Monday, August 29, 2011



We have already looked at the process of perception in an earlier post (see: February 2009), and there is no plan to repeat here what was said there. The focus of interest here is slightly different. It concerns the allegedly absolute distinction between subject and object. We want here to see how far distinctions can be made between these three apparently different systems: 1) the sense-organs that receive types of data from ‘the outside world’; 2) the brain that processes all the neural reactions to this data; and 3) the self, to which this combined process appears as ‘experience’. It may be that one can pull this process apart and show, by analysing the particular role of sense-organs and brain, and without recourse to psychotropic drugs, that the self is not slavishly tied, in some supposedly ‘causal’ fashion to experience passively the only world that is, only and always in one particular way, perhaps the only way possible. The self can be separated from one particular mode of experiencing, just as it can be separated from its language use, or its use of logic and mathematics, and indeed from any more or less mechanical structure by means of which it interacts with the world. The self can creatively adopt a new mode of perception. The self can create a different mode of perception for itself and at the same time come to an understanding of the habitual, mechanical and inadequate features of its usual mode. This is where imagination becomes consciously rather than unconsciously part of perception. The essential point in this process is the recognition that the self is not some sort of victim, eternally condemned to suffer the buffeting by the ‘objective’ world because that is ‘the way the world is’. On the contrary, since there is indeed no sharp distinction between self and object (the spatial boundary of the body does not supply this), the process of perception is far more of a participatory collaboration than most humans imagine. A vital question then is, can the self really liberate itself from being tied to one particular, culturally and historically determined mode of perception and achieve another or others? The answer seems to be in the affirmative.

The usual mode of perception is understood by most human beings who have grown up in western culture more or less as follows: a perceiving self, located vaguely somewhere inside the chunk of neural matter inside the skull, and conceived as being a kind of inner projection-theatre, passively receives signals from the world outside of the skull, the non-self, in terms of pulses of neural-activity that encode the impacts received from the objects of that world, impacts that include light, sound-waves, material particles or straightforward physical contact. Somehow, it is thought, these pulses of neural activity give the subject a faithful picture of what is actually there in the world of the non-subject. The reasons for this optimism are not very clear, but they seem to have to do with the apparent absence of any evidence to the contrary, even though evidence to the contrary is there in abundance, particularly in contemporary physics. But the dominant feature of this general view of perception is that this whole process is simply the direct action of the world upon our bodies and that the perception of the world outside is simply a passive reception of what is actually there and thus delivered directly to us. From this arises the belief called naïve realism that perception is direct, unmediated or immediate access to what is actually there. It is the belief that what is actually there simply imposes itself directly upon us as the brute fact of the world apart from ourselves. It is as if we believed that the world imprints itself upon us much as the pattern of a rubber boot-sole imprints itself upon a patch of mud. To change the image, it is as if we believed that our sense-organs are simply holes in our head and that the world simply gushes into the mind as the breeze blows through the open window. Perception, according to this view is simply unfiltered reception of the only world that is, and in the only mode of existence that it can have.

Human language is in greater part – though not entirely – structured by this belief. The belief is woven into the warp and woof of the grammar and into the vocabulary that we string together into sentences by means of our syntactic rules. It is to this extent a self-confirming hypothesis of such power that it is no longer regarded by us as an hypothesis, but rather as simply and absolutely the way the world is, the way the world ‘has to be’.

If one pulls apart the process of excitation of sense-organs, its processing by the brain and the subjective experience of the self, then one can reassess any one of those stages and ask oneself whether one is really sure what is going on at each stage and whether one is at all sure about the way in which these three stages interact with each other and influence each other. If one does this, one can rapidly get away from the commonsense notion that the process of perception is ‘obviously’ a simple delivery to the observing consciousness of only and exactly what is actually there. If one stops prejudging the matter, stops assuming that the world apart from our experience is exactly as that experience suggests it is, then one is at liberty to re-interpret the input from the non-self into the self at any one stage in the process outlined above. One is at liberty to reassess the relationship between subject and object. One is freed to consider so-called ‘common sense’ as a kind of prejudice that distorts the process of perception and therefore of cognition. If one chooses to assume that the world, as such, is the unknown, is hyperworld, then one cannot think in terms of the senses’ having total access to that world. What, after all, entitles us to believe that our senses receive all the possible data from the world? Answer: nothing. We can no more claim that our senses deliver all the available information from the world than we can claim that the rudimentary sensing capacity of the nematode worm does. Imagine for a moment that you are such a worm and reflect upon how impoverished your experience of the world must be compared with that of a human. Then reflect that humans might, if compared to hypothetical beings endowed with richer sensing capacity, be no less limited than nematode worms. Regarding our sense-organs as limited, as giving us only a fraction of the available information, is the first stage in critically evaluating them. But we have then to do the same thing with the brain that processes this limited information.

The process by means of which the brain becomes ‘programmed’ by behaviour to experience the world in a particular way begins in early childhood from the moment the senses begin to be stimulated. The young infant, assumed to be possessing fully functional sense-organs, does not experience a world of ‘objects’ right away. The young child cannot focus on individual aspects of the ‘buzzing, blooming confusion’ of the sensory input. Their vision does not focus on individual visual experiences. The eyes are not co-ordinated with the feelings of the hands, nor with the auditory experiences, nor with the gustatory and olfactory input. More importantly, perhaps, the brain of the infant does not initially impose the hypothesis of the ‘outside world’ upon its sensory experience. The young infant makes no distinction between inside and outside, between subject and object, but simply receives raw, uninterpreted experience. Thus notions of time, space and causality are not at all formed and the young child will give evidence of expectations that seem to indicate a kind of magical understanding of the way in which the disparate elements of experience hang together, magical in the sense that the child often seems to believe that the realm of experiences is somehow under the control of its will.

Gradually, however, as the child is stimulated to connect visual and other sensory experience and connect different kinds of experience with a single source, the concept of an enduring object begins to form. As the child’s improving locomotion, and perhaps repeated pleasures and pains, allow it to discover repeatable routes through various sources of repeatable experiences, memory begins to establish the concept of space through the hypothesis of the disposition of objects in space. The understanding of what ‘causes’ these repeatable experiences, however, can often remain hazy for quite some while. A child may, for example be shown an item and then witness its disappearance. But far from looking for, and waiting for the re-appearance of this item in the region in which it disappeared, which would suggest an understanding of the causality of the experience, the child tends to turn its attention to the direction from which the object first appeared, suggesting that it equates the emergence of the object with the act of perception. It seems to see the perceptions as causing the object’s appearance, rather than understanding the object as causing the perception. Nevertheless, the repeated discovery of invariant elements that memory retains from the child’s exploration of the origin of its experiences gradually builds up a theory of the world in which a belief in three-dimensional objects, their disposition and movement in space, their enduring presence when not being perceived, and so on, is central. This belief is delivered by the brain to the self as being the best interpretation of the nature of the stimulation received by the senses. That the brain does indeed ‘deliver’ hypotheses like this is attested to by the fact that the brain can be induced by various distortions of the sensory processes to abandon the commonsense theory and begin to generate all sorts of additional hypotheses. We can ‘feel’ this hypothesis-generation happening in very simple situations. We have all had the experience of sitting in a stationary vehicle, a train or a bus or a car, and then suddenly experiencing all the sensations of the vehicle’s beginning to move, as, looking through the window, we ‘see’ our vehicle, ‘passing’ another. It frequently comes as a shock then to notice from other cues that our vehicle is still stationary and that it is a neighbouring vehicle or some other mobile object that is moving. This comes as a shock because the brain will have delivered to us all the kinaesthetic as well as sensory experiences of movement. This particular theory turns out to be wrong, but it demonstrates just to what extent perception is a theory. The brain often interprets various kinds of movement on the part of the environment – spinning of a roundabout, pitching of a ship etc. – as evidence that the body has been poisoned and is for that reason disoriented. The result is an impulse to vomit – the brain’s way of getting rid of the hypothetical poison. This shows just to what extent the ‘theories’ imposed by the brain manipulate us independently of our will or intention.

Now the thesis here is just this: the brain that has evolved in our skulls and that has allowed us to survive and to flourish as a species, imposes upon the self the interpretation of sensory information that suggests that the world outside is a collection of three-dimensional objects enduring through one-dimensional time, that the objects are separate from each other and interact with each other by external impact alone. This hypothesis then becomes a self-confirming, self-validating theory as repeated experiences of the same type reinforce the general ideas about space-occupancy, solidity, movement, stability and so on. These general ideas thus reinforced then become firmly engrained habits of memory that turn into second nature and govern the process of perception and experience entirely, such that they are not considered to be hypotheses at all, but ‘the way the world is’. Their origin in a certain interpretation of experience is forgotten, their dependence upon habit is overlooked, they become ‘abstract’, ‘a priori’, ‘necessary’ and so on. Their status as a hypothesis is entirely missed and they become a theory adopted by the brain and forced upon the self that ceases to be questioned, that indeed may not be questioned. The complex of concepts becomes not a theory at all, but ‘obvious’ unquestionable reality pure and simple, pure common sense, to question which is tantamount to madness.

We have rehearsed aspects of this general scheme of things several times before, but the point here is just this: the self does not have to take uncritically the deliverances of its brain concerning the nature of the outside world as such. Indeed, taking these deliverances uncritically led to the shortcomings of scientific theories of the world that had to be abandoned as facts emerged that clearly did not fit them. The Newtonian universe was remarkably successful for a remarkably long time as was for all that time regarded as not simply an hypothesis but as a perfect reproduction of the way the world is in itself. Nevertheless, it was in the end overturned by the insight that its commonsense conceptions of reality (infinite three-dimensional space, infinite linear time etc.) were misguided because they generalised insights that were only applicable in a limited context. Once we went beyond the simple use of the unaided sense-organs and began to use prosthetic devices of vastly greater sensitivity than our eyes, ears, hands etc., then we began to realise that the structure of the world is far subtler than we, with our simple commonsense inductions had ever suspected. We began to understand that the equipment that evolution had given us was not infallible, not the only possible means by which we could approach reality. We began to understand that the view of the universe bestowed upon us by our sense-organs and the particular manner in which they become programmed was no more than a set of deeply-engrained habits, a kind of mental routine which, in the interests of economy, it was better not to question. This potential liberation of the mind has been bestowed upon us by discoveries in physics. It means that the mind can use its hypotheses heuristically, without regarding them as absolute. It means that we can continue our precise investigations and at the same time, without obscurantism, preserve a conviction of the infinite fathomlessness of the world.


The progress of physics from the time of Einstein onwards has been a gradual demolition of the commonsense view of the way in which the self receives information about the nature of the world. It is therefore now simply part of straightforward intellectual honesty to try and keep up with these developments and to try and see how the sensory-cognitive apparatus that evolution has given to us can be found to be strictly limited in its abilities, imperfectly programmed by our lifestyle, distorted by habit and liable to make us believe that certain views of the world are obvious, ‘self-evident’ even, when they are not. The development of physics in the past few decades has opened up a world of vastly greater complexity and vastly greater dimensionality than was ever suspected by our ancestors. We owe it to ourselves to try and explore the implications of this new and strange world for our understanding of our self. One thing is certain: we do not have to stick to the dogmatic assertions of the thing-ideology that assures us that the self is nothing at all and that objects are everything. The self, on the contrary is our most immediate experience and the indispensable condition of all other additional experience. It is also the source of all modes of expression tied to that experience. The self is therefore not only ‘beyond’ its language, its music, its mathematics, its logic, it is also beyond the hypotheses delivered to it by its brain on the basis of the stimulation of the senses. The brain does its best to convince the self that the world is a collection of separate three-dimensional objects for that is doubtless an economical and practically valuable strategy; but the self does not have to take this at face value and indeed never has. The self is now mature enough to explore the ways in which its own multi-dimensional reality can be integrated into the many-dimensional reality of the universe. Perception does not have to be viewed as the passive, slavish reception of the deliverances of a monolithic objective world that we have to take without question. It can become an active process in which the old theory of a three-dimensional world of solid, separate objects can profitably be laid aside by the self, viewed as a fiction generated by the brain and its mechanisms, left behind and transcended. The very fact that we can do this demonstrates the distinction between the self and the brain. The self clearly uses its brain; it is not its brain.

If the self were not ‘beyond’ its brain such that it uses its brain rather than being generated by it, we would as a species be as tied to our knowledge of the environment as some non-human animals appear to be. The fact that we are not so tied; the fact that we constantly generate new knowledge, and transcend that knowledge in yet more new knowledge, strongly suggests that the self actively uses the brain to explore reality and does not necessarily have that reality imposed upon it either ,by an immutably objective world of brute facts or by an all-dominant brain. The brain could be considered to be a kind of interface between the self and whatever constitutes the non-self; but it is conceivable that this interface could become a barrier, a distinct hindrance as it imposes ‘theories’ of the world that our prosthetic devices suggest are untenable. It is certainly a hindrance if these theories are considered by any human group, scientific, religious, political, or what have you as beyond question.

We can, of course, view the ‘beyondness’ of the self as just another brain activity, as temporal lobe activity, perhaps, in which the processing and storage capacity is so powerful that multiple drafts of experiences, all subtly different, can be entertained all at once. In this way, the imagination, for example, is reduced to a mere mechanism. But we are not obliged to see things this way if we ditch the thing-obsession and the notion that the self just has to be identical with its brain. If every particle of matter in the universe is accompanied by an information-bearing field, distinct from it, that connects it to the rest of the universe, then the brain, too, could be accompanied by a very complex field, the information of which could conceivably be separated from the ‘matter’. We can see the extraordinary processing and storage capacity of the brain as a tool of the self for the exploration of possibility. On such a view, the self would be the indeterminate origin of the new structures of the imagination, and the storage and processing capacity of the brain no more than the facilitating hardware, the repository of raw material derived from perception. If, in addition, the brain is regarded as a quantum computing-device that operates with the infinite superposed potential of its possible material states, then the self can be seen to have potential access to sources of stimulation that not only blow the commonsense notion of perception to smithereens, but that open up to the mind an infinity of possible worlds.

The ‘beyondness’ of the self with regard to both the objects of its sense-experience and to its imagination is illustrated by Bohm’s view of the relationship between perception, imagination and mathematics in the exploration of physical reality.

Bohm points out that many contemporary physicists regard mathematical equations as providing their most immediate contact with nature and see the relevant experiments as simply confirming or refuting the correctness of this contact. Thus for them, since the objects of their investigations are so far from the objects of common sense, without the equations there is really nothing to talk about. For Bohm, however, a return to the old attitude to the maths, in which the maths was regarded as simply a more precise way of talking about the physical reality, is not the way forward: the way forward is rather to see these two attitudes as extremes and to adopt a manner of thought that moves freely between them. Simply striving to make progress from the mathematical side alone is, says Bohm, too limiting. The physical concepts that we can discuss in natural language are not simply imaginative displays of the meaning of the equations, but can be seen as a guide for the development of new equations (as, for example, with Einstein’s youthful fantasies concerning the behaviour of light). In this way, the creative advance may come from one side or the other, from the maths or from the imaginative concepts.

The upshot of this particular method is that Bohm does not expect to come to the end of the process of discovery, as do certain other physicists with their talk of ‘Theories of Everything’. He does not expect to find any ‘ultimate’ object. His view is rather that nature is both qualitatively and quantitatively (i.e. in its depth and subtlety of laws and processes) infinite. Our knowledge at any stage is, he says “an abstraction from this total reality and therefore cannot be expected to hold indefinitely when extended into new domains.” (The Undivided Universe, Routledge 1993 p.321) In the past, physicists have regarded their discipline as more or less finished, apart from one or two insignificant little clouds upon the horizon. These clouds, however, had a habit of turning into paradigm-overturning hurricanes in the form of vastly broadened areas of investigation (e.g. the effects of the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, and those involving the problems of black body radiation, upon Newtonian physics). Contemporary talk of tying up all the looses ends of physics into one definitive Theory of Everything cannot, therefore really expect to be free from a similar fate to that suffered by all previous attempts to achieve the same sort of thing.

Our understanding of the concept ‘matter’ has steadily undergone transformations and increasing abstraction up to the present state of affairs in which what we had previously thought of as an ‘object’ possessing the primary qualities attributed to it by Locke is turning into empty space. This process is carried further by quantum field theory in which particles are treated as simply quantised states of a field that extends over the whole of space. The successive replacement of what was seen in one age as essence by the notion of appearance in a later age, where the appearance concerned is appearance of a much deeper essence (from things to atoms to sub-atomic particles, to quarks, to superstrings for example), seems to Bohm to be a pattern that never comes to an end. “Ultimately”, he writes, “everything plays both the role of appearance and that of essence. If, as we are suggesting, the pattern never comes to an end, then ultimately all of our thought can be regarded as appearance, not to the senses, but to the mind.” (ibid. p.322) The process of science is therefore the elimination of illusion from these appearances. Science extends the appearances, but the ultimate reality is unlimited and unknown.


The fundamental problem associated with our claims to knowledge seems to be that we can only with difficulty detect the habits of our perceptual apparatus. Appearance gives rise to new conceptions of essences; these turn out in their turn to be appearances and a new essence is posited to account for them; but no matter how far this process goes, it will still be bound up with perception. Thus our theories are not primarily forms of definitive knowledge about the world but rather forms of insight concerning our own experience that arise in our attempts to obtain a perception of a deeper nature of reality as a whole. This process can no more come to an end than the senses can arrive at some ultimate perception. We can go on putting on ever more powerful ‘spectacles’, this definitive sense-perception will never come into view.

Thus both the mathematical and the physical ‘imaginative’ concepts are appearances which guide our actions towards the unlimited and unknown reality. It is for this reason that the imaginative concept is just as important in the overall process as the precise mathematical concept. The two together present a more comprehensive appearance and cross-fertilise each other.

This view of the infinite process of science has consequences, of course, for the understanding of the nature of the observer. As part of the same infinite system of nature, the observer, too, is ultimately unknown and unlimited. Thus any mechanistic or deterministic theory of the observer is utterly inappropriate if regarded as final. The self-determination of any system must be held to be as relative because it will always depend in some way on what has been left out. Determinism and indeterminism are extreme abstractions that constitute different views of an overall set of appearances. The ultimate reality, whether of object or of subject must be thought of as being always beyond any theory whether deterministic or indeterministic. Different views, deterministic or indeterministic, are called for, depending on the type of contact we wish to have with the reality at issue. But the unknown and unlimited essence, either of self or of world, is not restricted to any of these views. In a passage that has distinctly Kantian overtones, Bohm says of this ‘essence’ and of its relation to the views we have of it: “it may be thought of as somewhere between them and ultimately beyond them, as indeed it is beyond what can be captured in thought, which is always limited to some abstraction from the totality.” (ibid. p. 324)

Given that all our categories of thought are ultimately appearances, Bohm himself asks the question, what is the point of talking, as he does, in terms of an ontological approach to the entities of quantum theory (as opposed to the epistemological approach of Niels Bohr)? His answer is extremely subtle. It is that the entities of every theory are not only mere appearances, but also more than this in the sense that the theory’s basic concepts must be said to “reflect reality within its own domain” by which is meant ‘in the domain of the theory’ (ibid. author’s italics). In all other existent ontological theories, the basic concepts (‘objects’, ‘atoms’, ‘electrons’, ‘quarks’ etc.) are deemed to correspond to some independently existing entity, for example and not to be dependent upon context or on deeper levels of being. Bohm describes his own ontological approach as being such that a basic concept in it may reflect a reality that is inherently dependent upon either context or “deeper levels of being” or both. For example, our perception of a round table as elliptical may be seen as a reality, despite its ‘really’ being round and despite, on, say, the atomic view, its being more empty space than solidity. This may be done by considering the light coming from the object to the eye, making an elliptical image that is in some way carried back into the brain. This may be considered as an essential part of the reality corresponding to the elliptical appearance. This reality is not independently existing, but depends on a context including the whole process of observation of the circular object which is taken to be the essential meaning of the elliptical appearance. However, the circular object is dependent for its existence on a wide range of contextual parameters and especially on the atomic constituents which are considered to be its essence. But this set of considerations is then repeated as we go through a series of deeper essences and appearances, sub-atomic particles, quarks, superstrings etc.

In the quantum domain it is necessary to state explicitly the relationship between appearance and essence by considering the totality that includes the measuring instruments as well as what is measured. In the quantum domain, there is an irreducible participation of object and observing apparatus in each other. For this reason the extension of the traditional approach into the quantum theory was problematic. The basically epistemological approach of Bohr and Heisenberg was a recognition that the quantum concepts were taken to represent only the state of our knowledge. The abandonment of an ontological approach by Bohr and Heisenberg depended on the assumption that such an approach would rely upon finding some final essence that was not dependent upon anything at all. For Bohm, by contrast, the ontological approach entails considering appearance and essence as a totality. Since appearance and essence are a single totality, observer and observed are also a single totality. The absolute separation of these two is untenable.

The image Bohm uses to make this totality comprehensible is the hologram. The whole is always contained in any of the parts. Thus the ontological approach is always in the form of a totality, including observer, measuring apparatus and everything else. Of course this does not give all the information about the entire universe or any final picture. However it is important for any cosmsology that is adopted and for a mature understanding of the relation between observer and observed.

The view that theories constitute appearances, says Bohm, does not deny the independent reality of the universe as a whole. “Rather it implies that even the appearances are part of the overall reality and make a contribution to it” (ibid p. 326). It must be emphasised, nevertheless, that the content of the theory is not by itself the reality, nor can it be in perfect correspondence with the whole of this reality, which is infinite and unknown, but which contains within it the processes that make theoretical knowledge possible.

If one tries to sort all this out to one’s own satisfaction, one may begin to suffer from vertigo, the sort of vertigo one experiences when one looks at one’s own reflection in two mutually reflecting mirrors that present an infinite series of images that fade into indistinctness or veer off to the right, to the left upwards or downwards. The observer is inseparable from what is observed, just as the apparatus is inseparable from the quantum entity observed. The observer is of course understood as a classical object and his or her powers of observation seem to depend upon classical effects. At all events, we do seem as creatures to be narrowly associated with the classical domain, despite our inference of the quantum domain. If the classical domain is implicate in (folded into and unfolded from) the quantum domain and if the images that we make of the classical domain are dependent on the context of our location in the classical realm as well as on all the effects of the deeper levels, it is difficult to see whether the reality of appearances is limited to the distinct level of reality concerned, or whether it has a counterpart at all other deeper levels. To use Bohm’s example again: suppose I view a round table. What I perceive is the appearance of an elliptical something. This elliptical something is the appearance available to me of the round essence. Then on the atomic level, this round essence is the appearance of the granular, atomic reality that is more empty space than solidity. This atomic level is then the appearance of the essence of the quantum processes supporting the atoms. But here it gets very spooky: these quantum entities are dependent for their particular identity upon me as observer and on the apparatus that I happen to be using. This implies a feedback loop between levels in which the appearance on the classical level becomes decisive for the evolution of processes on the quantum level. This can only mean that there is no such thing as the kind of objectivity that our everyday use of our senses seems to suggest, only types of participation by the observer in the increasingly subtle universal processes. This would imply that the universe as a whole (since unbroken wholeness and quantum entanglement exist) changes according to the perceptions and intellectual operations of observers. Of course, where the essences are considered to be so mathematically complex that they pass out of the range of our imagination, the strong link between our acquisition of knowledge and the passive reception of sense-perception (the corner-stone of empirical science) has definitively been severed. Thus we no longer have to consider the observer as fundamentally distinct from the observed, nor perception as mere passive reception of the world ‘as it is’. Such antique prejudices can be abandoned.

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