Friday, September 23, 2011

Perception and Three Ways of Seeing

There is something suspicious about the way the word "viewpoint" is used these days. It has become something of an ace in the hole, a final redoubt unassailable by common sense or evidence. When someone in a conversation retreats to the phrase, "from my point of view," they more often than not are evacuating the intellectual battlefield in favor of their own private sanctum. From the privileged, unique, and irreducibly private vantage of his point of view, a particularly determined interlocutor can withstand any reason, for he has abandoned "reason" as something common to all men. The man whose beliefs are most safe from change is often the madman.

This is particularly distressing because, like most errors, it is the exaggeration of a truth. In the dedicatory letter of Machiavelli's The Prince, he writes,

"For just as those who sketch landscapes place themselves down in the plain to consider the nature of mountains and high places to consider the nature of low places place themselves high atop mountains, similarly, to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people."

We may raise an eyebrow about Machiavelli's motives in this observation and question if he might not be eyeing the princes with more than an artist's interest, but the analogy rings quite true: different persons are often possessed with different perspectives on the world. There is a genuine notion of "viewpoint," or, to distance myself a little from a loaded word, of "a way of seeing," that does not abandon the need for intersubjectivity and a belief in some shared, common, objective reality. Rather, it is a way of discussing perception, which is a participatory act in which the perceiver's unique subjectivity contacts with the reality of the thing perceived in order to form a phenomenon.

First allow me to discuss a participatory theory of perception, because my three ways of seeing depend on it. It draws heavily from a work by Owen Barfield called Saving the Appearances, as well as a number of other sources. Barfield writes:

"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

Perception is not simply the physical interaction of my biological senses with the outside world, because this raw sensory information does not constitute a world of distinct intelligible phenomena. I will not say "objects" here, although the two words are related, because by "phenomenon" I simply mean an intelligible representation, while "object" implies an actual external entity. It is well known that the process of developing a sense of perceiving distinct and unique phenomena requires time, even for a mature mind. There are accounts of individuals blind from birth or quite young ages receiving sight through various visual prosthetics, who even when presented with sensory information took long periods of time to develop a sense of seeing distinct phenomena. Rather than mere sense data, perception involves more or less complex interpretations of visual data, seeing trees rather than mere swaths of green and umber, identifying people and places. As such, it is always at least partially active, requiring the mind to use its past experience and knowledge to aid (usually quite unconsciously) in deciphering the received sensation. This act is participation, as it involves the mind bringing itself into contact with the outside world as perceived through the senses and thus encountering the phenomena.

It is thus, as Barfield noted, that participation is extra-sensory. Thus it is also the case that it can never be purely objective, in the sense of without reference to the physical and mental state of the subject. This does not mean it is arbitrary: on the whole, we have good reason to believe that our senses do accurately report information about reality. This is primarily due not only to the continuity of our experiences, since we are usually able to tell when something is wrong with our perception if it involves a distinct discontinuity with previous perceptions, and more poignantly due to intersubjectivity. We are not solitary creatures, and our interaction with other perceivers provides us with a community against which to evaluate the validity of our own perceptions. If I am the only man in a room of twenty who sees pink elephants flying about, I not only should recognize this as in distinct discord with all I know about elephants, but I should also take note that no one else sees them and attribute it not to external reality but rather to the gin and tonics I have been downing. Whether I am capable of doing this analysis at the time is another story altogether.

On the whole, we also tend to recognize phenomena as objects, distinct entities inhabiting a world external to ourselves about which we can gain at least partial knowledge. It is important, however, not to engage in what Barfield calls idolatry: that is, mindlessly assigning this objective status to the phenomena themselves. This is perhaps one of the most tempting fallacies that has followed in the footsteps of the scientific revolution. Science has made a methodology of the senses, systematically setting mathematical and logical rules about how to interpret our sense data in a way that maximizes our ability to verify or discredit our notions about the objects in the universe. Because of its accuracy, it is easy to forget that the phenomena are still participatory: we very easily forget that it is still an act of interpretation. This can be somewhat ameliorated by simply considering a hypothetical life form with a vastly different set of sensory organs. Imagine that such a being, instead of our senses, was equipped with a type of auditory sonar, similar to a bat, and an organ that could detect X-rays. The phenomena which would populate that creature's perceived world would be quite different from the phenomena of our own perceived world, even though the underlying objects behind the representations were identical. Phenomena must be understood as representation and icon.

We commonly look at the world in a myriad of different ways, according to the needs or whims of the moment, and the phenomena in which we participate can take on vastly different meanings or even be interpreted in different ways. I would distinguish three primary ways of seeing, which I hope you will accept not as set in stone, but as a tentative sketch of the different ways we commonly perceive the world. It is important to remember how complex we are, in such a way that even stubborn, single minded people are usually not so because they are simple. It is often the most complicated of people who become singularly obsessed. Also, I am not pretending that at any given time we are simply and only engaging in one or another of these three ways, or that the three ways are dichotomous, but it does seem equally true that we form habits, and that these intellectual habits can fixate us in one of these ways of seeing.

Another important caveat: I will use the phrase "gives meaning" or something similar to this several times. It is important to realize that the mind is both passive and active. In the great debate over the growing constructivist epistemology, in which all meaning is a creation of an active mind, against the belief that meaning is a fundamental given which is received passively, it is forgotten that the truth can be a mean between two extremes. Participation is passive and active. It is not only the passive reception of sense data through various physical media, but the active interpretation or resolution of that data into representative phenomena.

The first I call "the way of private mythology." It is perhaps the most closely associated with the word "viewpoint" as I first described it. One's private mythology is comprised of a complicated and heavily colored amalgam of experiences, creativity, thoughts, whims, vices, virtues, hopes, aspirations, and dreams. However, it tends to distill these complicated emotions, thoughts, and relationships into relatively simple narratives. It can encompass some forms of belief. Our private mythology is both the summation of our experiences viewed almost existentially, as well as individual moment, events, and thoughts that are highly meaningful to ourselves but only tangentially or accidentally meaningful to others. This way of seeing is behind the modern concept of "experience," which is a more or less contrived attempt of actively forming or reforming one's private mythology.

A few explanations. By "private," I do not mean that the contents of this mythology and the way in which it colors or fills the world of phenomena with meaning are completely opaque to others. Its content can be communicated, and it often is. For example, Plato's Republic occupies a peculiar and special place in my personal mythology, because I believe it, specifically the allegory of the cave, was the reason I abandoned my initial plans to become a screenwriter and instead pursued philosophy. Now private mythology always contains a bit of what postmodernists call "constructivist" epistemology. It's not exactly true that Plato's Republic was the reason, even though I often find myself attributing almost everything to it as a kind of simple and powerful way of summing up why I switched to philosophy. If someone were to ask me why I chose philosophy (and someone has), I would simply use this narrative: I changed because of the allegory of the cave. There is a way in which it encompasses a much longer, more complicated, and more boring narrative. Private mythology is life with the boring parts cut out, and in that way it shares much with art as it is currently understood.

There is a danger to private mythology. It can tend toward the megalomaniacal and the delusional. It is prone to error and exaggeration. A private representation may be the result of a simple mistake: everyone else sees a man running across the beach, but I turn and in that moment I believe it is a motorboat speeding past in the water. I may or may not be corrected, but if I am to be corrected I must always be open to the corrective influence of my community.

If you really want to get a feel for what I mean by private mythology at its best, watch Big Fish.

Which brings me to the second way, "the way of faith." By faith here I do not necessarily mean religious faith, but rather simply believing or trusting in another's understanding or account of the world. While our private mythology can be, in the worst of times, insular and even delusional, the way of faith opens us to community and the correction of intersubjectivity. There are countless narratives which we accept from others and participate in, and these narratives inform a common set of phenomena which we share with others. It is very passive, focusing on received truth and meaning. It is not, for that reason, in any way inferior, because it is only through this way of faith that we can be assured of the validity of our own perceptions.

This does not mean that the way of faith is necessarily always accurate. Communities can be wrong, and a shared delusion does not become less delusional because it is shared. But it does mean that the stories and meanings which we receive from others cannot be discarded for the simple reason that it is received.

In other words, the way of faith is a way of trust, of accepting and receiving meaning from others on the basis of their authority rather than on the basis of demonstrable evidence. Much has been said on this matter, not all of it flattering. But I think it is only fair to say that this is the primary way in which most of us see the world. We must, by practical necessity, go about our day accepting and believing a great many things about the world for which we do not possess a great deal or any demonstrable evidence. This is not credulity unless it is taken to an extreme; that is, if the way of faith becomes the sole mode of perception. But the greatest champions of religious faith have been the ones who proclaim that faith seeks understanding: that faith is not content with mere opinion but struggles to perceive the world anew and find evidence for the community's narrative.

As for Faith proper, in the Catholic sense, this is clearly the passing on of a narrative, or, as we believe, the Narrative. It is a gift received from God, guarded by a community, and to which we can appeal as a corrective to our own perceptions. There are, of course, many who do not share this narrative. I do not intend in this note to defend the Catholic faith, so I will simply add that the fact that a story cannot be demonstrably proven is not, in itself, a reason to discount it as invalid, as this would reduce almost the entirety of human history to rubbish, not to mention the news and stories that your grandpa told you. As I mentioned before, we are actually rather prone to believing stories, and rightfully so, because a political animal relies on trust to form the glue that holds society together. That we moderns have developed an immediate mistrust of any narrative that involves something not readily demonstrable by science is both a mixed blessing at best, and is usually offset by our ironic propensity to embrace our own personal myths as "authentic." It is, at worst, simply a prejudice to assume that what is not "scientific" in the modern sense is invalid.

The "way of science" is not only modern methodological science, although this is its contemporary and most rigorous form. It is a form of perceiving the world that is concerned with categorizing phenomena, studying them, and systematically understanding their relations. It has a closer tie to the notion of scientia, a systematic knowledge. Methodological science, as the contemporary incarnation of man's attempts to rationally and circumspectively understanding himself and the universe, is particularly adept at coming to accurate conclusions about physical interactions. It does this primarily by attempting, inasmuch as possible, to remove interpretation from the process by which it discovers and predicts facts about reality. However, as I noted before, there is always a degree to which it is inescapably tied to the other ways of seeing.

For one, the way of science does not exist in a vacuum. The practice of science always occurs within the context of a community, which pursues scientific goals for the sake of extra-scientific reasons usually rooted in the common, shared narrative of the community. Secondly, although the operation of scientific methodology is relatively free of interpretation, the broader meaning and implications of its findings about phenomena and the objects that underlie them are still matters which are open to both the way of private mythology and the way of faith; that is, the stories which science tells are quite accurate but also somewhat limited. They can tell us how to do some or another physical act, but not why or whether we should do it. But it also can operate as a powerful corrective to both private mythology and faith. Let us take the example of a literalist interpretation of Genesis, which maintains that the earth was created some ten thousand or so years ago in a period of six, successive, twenty-four hour periods. Although I received this narrative in my youth, I have since encountered plenty of scientific evidence that this is not the case.

But this brings up another point about science, which is that to a degree it involves storytelling as well. The grand theories of science are often broad and arching stories about the way the universe is structured and interacts that are often not easily subject to immediate proof, must be proven piecemeal over a period of time and only with great labor, or still remain only the best hypothesis that fits the data (but which is not necessarily for that case true). In this way, even scientists sometimes engage in storytelling by which they interpret the meaning of the phenomena around them - although, again, even this storytelling is in a profoundly different mode, as it focuses on telling stories that best fit all available data.

These three ways of seeing must remain balanced, and they offer certain sorts of correctives to each other. They bleed into each other to some extent. Perhaps wisdom is a harmony between these three ways, so that they mutually support and balance each other. An excess of any can result in a very imbalanced mind: private mythology can lead to delusion, the way of faith can lead to credulity and superstition, and the way of science can lead to self-deceptive phenomenological idolatry and detachment from the sources of shared meaning, ethics, and so forth.

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