Provocations #10 – Perceptions

“From the viewpoint of your eyes your own head seems to be an invisible blank, neither dark nor light, standing immediately behind the nearest thing you can see. But in fact the whole field of ‘out there in front’ is a sensation in the lower back if your head, where the optical centers of the brain are located. What you see out there is, immediately, how the inside of your head ‘looks’ or ‘feels’.”

Alan Watts

This is a remarkable thought.  I have long maintained (one of my aphorisms) that there is no reality, there are only our perceptions of it.

Imagine a pleasant summer day.  It’s mid-day and there is not a cloud in the sky in any direction.  You look straight up and what do you see?  Blue!  Perhaps we might even call it sky blue.  And the reasonable among us would all agree about this (one must always allow for the contrarians!).

But our experience of blue is likely very different.  For starters, we do not actually “see” blue light.  Scientifically speaking, blue light is visible electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 450–495 nanometers.  However, our eyes take in the image of ‘blue sky’, inverting and bending it as they do so, and transforms it into electrical signals sent through the optic nerve to the brain for processing and interpretation.  The Scientific American has a nice cartoon graphic of the process here.

And there’s the rub!  The brain is interpreting electrochemical signals, not the actual scene itself.  Following Alan Watts’ teachings about Buddhism, as well as  practical experience and modern science, this is reality.  That’s part of the point.

But the interesting bit to me is that the brain functions by establishing vast and complex neural networks based on electrochemical signals.  The neural pathways I establish for the blue sky scene I’m seeing, and all previous and successive blue skies, are linked to other sensations and experiences.  Certainly these neural patterns of entwined memories, experiences, and sensations are entirely and utterly unique for each individual.  So our perception of blue sky is also, by definition, unique.  What we see is inextricably linked to how we see it.  The observer and the observed are inseparable.

Taking a slight diversion into the realm of modern physics for a moment, this notion manifests itself in many ways.  For example the “observer effect” is a theory that states that simply observing a phenomenon, actually (necessarily) changes the phenomenon being observed.  Another example is Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle states that the more precisely one characteristic is known, say the position of a particle, the less precisely another quantity can be known, such as the momentum of the particle.

By extension, the same can be said of our perceptions and experiences of literally everything.  We cannot extricate ourselves and our sense of self, from nature and the world, any more than you can separate front from back or up from down.  We are of it.  Experience is it.  And we all are marvelously and wondrously unique in this.  And more importantly, we are all connected by this.

I think that Jose Ortega y Gasset put it best:

“I am myself and what is around me, and if I do not save it, it shall not save me.”



Provocations #9 – Liberal Thoughts

Image:  The seven liberal arts – Illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, 12th century.  Source: Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yes this is a provocative title, as I expect that many will immediately leap to the political connotations of the word “liberal”.  Liberal and conservative; left and right; right and wrong; etcetera.  Personally, I think that those words no longer have much meaning in modern political America.  These labels seem to be more about polls and elections, power and control, and less about what is best for the people and the planet on which we and all living things depend.

No, when I titled this Provocation I was reflecting upon my son’s recent graduation, and the context I had in mind is liberal education — as in the liberal arts. 

From the time I was young, through graduate school, I studied science.  And for me science is about seeking the truth.  As for ‘truth seeking’ I must confess that I think that many scientists do not seem to recognize this simple fact; though they would deny this lack of recognition on their part most strenuously if you put it to them in this way.  From my vantage point, it would seem that many scientists either miss, or ignore, or see only a part of the truth when they come across it.   An outcome of this (via the law of unintended consequences and other pathways), is that science and technology are at the root of our problems and challenges today.  That being said, it is likely that we will need science and technology, and more importantly new and ethical ways of using and applying them, to transition to a better state of affairs.  

How we use and apply science and technology takes us back to liberal education…  In a time when we seem to be engaging in “geek worship” and elevating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the humanities, we actually need need the liberally educated more than ever. 

It is only when we recognize that our greatest and most important problems are sociological and environmental, that we can begin to make better decisions, set better policy, and take appropriate and helpful actions.  In an outcome-driven, bottom line-obsessed culture, this shift in thinking will not come from the sciences.  We can only achieve this new way of thinking and decision making by recognizing the shared humanity in our plight.  And this recognition must extend beyond human beings to include all things, both animate and inanimate.  Only then will we actually create the conditions for a hopeful future for all.

So this is the truth that I have found. We have the cart before the horse.  Science and technology are now driving society and this is backwards.  Ultimately and fundamentally, the solutions to our problems are not technical.  They are driven by sociological and environmental imperatives.  Thus we must lead from the humanities and let them guide and direct the scientific agenda and set our policies.  Therein lies our salvation.

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