OUR ILLUSIONARY PERCEPTIONS

Source: Hermit Musing

PART ONE

We create an understanding of the world around us—based on messages that our various senses gather. We become convinced that the real world matches the images we’ve made; particularly as our repeated experiences solidify them, and as we confirm them with other people. We rarely pause and acknowledge that these images exist only inside our heads, and that the world “out there” is nothing like what we’ve perceived.

One way to consider this situation is to ponder how our human perceptions differ from those of another critter—say, a spider. When I approach a spider’s web I may see this little creature poised at the center, waiting for lunch. Its eyesight is poor. It may not even see me. Why should it? It makes no sense to overload its senses with useless information about my appearance. Its relevant world consists of only its web, its immediate environment, and the food that might come. It’s exquisitely sensitive to the slightest vibration of its web—able to discern whether it’s the wind, lunch, or my finger. Yet it knows nothing of the wider world—and is even unable to sense most of it. Why should it?

And are we any different from the spider—whose limited senses register only a narrow, incomplete image of the world? Our senses are also limited; they provide us with only the information we need to survive. If we could take in more data our brain would become hopelessly overloaded, so we’ve evolved to ignore most of our world.

Let’s look a little deeper, and consider how we create an image in our head of something like a tree—an image that is neither real nor complete. Our sense of sight is based solely on the reception of photons that impinge upon our pupils. The photons that come from the tree originate in the sun; they’re reflected by the tree. They enter the eye, strike the retina, and then the optic nerve transmits an electrical stimulus that goes to the brain. It results in a symbol created in the brain—a symbol based solely on that electrical impulse. It’s not the tree; it’s an abstraction in our heads.

But what about color, one might ask? Aren’t the leaves green? Isn’t that something integral to the tree? No, color is perceived solely as the types of photons that got reflected. The sun’s energy is radiated by photons of many wavelengths (many colors). The trees “leaves” absorb some of those photons and reflect others. Our sense of color is no more than our eye receiving a particular flavor of photon; which carries a particular energy level that creates a particular electrical impulse on its way to the brain. Just another abstract symbol.

PART TWO

Let’s look yet a little deeper into the “tree.” It is, of course, made up of trillions of atoms and molecules. But an atom is mostly nothingness: a tiny, dense nucleus surrounded by a swarm of electrons at some vast distance away. Consider a carbon atom, for example: If its nucleus was, say, the size of a golf ball, the electron cloud swirling around it would be out there, some 2-3 miles away. A golf ball sitting inside a sphere that’s several miles big! The atom is not anything substantial at all; it’s some 99.9999% or so of emptiness. Thus there’s this big nothingness the “tree,” reflecting photons (which are really nothing, no mass, wholly insubstantial, only energy) into our eye. It’s not what we think it is at all. It’s pretty much nothing!

So OK, one might respond. So the symbol of the “tree” I create in my head is just a bunch of electrical signals. So maybe what I think I’m seeing is not really there. You tell me it’s just a bunch of nothingness. But when I go over and touch the tree, I can feel that it’s something solid. The bark is hard and ridged; the leaves are flexible and smooth. I can feel it. So it’s something physically substantial, right? Wrong. That feeling you got from your sense of touch does not indicate something solid at all.

The “tree” is, remember, mostly nothingness. So is your hand. The touch you feel is just two different kind of nothingness atoms (or molecules) electrically repelling each other. The electrons in the empty atoms of your “hand” meet the electrons in the empty atoms of the “tree” and their opposing electrical fields stop each other cold. The stronger the electrical field, the greater the repulsion—it feels more solid to you. So your “hand” meeting the “tree” is nothing more than two nothings—two vacuous electric fields—refusing to allow the other to pass. Again, nothing!

To some of us, the description of this reality of the “tree” may sound sterile and even rather sinister. We’d rather live with the symbols we’ve created in our heads and get along just fine, without trying to maintain that they are the reality of the world. We all do this most of the time anyway. These images get so entrenched in our psyche that they are real to us. Like the spider, we’re happy in our ignorance. But like the spider, the truth is that our perception of the world is a mere fraction—even a misrepresentation—of reality. It’s all so much grander and whole than we can imagine.

I think it’s important to pause now and then and acknowledge that our viewpoint is fragmentary, at best. My dog’s olfactory world is far richer than mine. An eagle’s visual world dwarfs mine. A bee’s sensitivity to ultraviolet light reflected from a flower tells it things I’m ignorant of. The mysteries and wonders of the world are things that my senses can only begin to comprehend. It helps me keep my hubris in check, to remind myself that my conception of this sacred universe needs a lot of expanding to even begin to be considered authentic.

One Response

  1. Hi Mr Sid,
    I envy your eloquence, now all i have to do is link to this page. I do have some nice show & tells tho. You’re welcome to them if you want.

    http://keytoann.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/spectrum/

    You’re right on the money

    walt

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