Letting Up The Stranglehold On “Our” Reality

It is helpful to see that the apparently unified world we perceive – and in which we do all our living and loving – conforms to the observer that we are. It does not include what we cannot perceive or cognize; what we perceive and cognize is constrained by the organism we are.

spider-webThese constraints are not with creative effect, however. In essence, the distinctions they make are the world that we perceive, engage with, respond to, et cetera. It’s a bit like (but not precisely like) tennis: the boundaries that make the court, and the net that divides and elevates it are what make the game possible. Absent those constraints, tennis would not exist.

Given this, any reference to the Whole or the All or the Truth or the Source or even simply to Reality reflects a fundamental confusion. There is such a thing as the whole unity an observer perceives, but it is only “whole” relative to the observer itself. And since the observer is always changing, then the relative whole is as well.

We cannot escape this fact! We cannot be other than the observer we are – we can’t see the world the way a butterfly does, or hear it the way a dog does, or live on it the way a sunflower does. But it is possible to believe that we can escape or even have escaped this fact. Indeed, most of us live in that belief all the time. In a way, it is the default mode for human observers

If we give careful attention to the experience we are having, we might notice that it includes – as an underlying, apparently built-in presumption – that it is real, reliable, trustworthy, et cetera. We can describe it, measure it, make predictions about what will happen if we do this or that, and so forth. It is reliable.

This reliability tends to support the notion that what we perceive is in fact the real world, faithfully rendered via perception and cognition in order that we might effectively and meaningfully engage with it. Evolution designed us accordingly. To suggest otherwise is counter-intuitive.

But what if that premise – that perception reveals the one true external world – is wrong?

That an observer’s perception and cognition should be functional – effectively functional, complexly functional – is no surprise. How else would an organism survive? Yet to conflate that functionality with veridicality – i.e., with truthfulness – may not be justified.

Chris Fields (in conjuction with Donald Hoffman, Chetan Prakash and Manish Singh) has argued extensively and persuasively that there is ample evidence undermining the traditional notion that an observer’s perception recreates a faithful model of an external observed world.

. . . the classical notion of an observer-independent “objective” reality comprising spatially-bounded, time-persistent “ordinary objects” and well-defined local causal processes must simply be abandoned.

This builds on Hoffman’s notion that absolute reality as such is naturally foreclosed to the human organism. What human observers perceive are simply descriptions designed to facilitate helpful local response to local phenomena. They are highly functional user-generated interfaces that allow us to survive and reproduce.

Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.

Assume for a moment that Fields and Hoffman et al are correct: that we are observers whose capacity for observation is not about fidelity to Truth – not about reality – but rather about what works in order to maximize organismic survivability.

What does that do to our sense of spiritual searching? Of self-inquiry? Especially if that search/inquiry includes – subtly, subconsciously or otherwise – the notion that we are making contact with reality? Encountering Truth? Becoming one with God or the Cosmos or Life?

There are no “right” answers to these questions, in the sense that there is a “right” answer to “who won the 2013 world series?” Indeed, perhaps the most helpful aspect of these questions is simply the way they redirect our attention away from supposedly dispositive answers and back to experience itself.

That is, rather than assume that there is some supernatural entity or arcane lore or metaphysical law, the acquisition of which will ensure our entry into a state preferable to our current one, we can simply begin to give attention to the experience we are having right now.

It is nontrivial – it’s actually kind of incredible – to realize that when one is eating a pancake they are not climbing a mountain. I don’t mean the intellectual realization that we can’t do two things at once; I mean the literal experience of being present to experience, as it is happening. It is the realization that there is always only this: this this. This very this.

Really, we are simply nudging our interior sense of certainty askew a bit. We are just looking into experience and seeing what it is, what it’s like, what it includes, doesn’t include, et cetera. What happens when we do this? It is a kind of happiness to discover the answer.

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