Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Imagining Reality

I saw a talk on TED a couple of years ago by cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman. He presented his view that our perceptual faculties have evolved for our survival and not so much to preserve a likeness to whatever it is that is causing our perception. To some extent, this is an unremarkable hypothesis since we already know that the range of colours and sounds extends beyond that we can see and hear. What are sounds to us and other living things are basically air vibrations, and there is no sound in the void of outer space. We also know our perceptual systems are tricked by optical illusions.

But Hoffman's idea is more radical - he thinks that the world we perceive might bear no more resemblance to whatever causes our perceptions than a computer screen interface bears to the actual inner workings of the computer, i.e., none. Further, he believes that even scientific activity remains at the perceptual "user interface" and, for all intents and purposes, we remain within the matrix of our perceptual systems, with no perceptual access to reality. Even brains and neurons, as we study them, reside in the interface. This is not to say we are lost in a sea of perceptual illusion, however. He retains hope that mathematics and reason will guide us to scientific truths.

Variations on the idea that we cannot get beyond our modes of perception to experience reality directly have been advanced throughout the history of ideas.  For the most part, these positions have been thought to entail that we simply do not know what is beyond the perceptual horizon and must leave aside any hopes of metaphysical insight; or that are grounds to believe that we are somehow trapped inside our heads, or that the world we see is a hallucination or a delusion; or that the world there is is really nothing other than the world we perceive - esse est percipi.

We end up with this set of positions only because our idea of reality is one that assumes a gulf between Mind and Nature.

The world is real (or it is nothing). I'm not saying that we perceive things as they would be without us. Why have we have assumed that's what reality is - the world as it is without us? The world we inhabit is a dynamic environment that includes us and within which we have considerable influence, for better or worse. A world without us is clearly an imaginary one. Without perceiving beings, the world wouldn't really look like anything.  It has existed and could exist without us, and it will again one day, but as of now, here we are.

It's a simple truism. The world we perceive is the world in which we live. Our perceptions occur in nature, and they are more or less relevant to our purposes, whether those purposes be the pursuit of scientific knowledge, manipulating others, or obscuring something painful from our past.  Perceptual veridicality is not true representation of a non-perceived world but has to do with with the horizon of our intentions.

Our idea of objectivity (our current one - the concept of objectivity has a history) is the idea of the world  without us, a world imagined without involvement (taint) from any human intention or purpose. This has led us to frame reality as a principally spatial world of catalogued things whose interactions can be described in terms of the operation of forces acting according to laws of nature.

Our habit of conceptually freeze-framing phenomena in space and time in a way that favours spatial and mathematical representation is likely cognitively energy-saving but ontologically misleading. Perception is an active response to our present environment and we cannot remove ourselves from the world to understand it - why would we think we could? Does anyone know what the world would look like sub specie aeternitatis (from the POV of eternity)?

The conceptual freeze-frame is only a shorthand that we have somehow managed to reify because we see ourselves as so different from nature. Our own nature has been considered an impediment to objectivity. Nevertheless, we live in a dynamic symbiotic universe, not a world of disconnected things attracted by forces and governed by laws. We reify our conceptual models and assume tangible experience falls short.

The question of how the world is without our witnessing it is not possible to answer. That doesn't mean there is "some mysterious unknowable world" about which we have no direct or indirect information or that the existence of the world depends upon us perceiving it. The question is an error. The world we know more or less well is the world in which we came to be.

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