Pondering the Perceived World: Cleaving Perceptions from Reality
The world is huge. Innumerable things are happening all the time, everywhere. Our bodies are like a big receivers constantly taking in information from the outside world. All this is funneled into the brain, where it’s tasked with pouring over the mass of information and piecing it all together into what we recognize as our conscious awareness. To make this process more manageable, and to increase our evolutionary standing, the brain filters out what is deemed as unnecessary information, and presents our awareness with a fragmentary collage of life that appears to us as a fluid whole. This is great from an evolutionary standpoint, but troublesome from an existential one. The byproduct of this filtration process, sensory gating, is a type of solipsism that makes it really difficult to ask, let alone answer, questions of existential scope without resorting to the controversial logic: “I” am at the center of my experience of life, therefore “I” must somehow be central to it.
Here’s a string of quotes that does admittedly include some long ones, but are completely worth it in fleshing out this idea:
The world is my representation.”
– Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, p. 3
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Memorable Fancy (1790-1793)
And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts about geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right?”
– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
…this is a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being…that he does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation…the ancient wisdom of the Indians declares that ‘it is Mâyâ, the veil of deception, which covers the eyes of mortals, and causes them to see a world of which one cannot say either that it is or that it is not; for it is like a dream, like the sunshine on the sand which the traveller from a distance takes to be water’…But what all these meant, and that of which they speak, is nothing else but what we are now considering, namely the world as representation…”
– Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, p. 3
…the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”
– Dr. C. D. Broad, as quoted in The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley (1954)
* This next one’s a doozy. If you’re interest is waning, feel free to skip. But it’s rich if you have the endurance.
According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born—the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds,” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large. Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In others temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,” or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows, not indeed the perception “of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (for the by-pass does not abolish the reducing valve, which still excludes the total content of Mind at Large), but something more than, and above all something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality.”
– Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, p. 22-24
A very sensible response to all this could be put: our brains do what they do for a reason, and with the help of sensory gating, we’ve evolved into the most advanced species in the history of the known Universe. In the long-term, living standards are consistently rising and global poverty is plummeting. There is no actual problem (please take 5 minutes to explore this link, beautifully capturing this).
In one sense, this is true. But until subjective experience is admitted as data, or further integrated, statistical representations of the human condition must be taken with many grains of salt. Evaluating all human life objectively denies the very subjective depths that make us human. “So long as living standards and incomes are high, all is well” is a troublesome ideology. The unreflective consent to the fragmented world of sensory gating being perceived as all there is breeds a self-interest that erodes the quality of our lives, and challenges the longevity of our species.
Of course, doing anything constructive about this is extremely difficult. Detaching from your cerebral narratives is always idiosyncratic. There’s no single practice or answer that will deliver everybody to the promised land of an undifferentiated awareness. I’m writing all of this at risk of sounding like I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m just as confused as the rest. Me writing this page is not about trying to share my knowledge – I’m in no position to do so. I’m just trying to bolster my experience with these ideas, creating deeper relationship with them. Writing about an idea seems a whole other beast than reading about it. Just reading the Universe’s book of secrets wouldn’t make you an omniscient and perfected human being. You’d still retain all your baggage, neuroses, attachments, and ignorance. And what’s the use of knowledge that doesn’t instruct or nourish our actual lives? Sparking an interior renovation that sinks in past the intellectual to the embodied aspect of our existence is tough. Reading and knowing things aren’t enough, we need to experience and live them.
It’s like Osho says about finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world:
God is not a thing but a creation. And only those who create find. And it is good that meaning is not lying there somewhere, otherwise one person would have discovered it – then what would be the need for everybody else to discover it?”
– Osho, Creativity, p. 181
It’s a really difficult and annoying thing to be told that you cannot be told what to do along this track. It’s much harder to figure it out on our own, being told nothing other than: “you’ve just gotta do the necessary self-work”, “find out who you really are”, “do some soul-searching”, etc. But that’s where we are. We’ve gotta figure it out for ourselves by exposing ourselves to a diverse enough array of stimuli that we spark some sort of soul-piercing contemplation; involution.
This whole thing has gone way farther than I’ve intended, we’ve gotten off the original track of just being an informative page on the divide between perceptions and reality. Let’s end it here before it gets any weirder. Thanks for listening, and if anything resonated, or if you have any lingering questions or thoughts, shoot me a message so we can be confused together.