Lately I’ve been listening to a few more podcasts and reading a few more op ed pieces in the media than I ever have before, and one really interesting observation has become clear to me. We are (all of us) biased in ways I think would surprise us were they actually understood. While it may seem obvious, nevertheless this had the feel of real discovery to me. And I think there is a reason for our collective myopia: the world rewards perception.
The world validates perception.
I think it’s worthwhile to consider that the “world” does not exist as an objective reality like we suspect it might. And in the case where there is no objective reality, then the very concept of bias is meaningless. You simply have people describing their vantage points. Everyone has a particular view, and while all of them are more or less biased with respect to all the others, very few are actually mutually exclusive. The world as I see it is more like a web of partially overlapping perceptions than a fixed subject that reveals itself to careful scrutiny. Because of this, I think we mislead ourselves whenever we make sweeping claims.
But is the world simply what we make of it then? Can I simply declare how much money I have in my bank account? Who will love me? What my job title will be? How long I will live?
Of course not. But it simply doesn’t follow from the fact that we do not control the world, or our specific place in it at any given time, that it must be the fixed, objective and singular “thing” we wish/suppose it to be. What’s interesting to me is that if there is any veracity to this claim that the “world” as we think of it simply doesn’t exist, then our relationship to the world changes. Our responsibilities change. Our experience is no longer simply a report on the world’s condition, but the return on our perceptual investment. I want to explore what this could mean, but first I’d like to clarify what I’m suggesting.
For my purpose here it’s fine to declare that water flows downhill and electrons radiate light when they shift places within the atom. I don’t dispute these notions. What’s more interesting to me is how the world’s utterly reliable mechanics mislead us into thinking that our experiences are the result of particular and finite causes—of the world being a certain way. This idea compels us to identify the factors at work around us that have led to the conditions in which we find ourselves. As to what these are, or which are most relevant, we simply do not agree. If half a lifetime of observation is any clue, we’ll never agree.
If the world were as objective as we’ve hoped, meaning that the experiences it engendered were due to orderly causes whose underlying mechanisms were more or less amenable to our tinkering, then it would be meaningful to think we could modulate the world’s dials and change the quality of our existence. But if, instead, there are fundamental relationships between the modes of perception with which we seed the “world” and the sorts of evidence, or experiences, that it returns, then no amount of tinkering with the dials will lead to sustained transformations of experience. This, I believe, is the reality of our condition.
Why does this matter? Well, let us suppose that what we call “the world” exists only as an experiential engine that returns evidence to us of precisely what we have chosen to perceive. If this is so, then 99% of the strategies we find ourselves seeking to implement will fall short of the promised return. This would be important I think. Also, this discovery about the world would suggest we possess capabilities we’ve simply not understood.
Perhaps the most essential argument against what I’m proposing would be this: I can’t wake up tomorrow, flip a switch on my perception, and end poverty. In fact, I can hardly flip the switch on my own life, and if you’re talking about the power of positive thinking… then I can’t believe I’ve even read this far. So let me be clear: I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.
I’m talking about hereditable, self-reinforcing conditions of perception universally active in the collective human population so fundamental we don’t know how to interrogate them. So fundamental they may even be hard-wired in our biology. One such perception might be this: we exist in a zero sum game. Another might be this: our existence is fragile. Or this: I can draw upon only on what I own. I’m talking about ideas so fundamental, and so ubiquitous, they appear to us as givens. We can’t imagine how they could be outcomes instead of facts. We’ve baked them into the world engine in spades.
If these notions I’ve suggested about perception were so, then what would be the rational response to the world as we “see” it? It would be simple, I think. Being the smartest or most astute would be useless, really. Being “right” about policy would be secondary. What would be most important would be the inner act of perceptually undercutting these hereditable traits of perceptual orientation that have produced the word as it appears to be, and of making other possibilities real to ourselves and others. I think we’d recognize with little to do that any contributions we can make to supplying evidence of the possibility for genuine transformation would be of lasting value. What other response would compute?
Instead of mud-slinging, shouting one another down, insisting on our version of the “truth”, or focusing on achieving the greatest degree of control over external conditions, we’d recognize the greatest resource we have is one another. We might even recognize that policies or actions we take that enable others to perceive the world anew are the ones that matter most, for these contributions would in essence contribute to the lasting cessation of needless suffering. If the gift we wished to give the world each day was the gift of evidencing the idea that the world does not need to be as it is, it would not be so hard.
I don’t have all the answers, not even a fraction of them, but I’m not sure it’s answers that we need. I think we need better questions.