Continued Reflections on Perception

comments 11
Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

I wrote last week about the idea that bias is inescapable because the world that we experience is not a fixed reality, but the product somehow of our perceptions. A related idea is that we each experience the world differently because we each have a unique relationship with it. I think that gives an insight the previous statement does not.

In any case the word “world” is a difficult study, and here I mean it as something like all that exists within the meaning-making organs of our awareness—not all of which is present to our consciousness at any given moment—and which would include sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, concepts, beliefs, ideas and our various forms of self-identification. They’re all in there. Try to explain this to someone who insists the world is a perfectly obvious thing, and notice how quickly you start mumbling quietly to yourself with all the phonetic acumen of a person who has just had a tooth extracted.

Whatever such a world is, it’s not easily grasped. And this is partly why the perception of bias in one another is all but inescapable. We tend to see what we call bias most readily when critiquing a person whose opinion is at odds with our own, and not at all when it comes to our own thinking. An alleged means of keeping the peace when any two persons interact is to stipulate some rules about what is admissible and what is not admissible when one is trying to explain why one is right and the other wrong. This assumes one is right, and the other is wrong, of course, which is itself a mode of thinking that reflects an inherent bias. We could call such a bias “reasonable” if the contents of the worlds we each perceive were the same for all of us, but they quite obviously are not.

There are a couple of considerations here. The first is that nothing we see really means anything in the absence of a tremendous chain of conceptual logic that we apply to it. And I would also say that everyone’s chain of conceptual logic is tremendous. If you get the smartest weasel you can find and set it up in a well-maintained aquarium in front of two tiny lights that flash every once in a while following the parametric down conversion of a photon, it may become interested, but it probably won’t realize that the flashing lights are proving the validity of Bell’s Inequality. I’m not sure there’s a single human being on this planet who would be able to ascertain what two lights had to say about Bell’s Inequality without considerable knowledge of how those lights came to be where they are. The difficulty here is that it’s really, really hard to set up little calamities on a work bench that definitively mean one thing and could not possibly mean anything else whatsoever. It takes vast stores of knowledge to make inferences about the nature of the universe from two flashing lights. But let me say that I think we do amazing work in this regard.

It’s just that to unpack the slightest observation requires a considerable conceptual scaffolding, each tier of which is often predicated on the previous and thus, as a whole these structures can be subject to assumption, bias and misperception that is thousands of layers deep.

The second consideration is that people simply don’t have the same experiences. For starters, we’re almost never in the same place at the same time looking in the same direction paying attention to the same little bits of energy. And when we are, we’re certainly not considering those little bits of energy in light of the same histories, memories, training, life conditions, or ideals.  One argument is that if we were in the same place looking in the same direction at the same things, then all else being equal, we’d be having the exact same sensory impressions. But for me, even that’s a bit tricky. We can probably agree that if we use a device that’s not smart enough to be distracted to record those sensory impressions for us—something like a photographic plate—then we could agree on certain aspects of what just happened.

The real issue is when two people who were in two different places, and who occupy two very different relationships to what we call the world, try to tell each other what could or couldn’t have happened where the other one was. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that one Friday evening Person 4,327,005 elects to attend a Native American ceremony known to be useful in the recovery of lost items, while Person 1,983,411,309 elects to attend the symphony. Person 1,983,411,309 reports that the lead cellist was a sublime musical talent, and Person 4,327,005 reports that a flying gourd almost hit her in the head during the ceremony, and that Mrs. Smith’s great grandmother’s diary, which had been missing for thirty years, was located and placed on the altar by the spirits.

What happens next depends upon all sorts of factors, but we know that a very common scenario would involve Person 1,983,411,309 telling Person 4,327,005 that she ought to submit herself to some sort of psychological or medical evaluation; that she should avail herself, when time permits, of the Laws of Thermodynamics; or that she should consider the possibility that she has been the brunt of a joke. Basically, Person 1,983,411,309 means to say that Person 4,327,005 is wrong.

Now why is that? Why do we do this to one another?

It’s a good question I think.


  1. Hi Michael,
    An interesting post. I agree with many of your points. Our perceptions are constructed from our worldview with, hopefully, corrections made from current sensations.

    Ultimately I think a lot of this comes down to which theory of truth we adhere to. Of course, I realize that even saying that presupposes there is a truth “out there”. But this assumption, that there is an objective truth, whether or not we can ever know it, seems to be have been an enormously fruitful one. It enables us, or at least seems to, to make accurate predictions, such as which medical treatments will alleviate our suffering and which won’t.

    Why disabuse someone that spirits didn’t deposit a long lost diary in front of them? I’m a skeptic but I have to admit I’d be unlikely to do that unless I knew the person well, or I perceived that they were in danger of making poor decisions about important matters based on what they think they learned in that scenario.

    In the end, I think we construct our worldview to help us make predictions, predictions about future conscious sensations. Such predictions increase our ability to survive and thrive. Pointing out to someone that their understanding of something may be flawed is an attempt to update their worldview, to help them make better predictions, and hence better decisions based on those predictions.

    Of course, if we ourselves are wrong, then we may be unknowingly subverting their ability to make predictions. In other words, we may be harming them. To paraphrase Tolkien, advice is a dangerous thing, one we shouldn’t employ without caution.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Mike.

      Posts like this one come from my concern about any one group of human beings, who share a worldview, imposing that view upon others. It strikes me that when and where this occurs it is because one group feels entitled to “help” another group, or one group feels it is “right” and the other wrong. I have this concern about religious groups that attempt to marginalize portions of society and impute their will upon the larger society, and I have this concern to an approximately equal degree about secular groups who would like nothing more than to stamp out worldviews inconsistent with their own.

      Native American traditions are an interesting point of entrance to this type of discussion, I think, because they’re not exactly laden with the sorts of outcomes those who oppose religions tend to decry, and also they are evidence of a cogent worldview that demonstrated predictive prowess much along the lines you describe for thousands of years. Personally I would put a wide number of worldviews on equal footing, and pay them credence, rather than targeting a single culture of worldviews in our larger society.

      There is also the deeper issue which I touched upon in the previous post, which is that there quite possibly are underlying perceptual orientations that contribute to conditions of the world which cannot be interrogated by the hypothesis of an objective truth. In a world where a greater multiplicity of worldviews were respected and sought after–where we looked at this through a greater arc of the horizon if you will–we might then hear a debate or discussion about such ideas, and perhaps others as well. And they might have really interesting outcomes.

      While hatred, judgment and intolerance seem like universally limiting content, in any worldview, once we’re beyond that I think there is a great deal of territory simply unexplored.


      Liked by 4 people

  2. Hi Michael; as with Mike above, and as we (you and I) have recently discussed, I’m not keen on this notion of Truth/Reality, albeit necessary as a notion in order that we all get along and so as to agree on some consensus; that is to say, the patterning of the world has many recognisable and repeatable distinctions and there is general agreement on this. Good, we can work with this, and in any case it seems to be a survival necessity. Then we gird the whole lot up with language, inference and concepts and make of it all a supposed actuality, meaning the world we apprehend (which is only ever a mind construct), is taken as the world as it is (i.e. Naive Realism). And even though we all may agree (on an intellectual level) that the brain and nervous system make up the world as experienced, still we believe and act as if it were not the case, that we are somehow engaged immediately with (and in) its objective status, the world as it is ontologically in itself. I think you’ve covered all this in your own words, Michael, forgive me. It seems to me that the only true consensus, meaning the only world that we each experience as individuals and which also is identical to the next person’s, is our awareness stripped bare of all objects of consciousness. This is not a describable ‘world’ as it has no distinguishing features. Now, some (and I know Mike @SAP is amongst them) believe there can be no such thing, and that all awareness is of some object of consciousness, however refined and apparently featureless that awareness may be — in other words, it’s always an ‘awareness of (something)’. Rightly or not, I argue differently, and in doing so posit that there is a shared actuality, though it’s not a matter of shared or like perceptions. One might say it’s the world as it is when the world as a construction of the conscious mind isn’t present as a preeminent, dominant quality. I suppose some might say that’s a rather bleak and empty kind of actuality, because at base it’s featureless. What makes it beautiful, though, is the overlay or superimposition of the mind-constructed world; it’s that which animates and gives tone to the stillness, peace and silence that is always present. The beauty of a Bach cantata or Giotto’s painted angels isn’t the unperceived waveforms of sound and light in themselves, but how consciousness constructs a representation of them and which then plays upon our objectless awareness. So Reality (if we allow of such a thing) is what facilitates our painting of the world with our minds, each being a different world. And yet there is a world, too. 1) Awareness 2) The World as it is 3) The world as a mind construct. 4) The world as a consensus. Thanks for making a think a bit, Michael, as so often you do! With love, Hariod.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hariod,

      Thank you for joining me here, once again. I wanted to say that I do agree with the possibility/reality of a consensus on the featureless awareness. In my view, if we were to draw a ven diagram containing all worldviews that were logically consistent, then this would be the point where all such circles intersected. If you’ll forgive me for drawing A Course of Love into this discussion, it is said therein that, “There are no conditions in the state of union as there are no attributes to love.” And I find this quite a satisfactory dovetailing with your own words. We need never agree on the words, and we may never will. They don’t matter. This feature of our existence is universal though, I would agree. Now the question becomes: what does each worldview build onto it, as you rightly ask, again in your own words (and if I’ve understood you correctly).

      So what I was aiming to present, in part, is that there are a great many possibilities for what we add unto this “beginning.” So, when I had the opportunity to take a Lakota ceremonial elder to the Lakota Exhibit at the Harvard Peabody Museum, where of course the irony was dripping palpably off of our foreheads, and we talked about how he views the world, then I think he, too, would agree. I can’t speak for him of course. But I can say that there are “realities” in his worldview that do not intersect with all of the other ven diagrams… and that’s okay. My main point is that to call some of those points of non-intersection real, and other points impossible or unreality, is to make the assumption that what is beyond our fundamental point of intersection is an objective and singular “thing” or “process” which we can objectively understand.

      I don’t pretend to know how all the non-intersecting parts of our ven diagrams contribute to the collective “world” but I do suspect they remain in relationship to one another, and all have contributory elements. I am worried that in dismissing the non-intersecting parts of one another’s diagrams, we dismiss possibility that could help us all. And I further suspect the idea of mutual exclusivity of the non-intersecting parts of our individual ven diagrams is one of those core assumptions that we find it all but impossible to interrogate effectually. This is why I would advocate a culture of diversity in worldviews, and tolerance of difference–not tolerance of hatred, or judgment, or dogma–but tolerance of the idea that what one culture has done for hundreds if not thousands of years probably has something to it…

      I would further say that the piling on of individual ven diagrams, to extend the areas of common overlap–such as occurs in a common culture–strengthen the power/possibility of bringing the “world as it is” into being.

      To put this on terms you yourself used, I would agree there is 1) unqualified, unconditioned awareness, which is the point of common intersection. 2) The World As It Is, I don’t think this exists, unless you mean the world as it exists in any given moment, and which provides the input to our senses; if so, this is not a fixed entity, but an evolving entity subject (in my opinion) to what we add unto the point of common beginning; 3) The World as a Mind Construct exists, but only in each of us; and this would be our individual ven diagrams, right; and 4) this would be nothing at all, or highly illusory, as it would be conditions that obtain due to mutual agreement, and which may or may not be malleable. We don’t know if they’re malleable if the consensus worldview is that they are not.

      But it could be the case, as I would propose, that pockets of culture are able to obtain consensus realities that are non-overlapping with other pockets of culture.


      Liked by 2 people

      • PS, I think I’ve misused the term ven diagram. In my use of the term in my 2nd, 3rd and subsequent paragraphs, I meant the individual circle of comprehension we each obtain. I think if I were using the term correctly, the only ven diagram would be the overlay of all these individual circles. I hope this isn’t too confusing, but suspect for you it is not… I mean to say our individual circles can be various, and by overlapping or not-overlapping in a true, all-encompassing ven diagram, could provide a map of culturally empowered possibilities.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. such a relief,
    a refuge here
    in your world, dear Michael!
    i’d welcome you
    to mine, but
    at the moment
    it’s a kaleidoscopic
    of uncertainties
    & possibilities 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, David! I think we’re all in the kaleidoscope of uncertainty and possibility. Navigating the phenomenal world, working to discover where lies the solid ground…!


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Michael,
    I am not certain that this post was motivated at all by the tremendous divide in our country, but it is a topic worthy of meaningful exploration.
    After I finished reading it, the thought dawned on me that maybe I feel that a miracle is at work when I discover that one other being totally understands where I am coming from, in real time. Or when someone finishes my sentence. We needed ACIM to be channeled now perhaps more than ever, because duality often seems the norm and unity and anomaly.

    But of course, this is my perception 😉

    peace, Linda

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Linda. I thought I’d responded but I can see I liked your comment, and never actually wrote back. My apologies…! I agree with your description of a miracle. To be understood, or known, as we truly are is actually quite an amazing thing. It means we’re being witness truly–not through the lenses or boxes we’re often put in when we encounter and are encountered by another, but as we are.

      Yes, it’s interesting how things seem to be heightened–the polarity, the duality. I think there is lots happening on the unity front, too, though!


      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Michael,

    You wrote, “In any case the word “world” is a difficult study, and here I mean it as something like all that exists within the meaning-making organs of our awareness.”

    Who or what is included and who or what is excluded in your “our” ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello OR,

      In the context of this article I was speaking about human beings, and I never gave it much thought beyond that. But if we were to lift this quote from the article and set it aside, as a stand alone statement, and ask who might be included or excluded from the word ‘our’ as it is used, then I would say any subjective consciousness with the faculty of making meaning out of what it perceives.


      Liked by 1 person

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