence than ours full of advanced civilizations with gargantuan computers holding at least as much information as our perceived universe.
Direct Apprehension of the Noumenon
Some other things I want to say about the phenomenon of perception..
It’s interesting how perception is framed as the “link” between some fundamental “self” versus “other” dichotomy. Some philosophers seem to lament (or at least to conclude) that it’s impossible to have “direct apprehension of the noumenon,” and yet those same philosophers, by their reasoning, would make it logically impossible to do so. If it’s logically impossible to do so, then the very concept of “direct apprehension” of a thing-in-itself is necessarily meaningless and nonsensical, thus making any argument, either for or against such a “phenomenon”, necessarily incoherent and meaningless. Well, that is not strictly true, because the concept could be proven self-contradictory by means of the definitions of the respective words (such as how you would disprove a “square circle”), but to do so would be to reveal the vacuity of their arguments (as definitions are somewhat arbitrary, and their accompanying deductions are trivial), so of course that’s not what they’re doing.
If somebody had a direct apprehension of the noumenon, I’m sure such philosophers would argue that, because the object is not them, the apprehension must therefore have somehow come from outside of them, and thus must be some sort of perception. This begs the question, of course. If apprehension of a thing is necessarily perception, and perception is necessarily indirect, then “apprehension” of a “noumenon” is necessarily not “direct”. But then it’s just a matter of semantics, and they’re just arguing with themselves. Is it *really* necessarily perception, and is perception really necessarily indirect? What if all things are really unified?
Another strange thing about this framing is, if the object reflects light to the eye, which then refracts it projecting it onto the retina, whose cells resonate with various light-frequencies and then relay that information to the brain via the optic nerves, and then the visual cortex processes this information to produce a qualia, which is what we first become aware of (presumably somewhere else in our brain..)…exactly where do we draw the line between what’s happening “internally” and what’s happening “externally”? Are the qualia us, or are the qualia something we perceive? If they’re something we perceive, is the perception of it us, or something that we experience? If they’re something we experience, what are we, such that we could identify ourselves independently of self-experience? If the perception of the qualia is us, how do we know where the perception of it ends and the qualia begins? If the qualia is us, how do we know where the qualia ends and where what caused it begins? At exactly which nerve synapses does the qualia begin and completely non-experiential causal relay of visual information end? Is it some specific nanometer between temporal lobe and the visual cortex? Between the visual cortex and the optic nerves? Between the optic nerve and the retina? Between the retina and the photons that just hit it, are hitting it, or are about to hit it? And what of the path the photons took prior to hitting it?
Really, you just have the brain, the nerves, the sense organs, what’s outside of them, etc., and they’re all just integral pieces of the same confluent reality. That makes the miracle of perception easy, in some sense, but the hard part is, of course, still the mind-body problem. In fact it kind of underscores this quandary, by showing the arbitrariness of the boundaries of a supposedly physically reduced consciousness, vis a vis the “boundaries” of consciousness qua consciousness. (I could say much more on the mind-body problem, but I don’t want to digress too much.)
Monism Versus Pluralism
As for the monism/pluralism issue, I say that reality is neither monistic nor pluralistic. Actually, it depends on the definition of monism. Merriam-Webster gives 3 of them:
1. a view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance
2. the view that reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts
3. a viewpoint or theory that reduces all phenomena to one principle
Definition 2 I’d agree with—it’s pretty much the logical negation of pluralism/dualism, so to reject pluralism/dualism is pretty much to accept #2.
Definitions 1 and 3 are perhaps functionally equivalent, because how could we ultimately separate form from function? As perceiving beings, we can only identify a substance functionally (i.e. in terms of what it does/how it interacts with us and the rest of reality), at least in our analytical frame of mind. And a principle, of course, is a rule about how something is done. Either way, I reject both 1 and 3 as logical possibilities.
There cannot be one substance because in order for that substance to have a characteristic, it must be distinguishable somehow from other substances. If it is the only substance, though, there is no other substance to compare it to. As a “pure” substance, it would have no individual characteristics, and thus no particular relation to anything but itself — a tautology. It would be infinitely simple, and yet it would constitute everything we see. This is a contradiction because differentiation requires complexity. Also, in the real world the simplest possible thing, information-wise, might be, say, a binary unit. In that case it contains the smallest possible amount of information: it’s either on or off. In the case of a universal infinitely simple substance, its simplicity is even simpler than that, because there are no 0’s outside of it to compare to in order to call it a 1, or no 1’s outside of it to compare to in order to call it a 0. It’s thus vanishingly simple, going neck-to-neck with non-existence itself. Even if we were to grant non-existence the power to give rise to (or to otherwise constitute) all of existence, non-existence would thus be unlimited in every sense of the word, and an unlimited substance is not a substance, because it’s only limitation that can give it a specific identity; otherwise, what would differentiate a monistic substance from simply “everything”? And since everything is already a given, just positing “everything” wouldn’t address the question of monism.
Furthermore, in the real world everything we know and identify we know by contrast to something else, though this is harder to argue for. For some simple examples, though: water, which constitutes over 80% of the human body, has no taste. Air, which is also ubiquitous, has no taste. Color-blind people often don’t know they’re color-blind until they’re tested! And what we call “white light” isn’t even an equal proportioning of the various wavelengths—it contains way more yellow-orange than blue, for example.
On the other hand, if it’s a substance with a more complex set of characteristics (as opposed to what I called a “pure” substance) affording it its identity, then its set of characteristics is equivalent to a set of ways in which it interacts with another substance; otherwise what does it mean for it to have one characteristic instead of another, or even to have any characteristics at all? In the absence of any other substance to interact with, therefore, it can’t have any such characteristic, and therefore it can’t have a specific identity, and therefore it can’t be called a substance per se, as contrasted to its being designated simply “everything” or “reality”, which, again, would beg the question.
Likewise, if it’s a single monistic principle, this means all of reality behaves according to certain rules as opposed to some other possible ruleset, but how can we know what reality is doing if we can’t compare it to any other reality that’s doing something different? We can look at how its own parts interact with each other, but this doesn’t suffice because it all boils down to the same rule, or set of rules, so we’re not actually comparing it to anything but itself. But what if we imagined a different universe which we could contrast this ruleset to? Well, then, there are as many possible ways of identifying this ruleset by way of contrast as there are possible universes to contrast it to. And you can’t just exhaust all the possibilities and then come up with a sort of summary contrast, because the sum of all possible situations is just the whiteness, and you’re left where you started at, or perhaps you’ve narrowed it down so specifically that its identify is infinitely narrow and thus vanishes. This is the same reason you can’t simply imagine other universes to satisfy a comparison in the previous paragraph. Another consideration is that, in order to compare two universes, there must already be some sort of metaphysical agreement between them or there is no relationship or basis of comparison between them. And you can’t separate that metaphysical agreement between them from the monistic principle in question… more on that point in the coming paragraph about pluralism.
Another interesting point is exactly how we should conceive of a “principle.” Is it a ruleset? And is a rule just a principle (yay for circular definitions here) of certain limitations imposed on possibilities, a sort of “filter” on what can possibly happen? Or is it more of a current and contextual modus operandi of beingness itself, like the contours of a fast-flowing river at any given second? And how do we even distinguish those two things? Of course, in either case, the concept of a principle is founded in limitation. In one case it bounds the flow of events, and in the other case it’s just nature’s flow at a specific place and time (and maybe, consideration). The interesting thing about a principle formally postulated is that it must make a distinction between the things that it bears upon and the behavior of those things. It’s simply because without this, we can’t analyze its subject in a systematic way in order to draw limitations on its behavior. However, such a distinction seems, to me, to be always forged. Like I said before, analytically speaking, form and function must boil down to the same thing, so in other words, things are their behavior. Consider the fact that nothing in nature is not in flux: even a solid rock is composed of atoms jiggling around in their niches, and the atoms themselves are composed of internal parts in constant motion.
As for pluralism, the reason I reject it is that, if two separate entities were really separate/discrete/disparate/distinct on every level, then there would be no possible relation between them. There would be nothing to define how they interact with each other, or even a common ground for both things to be taken into consideration by the same observer (and presumably for them to be “in” the same universe — whatever “in” means there). Or if both things were covered by a common external rule, then there must be some common ground between the metaphysics of the rule and the metaphysics of the objects, because otherwise, each object being utterly unique unto itself and therefore not accountable in relation to anything else, there would be no telling exactly how the object fits into the rule or even whether it does. So in reality, it is the underlying common ground between any two objects that determines the principles of their interaction and their inter-relationships.
What’s interesting about “apparent differentiation” is that even its appearance requires differentiation in point of observation. The thing about differentiation in point of observation is that one point is differentiated only relative to another point; they have no objective disposition, and the whole remains singular. The differentiation exists only relative to itself, like a universe whose sum total of energy adds up to 0 and whose sum total of velocity adds up to 0, or a quantum particle/anti-particle pair that randomly springs from nothing and then cancels itself out just as quickly, or time which happens to require space to be measured while space itself requires time to have any meaning, so that when time and space are taken together as a whole, we and the “current” universe can only be considered as the same singularity from which time and space sprang in the Big Bang.
What I Really Think
So far I’ve just covered what I can argue about reality. What I actually think about reality is that it’s utterly unlimited and infinite, and singular but with contextual differentiation. All minds are one/connected, all souls are one/connected, consciousness and matter are one/connected, the individual and God are one/connected, and internal and external are one/connected. Therefore, thoughts create reality, and there’s no barrier to what philosophers call “direct apprehension of the noumena,” as perception itself is like a kind of moderated split-mindedness.
When I say that reality is utterly unlimited, though, I probably have to appeal to a broader view than the content of any single material universe/timeline, such as this one. Many-worlds theory may come close to such a consideration, but even it probably isn’t enough, as its own structure entails its own limitations.