Thursday, February 5, 2009

PERCEPTION

This life’s five windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro’, the eye
(Blake)

Current theories of what it means to see the world, to hear the world, to feel the world, to smell the world and to taste the world are pretty primitive, but they are also almost impossible to understand. No doubt anything said here about ‘the problem of perception’ – as this conundrum of how we ‘experience’ the outside world is called – will be surrounded by similar difficulties and produce a similarly impenetrable set of notions, but at least no attempt will be made to oversimplify what is clearly very complicated and very wonderful. We’ll take sight as our paradigm of experiencing, because fundamentally similar things can be said about all the senses and sight is the most immediately comprehensible and the richest source of analogy. However, a caveat: we must never forget that each of our senses is doing very different things despite the scientific view, which holds that material impacts on the sense-organs (light on the eyes, shock waves in the air on the ears, molecules of various substances on the tongue and nasal receptors, or straightforward physical contact with the skin) are translated by the sense organs into electro-chemical pulses of basically similar sorts in the brain.
The current theories of how we see are dominated by what is called the ‘causal theory’ of perception and go back at least to the great English Empiricist philosopher John Locke. The story as far as seeing is concerned goes something like this: All matter in the universe is potentially or actually in causal contact with other matter and this contact involves a kind of external impact of one bit of matter on another – a kind of bumping into each other of the bits. The objects in the world reflect light (just as others provoke sound-waves, or shed molecules of some substance) and this light arrives in the form of streams of photons at our eyes, just as in the other senses, the organs are struck by various sorts of particles. The photons enter the eyeball via the pupil, cross the vitreous humour and strike the retina. Here the light of various wavelengths is transformed into neural signals that speed by means of electrochemical transmission to various parts of the brain. The process is entirely ‘material’ in the sense that we understand material processes, i.e. as three-dimensional things moving and bashing into each other. The bit of the brain most involved in the ‘processing’ of these signals is the occipital cortex at the back of the head and it is here that the signals are processed. This processing is of course no more than the ‘firing’ of neurons, which is understood, of course, as the movement or bumping together of bits of matter – more jiggling of three-dimensional objects. Eventually, this organisation of the signals derived from the light’s striking our retina is complete and hey presto! there is an inner experience of the outer object. ‘We’ (whatever that means) finally get the message.
The vivid experiences we have of summer sunshine on the glittering sea, the staggering contrasts of a snow-scene, the awe-inspiring grandeur of a sunset, the irresistible glamour of the one we love, and so on – all these are, in a perfectly ‘obvious’ sense, according to much current science of perception, merely the jiggling of three-dimensional objects (if we ignore or discount the ‘we’ who receive the message). Well, the best that we can say about this kind of conclusion is that those putting it forward, however convinced they claim to be themselves, have as yet to make a case convincing enough to persuade the ordinary man or woman. Indeed, they seem not to experience the world like the rest of us. They can only account for our perceptions in terms of particle movement by eliminating from perception everything that makes the perception perception, by eliminating all those so-called ‘subjective’ elements that we have indicated by our adjectives above and which are as much part of the perception as the colours, sounds, impacts and so on. Indeed, the irreducible sense of awareness is the one rock-solid constant in the process of perception, for whereas all the other elements are vague and shifting, the sense of experience is irreducibly and indubitably stable. The simple fact is that our sensory experiences, in addition to being so wonderful, so complex, so loaded with feeling etc, are so irrefutably ‘ours’ that to understand them as ‘no more’ or ‘nothing but’ tiny bits of matter bumping into each other in simply mind-splittingly counter-intuitive. We just find it impossible to believe. It is all the more impossible to believe since the radically different experiences of smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing are, according to the theories, all ‘nothing but’ the same kind of neural squirting or twitching in every case.
Now this ‘finding it impossible to believe’ is the flip side of finding matters simply ‘obvious’. Counter-intuitive is simply the reverse of intuitive. For that reason alone, we do well to be suspicious of it. But in the total absence of a convincing link between the richness of our inner experiences and what is after all only one aspect of that inner experience, namely our conception of the three-dimensional object, we have a right to cast around for another view that seems to do more justice to the complexity of our inner states of perception. Since we do not have to work with the notion of a world composed of three-dimensional objects, we simply do not have to work with the three-dimensional object conception of perception and may as well drop it. Consequently, we can ditch the idea that our world of perception is ‘nothing but’ the jiggling of 3D objects. This may be disturbing to some ‘psychologists’, but if we are wrong about 3D objects, then we are certainly wrong to equate perception with them.
To encourage you to abandon the causal bumping and banging conception of perception, you should contemplate the fact – and it is a well-attested fact – that all the physiology of perception as briefly described above, thus supposedly all the bumping into each other of all the right bits of matter, can be in place and yet there be no inner experience at all. This state of affairs is a phenomenon called ‘blind sight’ and involves every feature of seeing without any conscious experience of seeing. The body ‘sees’ and all the results of vision are measurable; but the person, the subject, is conscious of no visual experience whatever. People who possess perfectly functioning eyes, but have some sort of brain-lesion, affirm they have not been able to see something that is presented to them and then proceed to give evidence from their behaviour that ‘they’ nevertheless ‘know’ what was there to be seen. Their behaviour provides conclusive evidence that their body, at least, has seen. This experience in itself, which has been demonstrated in numerous experiments, tells us that seeing is something different from enjoying the physiological processes in the sensory organs. In these blind-sighted subjects the latter are all intact and indeed some part of their brain still ‘sees’ and responds accordingly. It’s just that the process that turns the stimulation of the sense-organs into inner experience has somehow been turned off by the lesion, even though the process of perception is fully functioning in all other respects. Thus the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn is that the inner experience of perception in all its richness is distinct from the stimulation of the perceptual pathways. The two are categorically not identical for they can be separated.
The causal theory of perception simply cannot explain why we are so certain that our inner experiences give us an accurate picture of the way the outside world is. Common sense tells us that we simply see the world exactly as it is. According to common sense, when we view, say, a red apple, the apple simply appears as it really is in the world, without any distortion addition, interpretation etc. In the common sense view, the subject doing the seeing does not affect the process. He or she has no properties that alter the appearance of the apple. The world, i.e. the apple, simply floats unchanged through the open doors of perception into some inner theatre of observation and is contemplated unchanged. The outside world is present, as it is in itself, in the inner world. According to common sense we have direct access to the world without any mediation. But if you believe in the causal theory of perception, this simply cannot be the case, given the complications of the physiology of perception as understood by current brain science. The red apple is first translated into light waves as light bounces off them, then into retinal stimulations as this light enters the eye, then into electro-chemical neuronal firing as the retina stimulates the nerves in contact with it, then into various complicated organisational operations of the processing capacity of the brain at the rear of the head, then into more diffuse patterns of neuronal activity deep within that mass of neural tissue, like a thick rind over the brain, called the ‘cortex’. We speak as if there were only one eye; but there are normally two and the images from each are not only different, but split by the brain in half; and each half is then combined with the half from the other eye. The conceptual ‘distance’ in terms of filtering mechanisms between the original ‘thing’ (which for some reason we think we can imagine ‘out there’ before we see it) and the ‘image in our heads’ is so great in terms of the transformations of the information that it is difficult to see how the experience of the object could in any way resemble the original object. There is, in short, nothing left of the original apple; no guarantee, indeed, that it was ever there in the first place.
So the physiological complications in no way allow us to believe that our experience even resembles the world of which it is supposed to be an experience. Your idea of a red apple may be caused by some entity that bears no resemblance at all to your idea, either to the visual experience of it, the tactile experience, the gustatory or the olfactory experience, or to the auditory experience, if you make it emit a sound. What is more, you have absolutely no way of comparing your inner image with the entity that is causing it, since your only access to this entity is via the images it causes. You may make a leap of faith and decide that the resemblance is just given anyway; and indeed, most of us do this all the time, every day; but you would have no cast-iron justification at all for doing this apart from your leap of faith in what seems obvious.
But there is a further major difficulty. This is the problem of ‘seeing-as’.
The fact is that we bring to perception a mass of assumptions that actually make us see what we see, or rather perceive what we perceive in a particular way. A lot of this ‘seeing as’ has to do with common sense and with the manner in which we have become accustomed to think of the things around us. For example, you might be walking through a department store and you see someone coming towards you who is vaguely familiar. You concentrate, and not having realised that there are mirrors on the pillars, you ask yourself where you have seen that person before. Then with a sudden shock, you realise that it is your own reflection and you feel a little silly. But the point is that for a while, you saw yourself as someone different. Or you may be walking down a street and you see someone standing motionless on the sidewalk smiling at you through the crowd. You approach and gradually realise that the person is smiling a bit too fixedly and has too rigid a posture. Then you realise that it is a life-size photo of a person stuck on a cardboard cut-out, an advert. It is a convincing two-dimensional picture of a person that has momentarily deceived you. Again, you have seen as one thing, what turns out to be quite another. You have applied to one thing assumptions that turned it into something else. This is ‘seeing as’ at it most simple and obvious, but it operates in far more complicated ways as well. We are certainly unaware of these ways in which we ‘see as’ most of the time; but they may be at the heart of what we call common sense. They may also be responsible for our tendency to see the world as grainy, or as composed of separate 3D objects.


Science and Perception

The prevailing belief concerning perception is that it is a passive process: one just lets the world of things come into the mind unchanged and as it is. This is however a profound misconception. Perception, as the great Swiss psychologist Piaget showed, is an active process in which the brain constructs a hypothesis about the way the world is on the basis of the information available to the sensory apparatus.
The information in question is a combination of information created by the mainly muscular activity of our sensory organs and information that comes from those entities that we must assume stimulate our sense organs. The hypothesis we develop is the most economical way of representing to us the interactions between the object we call our body and the objects surrounding us that are not our body. These interactions are a sort of interference pattern of movements in the organs (flicks and oscillations of the eyes, feeling movements of the hands, and so on) and whatever information is impinging upon them. Young children, who initially do not make any distinction between inner and outer, self and world, between their body and other objects nor between the disparate aspects of their experience, have no conception of an enduring object; and when an object disappears from their field of view, they do not look for it where it disappeared, but rather where it first appeared. They seem to have a magical conception of how objects may be made to appear. But then later, as stable, repeatable patterns emerge in their perceptual field, they build up the habit of viewing the world as three-dimensional and as separate from themselves, as they learn to move in variable patterns while experiencing invariant relationships between experiences. The theory they then adopt – that they move through a world of separate objects – is the most economical way of interpreting the invariant aspects of their flux of experience and it is reinforced by parental or social influence and by the structure of language.
But the brain has enormous power in all this. It is the brain that imposes the hypothesis upon experience that we call the ‘three-dimensional world’. It is the brain that makes it ‘obvious’ that the world has three space dimensions and exists in linear time. This is the most economical way of representing to us what is apparently invariant within our immediate range of experience. The hypothesis is built up from early childhood, following the predisposition of the brain, of course, and becomes ‘second nature’ in the consciousness of the adult. It probably becomes second nature because of its real adaptive value for our ancestors; if so, it has a ‘first nature’ basis. But once it has become second nature, adults then do not question it any more. Their habits turn into a fixed belief that this is the way the world is, rather than considering that the world might be entirely different from their hypothesis about it. But the world according to current physical theory is not an arena of three-dimensional space cluttered with three-dimensional objects. Science has for some time now called into question this basic habit of mind that common sense is based on. Science questions it because of facts that conflict with the scheme and science discovers that as a hypothesis it is useful to earthbound creatures moving at very low velocities, such as we are; but physicists at least recognise that for a view of the universe as a whole, or for a view of very small aspects of the material world, it is a completely useless distortion.
Bohm’s suggestion that the process of perception fundamentally resembles the process of scientific investigation and theorising is very convincing. As the brain builds hypotheses to interpret the stimulation of the sense-organs our understanding of the world moves from an undifferentiated consciousness of sensory impressions, in which the infant makes no distinction between itself and the world, to a progressive discovery of the dynamic interactions that are possible between the perceptions that we identify with our bodies and those that we identify as being not our bodies. The invariant features of these perceptions are turned by the brain into memories of interactions with the environment that constitute a kind of map, but not a precise map of a precise terrain, more a map of general instructions of what kinds of things are likely to turn up and how these things are likely to behave. This set of expectations concerning what we have begun to remember as the invariant features of our interaction with the world then settles down to a theory that constitutes a set of assumptions about the world as such and the universe as such.
The hypothesis that the infant develops concerning the disposition of objects, their extensions and boundaries, becomes a hypothesis concerning the nature of reality as such. The world becomes a collection of objects surveyed by a subject that is not one of them. This infant’s-eye view of the world provides a fine working hypothesis for daily life, but when extended to the whole universe, it breaks down. The notions of three-dimensional space and one-dimensional linear time, though appropriate and adequate for everyday interaction with the world of our experience turn out to be completely inappropriate and completely inadequate when applied within frames of reference that are larger than those of everyday living. It was for this reason that the world-view of Newton turned out to be lacking, or at least only correct within a limited frame of reference – the limited frame, indeed, in which everyday intuitions concerning time, space, objects and subjects were extrapolated beyond their scope and in which the point of view of the observer could be ignored. As already pointed out, the theory of Special Relativity found the assumption that time and space were an absolutely fixed background to all reality to be no more than an unnecessary generalisation of a prejudice of ours that had application only to our immediate, low-velocity life. Different and differently moving observers would attribute different meanings to the notions of simultaneity, physical dimension, time-succession and related matters, because they would be calculating the variables in these questions according to different frames of reference. Thus any talk of absolute three-dimensional space and absolute linear time was not only off-beam, but also hindered understanding.
So if science is discovering the inadequacies of perceptual assumptions that have served us so well for millennia that we don’t even think they are assumptions, maybe the human race is now ready to abandon its common sense for all but the most mundane of activities. Maybe we can begin to take seriously hunches about the nature of reality that our species has had for all of recorded history at least, hunches that have always suggested to us that common sense is far from giving us the whole picture.
This ability of ours to question the experience of common sense demonstrates that although we are profoundly manipulated by our brains and by the interpretations they make of sensory experience in order to allow us to function, we are nevertheless not enslaved by them: we can transcend the view of the world that they impose upon us. Something in us is able to criticise what our brains present to us as a reasonable hypothesis concerning the way the world is. This something is clearly able to stand above and beyond the constructions of the brain. What this something is, we have already discussed as the ‘self’ and will discuss a little more later. It is sufficient here to assert that this something can legitimately be considered to be our indeterminate intelligence rather than our determinate brain; it not habit-ridden, ego-directed, mechanical thought that simply repeats past patterns, but rather unique creative insight that manipulates the mechanical aspects of thought in compete freedom. Thus the above word ‘something’ in this context is impermissible in a very precise sense, because what we are considering is precisely not a thing. But such are the infirmities of our language that we are almost compelled to use it.

Perception and increased dimensionality

It is a liberating experience to take on board the possibility that we are obliged by evolutionary development or by culturally conditioned habit – or by a combination of both – to see the world as a three-dimensional collection of things, whereas it is in fact anything but that. Having done that, some further light can be cast on the problem of perception and on the difficulty we have in seeing the wonderful world of our experience as ‘nothing but’ bumping together of bits and pieces of stuff, if we start to think of the world, as the physicists do, as consisting of many more dimensions than the three of space and the one of time that common sense reveals to us. If we start to take on board the possibility that the world possesses at least the eleven dimensions of modern ‘String-‘ or ‘M Theory’, then the wonders of perception begin to make a little more sense and we don’t have to explain them away as embarrassing ‘epiphenomena’ generated, much like the buzz of an electric motor, by the mechanism that is our brain. After all, they are only embarrassing if one is committed to eliminative materialism, that is to say, the dogma that represents the world as just a collection of chunks of matter, just bits and pieces. The reason why extra dimensions make mysterious things a little easier to accept is that every extra dimension added to the world is, as already pointed out, a multiplication of its degrees of freedom by a staggering amount. When one is handicapped by an intellect obsessed with 3D objects, these freedoms are inevitably mysterious; but that is not their fault.
To start, imagine a one-dimensional world. It may be a line, but any being on it has to be either a point or a line. Imagine the restrictions imposed on you if you are merely a point or a little line moving along a longer line (because we throw in the dimension of time). There’s not a great deal you can do. Life would be pretty uneventful, going back and forth along the line. Imagine then that you have another dimension added to your world and that you now have two. The degrees of freedom that you suddenly acquire are vastly increased and what you can do suddenly becomes hugely more interesting. Instead of only being able to go backwards and forwards along the line, you can move to the right and to the left, you can describe circles, you can design arabesques, you can paint any picture with your movements that can appear on the cinema-screen But most importantly, you can simulate worlds of higher dimensionality, such as three-dimensional worlds.
But then imagine that the third dimension is actually given to you. What happens then is miraculous compared to what you had before. Not only do you have the simulation, you have the reality. You have all the light and fire of the world of three-dimensions and the fourth of time comes with it as it came with the others, because movement implies duration. But now you have real movement in three dimensions. The degrees of freedom that you now have surpass to an incalculable extent those you had in your two-dimensional world. But then what happens if you then add a fourth space dimension, and a fifth and a sixth…? Our imagination fails us here, but one can nevertheless appreciate that the degrees of freedom soar exponentially with each new dimension. There is a runaway complexification of reality.
You need to let your imagination run away with you a little to imagine the degrees of freedom that are conferred every time you add another dimension. But you can draw an analogy with the differences between the one-dimensional and the three dimensional worlds in order to help you a bit. Obviously, with the addition of every extra dimension, the world becomes unimaginably more complex and the freedom unimaginably greater. If we have eleven dimensions as String Theory suggests, then we must have a whole lot of freedom. We may have vastly more than eleven. We may have infinite dimensionality. So why do we continue to try and understand our experience in terms of a world that only has three space dimensions and one of time? One explanation is that it is the brain that presents us with this theory as the most economical way of interacting with the world. But why is this of any relevance? Well, the reason is that our mental experience may in its very nature be precisely a matter of dimensionality.
Our senses tell us that the world has three dimensions. But our minds clearly constitute an entirely different sort of dimensionality. Perhaps our conscious mind is an inchoate understanding of more dimensions than our sensory awareness can imagine. Perhaps the so-called ‘unconscious’ mind is the even more inchoate understanding of yet more dimensions. So with those considerations alone, we are far beyond the 3D world of common sense. There is moreover no terribly good reason, apart from common sense, to believe that time has only one dimension. Why can we not entertain the thought that whereas our senses suggest that the world is three-dimensional, the fact of our minds and the fact of the pictures we have in them of the world outside and the fact that we know these pictures to be distinct from the real world itself – all this suggests that we are dealing with a phenomenon of dimensionality. The postulation made earlier of a fourfold world of foreworld, hindworld, midworld and hyperworld is not a suggestion that there are only four dimensions; it is rather an attempt to get away from the notion of a monolithic three-dimensional object-world of common sense as the only world there is and to move towards a sense of higher dimensionality by means of additions to our vocabulary. To highlight the most basic limitation of the 3D world: it cannot accommodate the subject. So rather than abolishing the subject, as much scientific thought strives to do, the sensible thing to do is perhaps to abolish the three-dimensional world – as has already happened in physics.
Consciousness may be operating in some, all of, or more than the eleven dimensions talked about by modern physics. Consciousness may have some sort of non-sensory access to the multiplicity of possible worlds postulated by quantum physics. Perception is emphatically not just the contemplation of a brutally objective external world by a propertyless and non-existant subject. The inner world of experience, though inconvenient to some scientists, is no less a world of perception. It is unhelpful to discount these as ‘mere subjectivity’. In a word of only three dimensions, the gulf between the subject and the object is unbridgeable, which is why much scientific thought tries to get rid of the subject. In a multi-dimensional world, there is no need to make any fundamental distinction between subject and object. This makes the world an infinitely more interesting place than the simple world of three space dimensions in which the subject has to view itself as a delusion. Since our business here is to try and excite wonder, try this: reflect upon higher dimensionality for a moment and try to imagine more complex worlds than that of your everyday. Imagine being inchoately conscious of the superposition of the infinity of quantum states alongside the one that you actually experience by means of your physical sense-organs. If you can, you might want to try and get a handle on them. If you do, then you need not imagine that our primary experience of the world is just a causal interaction of three-dimensional objects. It is infinitely more wonderful than that.
We have already seen that the theory of a world of three-dimensional objects is most likely a convenient construct of our brains and that it probably does not correspond to reality. The old causal impact view is simply old hat and it was never convincing anyway. We do not have to think of collections of three-dimensional things at all, we can think of multi-dimensional processes. If no portion of the material world is ultimately in any real sense separate from any other and if every so-called ‘particle’ is actually a process that mirrors the whole universe, then you can really liberate your mind by imagining how that might appear to us. The interpenetration of eleven or more dimensions may well give you the degrees of freedom that a world requires for the mind to be taken seriously in itself as having access to reality that is more complex than current 3D understanding of the physiology of the senses seems to suggest. Compare the one-dimensional being on his line with the three-dimensional being that common sense tells you you are. Then try to compare this three-dimensional being with the eleven-dimensional being that you might be. You don’t have to grasp all the fine detail to understand that the wonders of perception and of every other inner experience may well be easy to accommodate in a world of so many freedoms.
Our precise understanding may not be helped by such speculations, but we don’t have to have a precise understanding of every matter of interest to us. We are after all not exclusively interested in technological gizmos. Often the intimations of a more interesting world than the one we thought we lived in are enough to liberate the mind and encourage it to come up with a reasonably precise understanding of a higher order than those it has so far arrived at. The amazing discoveries of science have only happened because people first began to think outside of their particular socially conditioned box and then, with the help of imagination and logic, created a more complicated box. We don’t know how many possible boxes there are, there may be infinitely many. Real thinking may be intrinsically outside of any box. But one thing is clear from developments in physics: thinking of our perception as just the bumping together of three-dimensional things may be too small a box either to satisfy us any longer or to satisfy the reality that is beginning to dawn on us.

The Redundancy of Silly Theories

There are few sillier theories than the attempts of so-called ‘eliminative materialists’ to banish the reality of mind. To recap: essentially all materialistic theories of perception are devoted to the notion of matter as a bunch of three-dimensional objects. They are then devoted to the idea that what we may think of as the rich world of subjective experience is ‘actually’ no more than the collision of bits of matter. The mental gymnastics required to dispense with the mind and with mindlike concepts (‘experience’, ‘feeling’, ‘inner states’, etc. etc.) are so monumentally unconvincing that one wonders how they could ever be taken seriously. They involve a sort of denial of the obvious; a denial of the elephant in the room. They involve an entirely uncritical attitude to the assumptions of common sense. They also involve a massive exercise in personal vanity on the part of those who invent them: the vain possibility that a few squirts of so-called ‘proof’ are going to banish the profoundest convictions of most human beings.
Subjective experience (which is after all the basis of all so-called ‘knowledge’), where it is not simply dispatched as ‘illusion’ (illusion to whom or to what?) is airily pronounced to be ‘no more’ than an ‘epiphenomenon’ of material processes. The best these epiphenomenalists can do to elucidate their pet concept is to compare this epiphenomenon to some inessential accompanying phenomenon of a physical process; but even these physical processes are substantial in their own right and the analogy with the hum made by an electric motor is pitiful when one considers what is being dismissed (i.e. the universe of conscious awareness). But we may as well admit it openly: all of these reductive and eliminative theories are in fact desperate attempts to save the assumption that the world is ‘nothing but’ a collection of three-dimensional objects. Since this assumption is wrong, we can drop it and the silly theories of eliminative materialism that go with it. So what can we put in its place. We don’t have to start waffling about ghosts and spirits. We can stick to the concept ‘matter’ if we wish, since the assumption that the universe is constructed out of it is a reasonable one. But we don’t have to equate matter with three-dimensional objects or indeed with any of the stuff of our everyday experience. In place of this, we can consider the universe to be a multi-layered reality in which each layer is characterised by increased dimensionality. Realities of lower dimensionality can begin to show up features of the next level of dimensionality above them. For example, the Peano curve is a one-dimensional line that in fact goes through all the points of a two-dimensional surface and therefore has some of the latter’s properties. Fractals provide further examples of this ability of entities of lower dimensionality to encroach on levels of dimensionality above them. Now we know that the world of three-dimensional objects arises, in a way we have yet to understand, from a reality that has much higher dimensionality. This is one of the most basic insights of string theory. Is it not therefore possible that what we call the ‘mental’ realm is the emergence into the world of three dimensions of the properties of higher levels of dimensionality? If this is the case, then conscious perception may be the self reflection of the world of three dimensions within the vastly increased freedom of a world of many more than three dimensions. It may be, further, that self-conscious perception is the reflection of this reflection in a realm of still higher dimensionality. What we call perception may be an effect of lower levels of dimensionality encroaching on higher; and in self-conscious perception these levels’ then encroaching on yet higher levels. We can maintain this conception of perception and of self-conscious perception without invoking insubstantial ‘spiritual’ or mythical entities.
It is entirely possible that there are vast numbers of different levels of material subtlety hidden in the regions of sub-atomic matter that we are as yet unable to investigate. There is sufficient range in these unexplored regions of space that are beyond our powers of perception and even imagination (at scales of between 10-16 cm and 10-33 cm) for enormous intricacy of structure to be possible. This range is about the same range, by the way, as that which exists in the difference in size between ourselves and the sub-atomic particles we can identify. This vast zone of possibility may be characterised by levels of dimensionality and thus levels of freedom of which we have little conception and from which our rather bone-headed assumptions concerning the three-dimensional materiality of the world look simply naïve. Thus it is simply hasty, to say the least, to announce that subjective access to the world of perceptual experience is no more than an irrelevant illusion. The simple fact is this: we know it is not an illusion with as much certainty as we know that an object cannot be both itself and something else at the same time and in the same place. It is far more intelligent and indeed liberating, to take conscious (and self-conscious) awareness seriously and to consider perception as the interpenetration of levels of dimensionality and thus levels of reality.
There is a real sense, sanctioned by physics, in which we can talk of ‘levels of reality’, for the classical world of our experience arises out of a more fundamental, and thus more real, world of quantum processes. We do not have to set any arbitrary limit to the number of levels that reality possesses. But we can at least entertain the thought that our conscious perception and our self-conscious perception involve the interpenetration of many, perhaps very many levels. Were we purely creatures of three-dimensions, we would have no consciousness at all. Where a creature is conscious of three-dimensions, this must be because it is in some sense rooted in and encroaches upon a higher dimensionality. Where the creature is self-conscious, the dimensionality is higher still. There are almost certainly levels of consciousness above the self-conscious (for example, the ‘mystical’ or ‘oceanic’ consciousness) and we cannot legitimately dismiss these any more than we can dismiss mere conscious or self-conscious perception as illusory. When one reflects on the perfectly reasonable theory that the universe is composed of light and that its phenomena as they appear to us are species of bound or frozen light, one could consider our perception and our levels of conscious awareness from simple consciousness to ‘enlightened’ states of cosmic consciousness as our access to the many levels of light from the bound to the unbound.

1 comment:

Jimi St. Pierre said...

Nice to see the quote from Blake. 28th November 2007 saw the 250th anniversary of his birth and it seemed to pass quite quietly. From a rented Norfolk house, staring into the misty distance over a flat field of beet, I found myself contemplating the theme of perception and veils.

There was a dooor to which I found no key;
There was a veil past which I could not see;
Some little talk awhile of me and thee
There seem'd - and then no more of me and thee.

- Rubaiyat of Oman Khayam xxxii

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
All things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know even also as I am known.
- 1 Corinthians 13.12