Groping Towards Reality 1
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Humans are part of reality, but seeing reality clearly is sometimes difficult. I have been looking for a metaphor for the process of orienting oneself to reality and avoiding fiction. The best I have come up with so far is groping towards reality.
From ancient to modern times people have both groped towards a clear understanding of reality and attempted to construct blinders so that they could misinterpret the world to suit themselves. More often than not, the world being a complicated place, the same person or groups of persons would get parts of the picture right while painting in illusions for other parts.
Both the existence of reality and the human ability to know it have been questioned from ancient times. I believe questioning things, including what appear to be fundamental truths, is a good thing. What is funny is that having concluded either that reality is an illusion, or that humans can not know anything much about reality, people seldom question those conclusions. [See also my Questions to the Illusionists].
In some ways certain Buddhist critiques of the reality of reality are more cogent than their modern philosophic counterparts. In the Surangama Sutra the Buddha asks Ananda, "What is it that gave you the sensation of seeing? What was it that experienced the sensation? And who is it that experienced the feeling of being pleased?" The analysis that follows, in question and answer style, is quite sophisticated even if it ultimately leads one astray.
Cast forward to the modern philosophy of deconstructionism and you have Wittgenstein's (later) philosophic methods turned on their head to create a rationalization that amounts to saying: the world is not real, or at least we can't really know much about it.
But we do know a great deal about the world, both individually and collectively. Not only that, but other animals know about the world, even if they are not smart enough to create a theory of why it is just an illusion. We are both in and of the world.
It has taken our sensory apparatus and nervous system a couple of billion years to evolve. Our genetic inheritance gives us the ability to survive in the world, and that requires the ability to gain a knowledge of the world. Human babies are prepared to learn about the world. They learn from their interactions with the world. Their learning is held in their brains.
Groping is a good word for the process. The baby feels its way, reaching about uncertainly. It uses the resulting memories to build maps and images of the external world. It learns about its body. It begins to learn a language.
Having learned a language, a child starts learning about the world second hand. Family members relate what they did when "away." They talk about events that happened in the past, or what they plan to do in the future.
They also inevitably tell the child things that are not true, or are partly true. Prejudices, superstitions, and religions. Cultural behaviors: how to behave, what is expected of a child, a man, or a woman.
Children cope as best they can. One thing leads to another. There may be formal schooling. Some people eventually feel impelled to try to figure out what "the truth" is. But it is a complex world. Some people change religions, but in most cultures during most of history changing religion was a dangerous and daring act. Today in these United States of America people shop for a religion, a philosophy, a self-help guru, or a school of psychology. Most are shopping for amenable society, not so much for truth.
I think that philosophies tend to oversimplify the human condition. It is a complex world. We are complex. Each brain is a wonder of cellular architecture, capable of holding and comparing billions of memories of experiences.
Lately, I have been inspired by the work of Jeff Hawkins and colleagues on how the cortex of the brain might work [See my Machine Understanding blog]. The process described by Hawkins can fairly be described as groping. He believes that the detailed structure of the brain has evolved to turn sensory input into memories and automatic predictions about the world. Humans constantly adjust to the world, noticing when it does not conform to prior predictions.
The culture of science, while it has been used with bad motives all too frequently, for the most part follows the same pattern. The scientific method, amidst the ugly complexity of the world, is a kind of groping. We look at the world and what we think we already know. We form a hypothesis, or prediction. We set up an experiment to test the prediction against the hypothesis.
Quantum physics and molecular biology are usually considered to be very difficult sciences. You must work hard and be smart to succeed at them. But when it comes to studying humans, there are extra difficulties. The world is not an illusion, but humans are particularly good at distorting data about themselves.
On that line, a comment on a book I just finished, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. This is an illuminating book about the human condition. It picks apart our assumptions about what makes a human highly successful in our society. Each of the chapters, focusing on one aspect of human culture and how it impacts success, is a great read. You will see Bill Gates, The Beatles, and math test scores in a whole new light if you read it. There are illusions in the world, but the world is not an illusion. The idea that success is a simple result of genius is one of our cultural illusions.
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