How do we see the world? Obviously with our eyes, but to truly understand how we see the world we must think a little harder than that. For example doesn't a blind person see the world, in some sense? Of course they do, using their other senses, but also using their interior subjective model of the world, constructed from experience, memory, logical inference, and our brain's ability to spatially map out it's own internal representation of our surroundings.
When we see the world with our eyes, we also construct an internal model of the world, just as a blind person does; the difference is that we have additional visual information available, and we place more emphasis on that than we do sound, touch, smell, movement, and spatial rhythm.
But the light we use to see is only a tiny fraction of the spectrum of photon energies available in nature. In fact, with respect to most of the photons bouncing off of objects in our environment we are blind, completely in the dark.
We have instruments that can detect and form images using infra-red photons or ultra-violet or x-ray photons. But our eyes can't see them. When we are in a room or outside at night with no visible light, the space around us is flooded with infra-red photons but it still seems dark to us. We are always surrounded by this darkness, and empty space, and atoms and molecules.
When we send photons of visible light to strike the atoms and molecules surrounding us, some are absorbed, and some bounce off and scatter at different angles. Our eyes receive these bouncing photons and they strike molecules in our retinas. This causes chemical reactions which creates tiny electric signals in the optic nerve.
Then our brain performs it's magic. It picks out details from the stream of information it receives in the form of electric signals, pulses of information that contain traces of the spatial arrangement of atoms and molecules suspended in the dark space around us.
Our brain uses this stream of information to assemble an internal map, an internal visual representation, related to but radically different from our surroundings. The objects around us consist mostly of space in the gaps between molecules. But our brain creates the appearance of smooth continuous surfaces because we are unable to see space; we only see the photons that bounce off the atoms. Our brain maintains this internal spatial visual map, like our own internal graphical model, so that we may consult it to form plans, take actions, move about, control and manipulate and interact with our environment. But we don't really see what is around us; we think what our brain allows us to know about our environment.
Examine the chessboard image below, paying particular attention to squares labeled A and B, and notice how they contrast with the neighboring squares.
You can be forgiven for saying that square A is darker than square B. Unless you are familiar with this optical illusion, you would find it hard to believe me when I say that square A and B are exactly the same shade of grey, and that the only reason you see a difference is because your brain is compensating for the shadow cast by the green cylinder.
This is the occipital lobe of your brain working unconsciously to process the visual image that falls upon your retina. You don't have to try to do this, and your conscious mind does not have access to it. It is just like your heartbeat, automatic and fully unconscious. To demonstrate this, take a look at the revised image below, which has joined the squares in question with a connecting channel. Now you can detect the sameness of the two by noting the lack of contrast in the channel that joins squares A and B.
But you might be tempted to think this is a trick, that the pixels are different in the second image, or that the connecting channel has a gradual and undetectable variation of shade. But notice how the squares A and B contrast with their neighbors. You can still detect the illusion this way: by noticing that relative to its neighbors square A still appears to be dark, and square B appears to be light. Hold your thumbs up to the image blocking out the neighboring squares to the left and the right of the joint squares A and B. By limiting the adjacent contrasts this restricted view fully exposes the internal unconsciously generated illusion.
What you see happening here is a small taste of how your brain unconsciously influences, indeed changes, how you see the world you live in. Looking at optical illusions can be fun
and entertaining, but there is something deeper to learn from this game. What we are learning is that the world is not actually the way we see it. And we can extrapolate that the world is not actually the way we think it.
We do not have an unmediated window onto the objective reality outside of our minds, but rather we see things in the way our brain presents them to us. It is quite similar to being able to view information from a database in different graphical presentations, say pie charts or bar charts or otherly structured graphs. We know their is a relationship between them, but we also know that the graph we view is not identical to the underlying data. There is a gap, a difference, an unbridgable distinction between the two.
Our brain has developed a way of viewing the world over millions of years of evolution that enables us to succeed and survive. Natural selection has tuned our brains so that we may navigate, manipulate, and meaningfully differentiate our environment and the objects contained in it. So what we see in our minds is a functional model of the physical world, which closely approximates it but is not identical to it; certainly not in the way we are in the habit of assuming.
Before moving on, here is one more fun illusion; the Spinning Dancer
in the image below can be seen at first glance to turn either clockwise or counter-clockwise. For myself and the majority of people, the initial default is clockwise, but there are some who will see it as counter-clockwise initially. But you can change it to spin the opposite direction in which you originally perceive the rotation.
To make the image spin in the opposite direction you need to reverse your inner conception of when the extended leg is passing behind or in front of the planted leg. You should be able, with your mind, to make it spin the opposite of the direction you initially see. If you have trouble doing this the link provided above discusses this in greater detail. If you succeed in reversing it, what you are experiencing here is the magnificent flexibility of the brain, but also the richly convincing manner in which it causes us to believe we are seeing the actual world, rather than an internal representation and interpretation of the world.
About 20 years ago I took a drawing class, and had the experience of doing a charcoal drawing where I only focused on the value of darkness and light in the subject I was drawing. I ignored the lines and shapes and dimension, but focused only on reproducing the relative brightness and darkness of light falling upon my eyes. An lo and behold, as if by magic, the object I was drawing appeared on paper with shape and dimension that was a recognizable approximation of the bottle or fruit I was attempting to reproduce. I was amazed because the fact was, I didn't know how to draw, and had never known how to draw, and suddenly by faithfully reproducing values of light I could draw (sort of)!
I mentioned this very pleasing experience to an acquaintance of mine, a visual artist, and she said something that has always stayed in my mind, even though it was really just a brief remark in passing that happened during a 10 minute bus ride. She said that when doing art, you need to see things as they really look, and not in terms of how you can use them. This may seem like a trivial observation, but this little sentence contains a very important distinction that most of us are probably never aware of and perhaps take completely for granted.
To see what I mean, choose an object in the room with you and don't even think of what it is, what it's name is, or how one uses or enjoys it. Simply focus on the color, the light, the reflectivity, the surface texture. Don't even consider shape or dimension, but merely the two dimensional pattern of light arriving at your retina. What you are actually seeing, what is in the room with you, is not color, but light reflected from a collection of atoms aggregated into molecules, bound together by electrostatic forces, that interact with photons in such a way as to absorb certain wavelengths (or energies), and to emit or reflect other wavelengths (or energies) of photon. What enters your eye is not color but a distribution pattern from among the various frequencies of the visible spectrum of light. It is your brain that supplies the color. And not just a color, but a range of values and intensities, depending on the texture and angles of the surfaces facing you. A single "color" can involve a perception in your mind of thousands of gradually varying shades from bright to dark.
This purely visual light-field is how the artist must be able to see the world: unmediated by higher level subjective conceptual projections. The object I am viewing is brown, and has smooth shiny surfaces whose appearance ranges from nearly black, to soft brown, up to something almost silvery and shiny. If I allow my mind to consider now the distance to the object, the angles of it's surfaces, the relative sizes and shapes of it's parts, a three dimensional object is constructed in my mind that matches a utilitarian concept: the thing I'm looking at is used to sit down on. It is a chair made of polished dark wood.
The point of this discussion is to tease apart the imaginary continuity, the fullness and plenitude we create in our minds when we see the world. The purpose of doing this work is to heighten the distinction between how the world is, and how we construct in our minds a subjective representation of the world around us. We have now noticed that our mind constructs an additional layer on top of how things simply look, to arrive at a higher level in the logical hierarchy of our subjective interpretation of the world. We are now looking at how things are used, we assign names, meaning and value to them in terms of what they can do for us. We may glance at the room and determine fairly quickly a list of the objects in terms of their names, which are connected to our understanding of what the objects are for. We can view our surroundings in this way without even a thought about color and reflectivity and texture, how things actually look in terms of pure light, but we leap to a subjective level of abstract purpose and utility that is in some ways schematic or skeletal, logical but not emphasizing details of appearance.
In my mind the room has tables, chairs, floors, walls, a fireplace, a piano, sofas, windows, bookshelves, and books. But in actuality these things are not in the room; the room contains atoms combined into molecules bonded together by electrostatic forces, distributed across space in various densities according to physical laws that give them tangible properties. All this material happens by the laws of physics to scatter and reflect photons in various patterns, from which I construct in my mind a map of the various sizes, shapes, colors, locations, uses, origins, histories, and other properties that are useful and important to me. The room is full of neutral aggregates of matter; my mind creates the chair, the sofa, the piano.
Now in the room of course the physical objects I mentioned, such as the piano, exist as matter in space. That was the result of human intention and action, and was undertaken in order to appeal to human needs and wants. It is the human intention, the human use for the piano, and the human interpretation of the concept piano that only exists in the mind. In some sense the piano is a message, constructed in wood, metal, and ivory, sent across space and time from the mind of the piano maker to me, to the mind of the piano player, who in turn uses the piano to create vibrational sound messages sent through the air from the mind of the player to the minds of the listeners.
But there is more to the room, as we rise to consider higher layers of subjective meaning and interpretation. The room may have a mood. It may inspire a combination of emotions that intertwine to produce a feeling of well-being, comfort, anxiety, depression, melancholy, longing, or calm neutrality. There is a way that it feels to be in the room. This can depend on the size of the room, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the layout of the furniture, how well lit or dim the room is, whether it has many windows or none, and any or all of these influences may connect to memories of experiences in the past we have had in other similar rooms, or even in this same room, and this triggers the emotions associated with those memories. Our emotions resonate, reproduced by echoes from the past triggered by the "mood". But in fact the mood is not in the room; it is in us. We bring the mood to the room. Different people can be effected differently by the same room, depending on how their mind works, and depending on their culture and their history.
With this illustration of the distinction between the world as it is, and the subjective evaluation we impose on it, we are now in a position to see how the following statement, which at first glance appears to be absurd, actually makes sense: "Humans destroy cities using earthquakes" (this is an example borrowed form Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness).
How can people, rather than the earthquake, destroy the city? If the vibrations of the quake and gravity conspire to reduce a building to rubble, every physical atom that was present prior to the quake is still present after the quake. Nothing was destroyed, no matter has been erased. It was merely rearranged spatially, and this rearrangement was caused by the quake. The only thing that has gone out of existence is the spatial arrangement of material that humans find useful and identify as "building". The physical structure has changed, entropy has changed, the distribution of energy has changed, but only the human mind adds the concept "destroyed". For mice the quake might have created many new useful hiding places. For birds the quake created a feast by flushing worms and insects into the open, and by collapsing ceilings created new nesting opportunities in exposed rafters.
In this subtle way it is our needs and wants that drive this internal system of evaluation that leads us to supply the destructive aspect to the morally indifferent physical event known as earthquake. What else does our subjective mind add to the earthquake? The violent shaking may remind us of the destruction we have seen other people cause during fits of anger. It can seem to us that the earthquake is an expression of anger. If we were living many centuries ago, when knowledge of faults and plate tectonics did not exist, and instruments to measure the frequency and intensity of shock waves were unavailable, and mathematical models to represent the physical forces had not been discovered, we would be left in a state of total mystery regarding the cause of the earthquake. We would only know that it was very powerful, that it destroyed our city or village, that it was an unusual event, and that it seemed to be very angry.
In this state of ignorance about the physical world, and in particular about the physical event known as earthquake, the subjective apparatus that supplies the inner representation of our environment is at a loss. To understand the earthquake it does not have a highly evolved unconscious mechanism, such as our visual processing, which we saw earlier has been tuned by millennia to be able, for example, to use its fine awareness of shade and contrast to help us perform complex food gathering tasks, such as distinguishing bits of fruit, beetles, and fungus from among the visual confusion of a leafy sun-and-shade speckled forest floor. Earthquakes occur far too infrequently for such ability to have evolved. Instead we are faced with mystery, what we can also call an absence of knowledge or understanding, or perhaps even ignorance.
There is one thing that the human mind loves and hates and that is a mystery. We love a mystery because we are almost maniacally driven to solve them. But if we can't solve it, we hate the mystery, we can not stand not knowing. For example, what if you are at home some weekend afternoon and you hear a noise you don't recognize, let's say it's an occasional knocking sound, with an irregular rhythm, but it's loud enough to be quite noticable. It could be a sound created by a person in another room, or a broken machine such as the refrigerator, or some other unknown source. What do you do? Do you shrug and ignore it and go back to what you were doing previously, bored at the banality of extraneous noise in your environment? Not usually. What one does is to investigate, to determine the source of a mystery that might indicate a danger or a problem requiring attention, or some other unspecified curiousity.
If we solve the mystery, it may be something innocuous like the wind causing a screen door to bang, and we might feel a little foolish getting so actively involved in something so trivial and inconsequential. Or we may find a slightly more interesting and more difficult to discover solution; perhaps a cupboard is rattling in a certain way because of harmonic resonance set off by the refrigerator compressor motor. Or it could be the rustling of a mouse or other small mammalian intruder. We may find a sense of pleasure or satisfaction at solving the mystery, and also relieved that we are no longer in that uncomfortable limbo between knowing and not knowing, we are no longer in that suspended state of ignorance. Resolution has occured, with all the relief of a piece of music arriving back home at the tonic. Loose ends are tied. That dangling suspense of dissonance is returned to orderly harmony and peaceful repose.
If we are unable to solve the mystery however, we may find ourselves increasingly annoyed. Depending on how serious the consequences of leaving the mystery unsolved, we may be able to ignore it, or we may find the mystery continues to nag and bother us. In severe circumstances the mystery may represent a crisis. For example after surviving a devestating earthquake in a state of first-century ignorance, you must contend with hundreds of aftershocks in the days following, each one as fear inducing as the original disaster, each successive shaking of the earth seems as if it may be a repeat of the awful event. Sometimes after a large quake thousands of these perceptible aftershocks can occur over a period of days. Every ten to fifteen minutes on average there is shaking, and it can become quite disturbing.
Such a crisis represents a disjunction between the signals our brain receives from the external world and what our mind knows; this means it is unable to update our internal subjective model and harmonize it with what our senses are telling us. What can our brain do to resolve this dissonance? It must sift and sort through the knowledge and information it already possesses from past experience and try to construct from that an explanation, a narrative that fits together familiar ideas, and by uniquely assembling old ideas in a new way it creates a story that becomes an object in its own right for dealing with this confusion in our minds. Unless we have the benefit of knowledge gained by centuries of painstaking scientific investigation of geological structures and processes, we are at a loss to determine the actual cause of the earthquake.
But our brain hates a mystery, and it must seek some positive concept to use to represent the experience in our inner subjective model of our environment. It associates the violent shaking with anger, and anger with human agency. In the absence of knowledge, it is quite natural for the brain to associate a vast human like agency with the event. It was caused by an angry giant, and we create a story about this angry giant, and the story gives rise to a new familiar figure, one we imagine that we know and understand, a god. This story provides comfort to our brain. We have a concept, a place holder, a something rather than a nothing to connect to our inner model of the world. This is the way that gods make people happy, by allowing our brains the comfort that comes with pretending to know answers to unanswered questions. As we gain new knowledge we can weed out these fictions, these cozy warm and fuzzy lies we tell ourselves to avoid the discomfort of not knowing. We can gradually replace the phantom place holders in our brains with better, more detailed and accurate information about the reality that surrounds us. This discovery of truth, this dispelling of myths, can be a great joy, the joy that comes with discovering new knowledge.
Some of these ideas discussed here are related to the Buddhist notions of truth and illusion. The subjective illusions we construct in our mind are part of what meditation is designed to discover. The Buddhists speak of objects as being aggregates, of dependent arisings, they seem to us one way, and we form attachments, but their true nature is impermanent; they will dissolve and decay, just like a sand mandala disintegrates revealing the illusion of its form.
Objects we know today do not have permanent status, or inherent value, but when we perceive how their transitory nature is based on nothing but appearances, we are able to understand something of the Buddhist concept emptiness.
The aggregates, the dependent arisings around us, are only concepts in our mind, temporary phantoms of shape and appearence. And by forming attachments to these illusions we are only creating the conditions of our future disappointment and bereavement; our future pain of loss is created when we construct the pleasures of attachment.
Just as waves crashing upon a shore cause white foamy shapes to rise into the air, only moments later to disintegrate back into the sea from which they came, every thing we know and see in this world is like a splash of energy in the field of matter, space, and time. Even the stones on the shore are temporary splashes of energy, once molten lava frozen in an instant, only to gradually dissolve into sand much more slowly than the splashing waves disintegrate.
Our desires and intentions are like the pulses of energy that drives the splashing waves. Human will and desire are the forces that cause objects to splash forth, sculpted by our efforts according to our wants, and in their natural rhythm they too will dissolve back into the sea of emptiness from which they arose, more slowly than the waves, but even so, temporary and illusory, dependent entirely on human need and want, dependent on our minds to construct their stories and their uses, dependent for their entire existence upon the narratives we write in our minds.
If you read this far, you may be as strange as I am. Perhaps you think knowing and understanding are more important than feeling cozy and comfy, or having fun. Or maybe like me your idea of fun is different from most; it actually is fun to peel away the layers of how things seem. Perhaps like me you refuse to be content with skimming across the surface of life, but would rather peer into the depths to get a better idea of how things are. And if not, my apologies for any suffering you may have incurred by reading through this maze of perception and feeling. It wasn't my intention to gratify anyone's masochism, but rather to explore the path of my curious musings, in hopes of illuminating the darkness we live in. And if you found something useful, entertaining, or informative, I'm glad of that.
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