Advocating the Devil III
The Story on Perception
Imagine yourself driving on the parkway on a normal afternoon and someone from oncoming traffic suddenly enters your lane — your heart starts racing as you feel the threat of a crash and quickly steer out of the way. With a vested interest in surviving and continuing your trip, it was important to immediately react to the danger, far before recognizing information like the make and model of the vehicle (if you ever do).
This situation illustrates in the extreme how our perceptions form around the meaning of our experiences, as they relate to our current desire, as opposed to giving us a direct window into all that’s objectively ‘real’ at any given moment. This is useful, as only certain information is relevant in the context of what you’re aiming for and an overload of irrelevant ‘truth’ will get you killed in the wrong situation.
Thus, we require a simplified map of reality, which can allow us to navigate through our life, without overwhelming us by all that we could possibly know. Our consciousness acts as a reducing faculty, screening out what is unnecessary for us to pursue our desires and carry out our day.
Does what we value follow from what we observe is true, or do we perceive reality through what we value?
The main point I’ve been trying to arrive at over the last few chapters is that we don’t have a direct insight into the reality that exists whether or not we are here. All of our observations are circular, as they are self-referential and embedded in our own perspective. We perceive the world through an individualized version of the biological equipment afforded to human beings. Despite our perceptions sharing many things in common with each other, our particular versions vary in a way dependent on our differences. These points of view are not always just surface level distinctions either, as they usually are formed deep into the interpretive structure of your mind and body.
We explored this in looking at the poles of our perception and how they reflect down to the level of the brain. There are varying levels in which our perception is bounded, from the division of how our cerebral hemispheres attend to the world, to the value system we currently believe in, as well as humanity as a whole experiencing reality in a unique manner to any other organism. Again, an objective reality isn’t denied by these claims, although it suggests we don’t have a comprehensive window into it. Since we have previously explored the internal resistance underlying our perspectives and how it can form our differing beliefs, we still have to address how our perceptions are commonly constrained as fellow humans.
A good place to start here is with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, which claimed that we (as people) are like prisoner’s in a cave, chained to look forward, with a fire situated behind us in which we are unaware, projecting shadows onto the wall of experience. These shadows represent the sense-perceptions of mere appearances, as opposed to the ideal forms that make up the substance of reality. He believed that only philosophy allowed one to step outside of the cave and understand the ‘more real’ world of ideal forms or essences, although it would not be easy to convince others of this truth once back in the cave.
One of the most important philosophers in history, Immanuel Kant, took this line of thought further, constraining our perception through our intuitions. In the Critque of Pure Reason, his doctrine of transcendental idealism called into question our ability to step outside of the appearances at all. He held that the objects of our perception are merely representations, as opposed to the actual things-in-themselves that exist independent of our subjective constructions. This is because these appearances must conform to our already existing intuitive and logical capacities, which in turn limit our ability to reason ourselves into any definitive knowledge of what might exist outside of our subjectivity.
Plato and Kant had powerful ideas, spurring centuries of dialogue in response, from philosophers and scientists alike. Although their original formulations erred in varying ways, they elucidated a fundamental problem of perception, as it’s difficult to hand wave the implications of only perceiving mere appearances in place of the things-in-themselves. Kant’s critiques were important enough to usher in a new era of philosophy and many thinkers have built on his critiques, without reducing our perception to mere appearances — as they are real enough to drive what we value and how we should act.
Without a ‘God’s eye’ view onto reality as a whole, any type of naive realism is dispelled in favor of some form of realistic skepticism. Anything we perceive must necessarily pass through our interpretive structure, which leads some neuroscientists and psychologists to claim that our perceptual world is full of useful illusions, as we actively create a model of reality when what we sense interacts with our nervous system.
The cognitive psychologist Don Hoffman makes a compelling case along these lines in his interface theory of perception, arguing that evolution has formed “our perceptions [to] constitute a species-specific user interface that guides behavior in a niche. Just as the icons of a PC’s interface hide the complexity of the computer, so our perceptions usefully hide the complexity of the world, and guide adaptive behavior.”
When I want to send an email, I would be impeded if I had to understand the operation of digital circuits, so the desktop interface of my computer simplifies my experience into icons that can be manipulated in a manner that allows me to better achieve my goal. Hoffman likens this to how evolution has ‘shaped’ our senses — as tools for useful perception and practical action in a reality in which we have skin in the game to survive, reproduce and thrive in. Our niche contains what we need for our own ‘desktop interface’ and our senses allow us to interact with the ‘icons’ that will guide our actions and shield us from unnecessary complexity.
Thus, it is more important for living creatures to be faced with useful simplifications that imply action, which fit in a given context, as opposed to all of the facts in a given situation. Hoffman has strengthened his point through game theory, by running a series of mathematical models that demonstrate how creatures which evolve to perceive ‘fitness payoffs’ always outcompete those that have evolved to see reality as it ‘truly’ is, over long time spans. One of Hoffman’s favorite examples is in highlighting how you (hopefully) don’t think an email is literally shaped like a blue envelope on your screen, although, it is useful to think that so that you take the envelope seriously and abstain from dragging it to the trash can. Similarly, we should take a falling tree seriously, as it could be coming down to crush you, but that doesn’t mean we can assume that we understand what the totality of a falling tree is in absence of a perception like ours, as a bat would have a differently limited perception of what occurred in the same instance.
The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson understands our perception in a similar manner, which he originally put forth in his Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I’ve found his perspective interesting, and much of my work circles similar themes to his. Over time, he has further clarified his point of view through multiple channels, likening our interpretive framework to a map that provides us with the information required for pragmatic action:
“The world is too complex to manage without radical functional simplification. Meaning appears to exist as the basis for such simplification.”
In the Peterson model, our perceptions point to meanings, which are painted with positive or negative emotion depending on their relation to our current aim. In setting a path from point A to point B, we plan a sequence of behavior in which certain aspects of our view are seen as useful tools, while others are obstacles in our path — with everything else being left out and relegated to the irrelevant background.
He also holds a similar conception to McGhilchrist on the nature of the asymmetry in our brains, utilizing a slightly different spin on the story. In his view, the left hemisphere is optimized for operating in explored territory, where our ‘map of meaning’ is believed to be understood, while the right hemisphere deals with what is unexplored and exists in a somewhat ‘chaotic’ totality, too complicated to box in. Interestingly, the left hemisphere mediates our positive emotion, as we experience positive affect when our efforts yield expected outcomes, en route to our desired goal.
Thus, the left hemisphere employs a simplified model of experience, in order to map out a goal and identify the tools and obstacles that are relevant in pursuing the path. This simplification isn’t a weakness, as a general in war doesn’t need to know every piece of information about the battlefield in order to be best prepared. A map proves more useful in succeeding, as it provides a tactically reduced amount of relevant information pertaining to things like the available resources and obstacles in the terrain. Although, this simplification of our perception to a detached utility map has the tendency to go too far, as to someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A static plan produces satisfaction as long as it continues to produce results, however, it can set one up for failure when leaving too much out, leading to willful blindness and a disrespect for the ever-changing nature of the things around us, in encouraging a one-size-fits-all approach.
That which has been ignored as irrelevant has a nasty tendency of manifesting itself unexpectedly. This is why the right hemisphere mediates negative emotion and is openly alert to anomalies, as they tend to inspire our primal fight-flight-freeze response, as the unexpected is both simultaneously a threat and opportunity. It might be a threat, as it poses danger to the entire framework being used to interpret the world: if I left this out of my map, then how much else have I failed to anticipate? Even more importantly, you could be surprised by something so dangerous that it can end you and your game all together.
However, this novelty is also an opportunity, as discovering something that doesn’t kill you allows you to shift your map and encompass more into it, hopefully making you less likely to walk into a worse pit in the future. Holding too strongly to our current map closes our mind to what we have left out, leaving us vulnerable to a more radical dissolution than we might have faced if we were able to anticipate and adapt our beliefs and approach. This is the downfall of a too prickly mindset: the self-consistent, left hemisphere approach that tries to grasp too tightly and maintain tyrannical control.
This cycle naturally evolves through stages, starting with a period of getting expected outcomes, before being faced with the unexpected or undesired, which (if addressed successfully) lead to forming a new and completer set of expectations. He also sees this process as analogous to the structure of stories. In a story, there is a setting and character that compose the initial state (Point A) and a desired future state (Point B) the character is aiming at, which is imagined and forms the narrative in its pursuit. In realistic and compelling stories, there are unexpected occurrences on the way between these states that constitute the conflict which has to be resolved, for the character to properly evolve and meet a now enriched version of the original goal.
This is yet another way to understand your perception, as your map is also a narrative you tell yourself, including beliefs of where you are and some semblance of where you are headed towards at any given moment. We exist inside of this story that we tell ourselves, which can be radically overturned at any moment, when we are confronted with something unanticipated and/or undesired. This growth causes us to have to restructure our map and rewrite our narrative, a process that continually changes the way in which we actually see the world.
However, much of that narrative can exist largely under the surface of our awareness. The psychoanalysts of the 20th century uncovered many of the unconscious processes at work within us, suggesting that we aren’t as transparent to ourselves as we might hope. The ‘father’ of the movement, Sigmund Freud, was the first to really make explicit how our mind is a strangely divided unity, composed of drives that we are never fully aware of. His foremost student, Carl Jung, took his theories further, proposing that there are a plurality of archetypes underlying our collective psyches, that retain similar forms cross-culturally.
In the previous chapters, we have been moving towards a similar conclusion, in proposing that we each have an implicit perspective, composed of a belief system that we are never fully aware of, which colors how we view the world day-to-day. The psychoanalysts add to this that our particular beliefs and set of values are structured by complexes of diverse motivations — or more accurately ‘sub-personalities’ — that exist largely under the surface of our awareness.
This constitutes the personality framework we use to interpret the world, which is in part determined by our nature, as well as further nurtured through our environment and habits. This interpretive structure leads us to perceive reality differently, as we pay attention to different aspects of the environment depending on our assumptions and expectations. We can understand the archetypes as the instinctual patterns that continue to underly this structure over time and across different cultural groups, something we will continue to look deeper into throughout the following pages. It would make sense that if we hold different beliefs, we might actually be seeing things under a different light, being possessed of archetypes that are mixed and distinctly emphasized.
In realizing that what we point at literally determines what we pay attention to, it is important to give the devil his due, as encountering something we deem irrelevant, wrong, mysterious or threatening could be the chance to incorporate something missing from our current conception. Peterson’s worldview is heavily influenced by this Jungian idea, as the shadow archetype is central to Jung’s belief in an old alchemical dictum — which translates to “in filth it will be found” — as what you need most is often discovered in the place you least want to go. We need a story that unifies us into a persona that we can act out, although we can never be ultimately sure of its true authenticity. This is because we can paradoxically be most improved through incorporating that which we have ignored. Thus, evolving your map requires a sort of painful death and rebirth of some, or many, of your in-built personalities (each with their desire along with it), in pursuit of the truth.
What does all of this about interfaces, maps and stories have to do with whether or not we can perceive what is ‘true’?
It is hopefully clear by now that it has everything to do with it.
As creatures who point-and-act, we have skin in the game of life and are adapted towards perceiving that which has relevant meaning to us. Our desires and particular traits layer our perception with filters, screening out what isn’t relevant for acting in a manner that fits the circumstances. What we aim at determines what we value and in turn what is meaningful to pay attention to. Thus, looking through your value system leads one thing to be elevated to the top of your attention at any given time, forming everything else around it.
How you tend to negotiate these ‘competing’ values throughout the day is what constitutes your belief system. We have an idea of what the world ‘should be’, which impacts the meaning we derive from our experiences. This is how we can all tend to interpret ‘facts’ differently, as what we value determines what we will ‘see’ as facts. This is another way of saying that what we value structures our perception and beliefs, leading to assumptions that get in the way of us having a truly objective view of our experience, as we are not omniscient and remain limited by what is unknown to us.
My story gives me an idea of who I believe I am, where I happen to be, where I am going and my plan of getting there. My senses provide me with useful perceptions, that can guide me meaningfully towards my desires — which necessarily implies that the objects I see are only secondary to that purpose. This conclusion addresses the famous philosophical is-ought problem we introduced at the end of the previous chapter, although it does so by inverting Hume’s original premise — as what I believe there is, remains inextricably grounded in what I want and expect — what I ought.
As living things, we have a multiplicity of drives pointing us in different directions — hunger, attraction, thirst, play, safety (to name a few) — which often have contradictory goals. They live within us like sub-personalities with their own singular ‘desire’ — underlying, constraining and evolving with the persona we project. The slice of reality we perceive is embedded in our aims and the way in which we interpret the world at any given time. In the absence of absolute knowledge, our map is our best bet to simplify the world into a meaningful representation to act on. Thus, our highest truths are moral and practical, being contingent upon our arrow flying ‘straight and true’ to its target. Many of our ‘factual’ truths describe the objects we perceive, referring to what is true of the icons in our interface and not what exists universally in the absence of creatures like ourselves. A belief system that is outdated or closed off from new information can distort our ability to perceive our path clearly, further compromising our understanding through an extreme narrowing into the current paradigm. If our values don’t evolve, we lose the opportunity to become wiser, posit a more fulfilling goal and then strive towards it.
This perceptual framework will be instrumental in the next chapter, to get at the heart of epistemology and what it means to frame our story in a set of assumptions.
What we assume is grounded in what we know, so what is knowledge anyway?
How does what we know interplay with what we perceive and believe?
Answering these questions will hopefully uncover some practical wisdom…