This has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now. I touched on it in the last entry–the concept of “what objectively is” and what we perceive that ‘what’ to be. Life over the last few years has been interesting. I’ve been lucky to have things happening in my life that seemed like tragedies at first but in time served as great encouragement to grow in new ways. One is in the concept of perceived reality and its role in our existence.
The basic idea is about as simple as things get: what we believe to be objective reality greatly shapes where we go with our lives. One aspect of that is learning–our notion of reality drives what we decide to learn and not learn. Another is the impact on our experience–the notion that if someone draws from their learning a positive view then they’ll live a positive life…draw a negative one and they’ll lead a more negative life, in simple terms. Finally, and perhaps the most profound aspect is faith: what we believe may be and how that affects our well-being and actions.
First, I want to back up and use some history to set a direction here with the major initial steps in development of western philosophy. Yes, I mean Plato, and so then in many respects Socrates. In school I groaned at the subject. Nowadays I have to smile, because that groaning was an illustration of the subject matter Plato devoted a lot of time to and touched profoundly on: the idea of the “real” and the “imaginary” and their impact on us. I’ve sectioned off this background for anyone already familiar.
Relevant Aspects of the Work of Socrates and Plato
Up until the time of Socrates, in the west there wasn’t much thought put into perception. There’s a natural sort of reinforcing dialog between the real world and living beings interacting with it. For example you see a fruit, pick it up, feel it in your hand, eat it, and experience consuming a fruit. That experience serves to reinforce a notion that physical reality is an objective thing, is all that matters, and is maybe even all that ‘exists’. It is after all a key to survival. If you need sustenance, you use your senses and your perception of what they tell you to find and eat food. Having eaten it, you survive another day. You have your vision into reality and your ability to operate within it to thank. What else matters? What else exists? Anthropologists might point at early nomadic life as a major influence here on the emphasis of importance on our perception of reality. When you don’t have a means to accumulate for your needs like growing food, life is hand-to-mouth. You put something in your hand (or skip the hand and go straight to the mouth I suppose) through interactions in the real world. On top of that, since you have no reserves you don’t have much time to stop and think about your existence. As a result, that existence may be primarily defined by the real world. (And the parallel with modern life and what we must/may spend time doing is an interesting one, although that’s maybe a separate subject.)
In the west, as I understand it, life in Greece seemed to experience an explosion of personal growth in comparison to life before. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other wonderful thinkers provided a means to explore thought in ways that have endured our existence for centuries. Pythagoras and his ‘crew’ quickly discovered one aspect of the beauty of mathematics (to put it one way). Discovering some of what mathematics says about the physical world compelled him and his peers to celebrate and expound on the philosophical and to an extent the religious impact.
Socrates recognized the value of abstract thought as illustrated by mathematics, and one main concept he promoted in response was the value of thought focused on subjects not directly tied to physical reality. He devoted great energy to both evolving this ‘abstract thought’ and promoting its value. Interestingly enough, he believed this growth in thought and understanding to be granted solely by the Gods in the form of awakening preexisting memory of it in us. That may have just been his unconscious way of being thankful for being able to find answers within himself, but the idea that we have all the answers within ourselves is an enthralling idea in itself. It’s a big reason why I’m writing this too.
While Socrates focused on abstract thought for its own virtue, Plato seemed more preoccupied with the relation between thought about the real world and thought focused on abstract concepts. The majority of his primary work in The Republic seems devoted to this. Influenced by Socrates, he acknowledged first the aspects of our physical experience that give clues that can aid in learning and understanding in general (The Analogy of the Sun). This concept highlighted the transformation from observation to understanding, and it led to the contrast between the ‘real’ and the ‘abstract’ that Plato was focusing on at the prompting of Socrates’ work. There was a big difference in Plato’s eyes between the influence of the real world on thought and the influence of abstract concepts on thought. The motivation reveals itself later in The Republic, but it is a profound observation in a world so previously (and still?) focused on ‘the real world’.
Plato dissected thought using this idea in the Analogy of the Divided Line. Here he accomplished two main things–he categorized the spectrum of “knowledge” (provable conjecture about the nature of things) into four groups, and he assigned a relative importance to those groups. The smallest group is what we know of the real world through our senses: our reception of physical light, sound, smell, taste along with our resulting mental model of the world assembled from this input. This is our ‘knowledge’ of the physical world, and more specifically what we believe the physical world to be. The second group of knowledge (twice as large or important as the first) is knowledge of the actual physical world itself, our objective understanding of physical reality. The natural sciences are placed into this realm: science senses and gathers clues about the physical world and uses this data to build objective understanding of it. This is only knowledge of our physical world as it can be empirically determined regardless of our observation. Equally large as this is the third body of knowledge: knowledge of abstract observation. Mathematics is the inspiration here, primarily geometry for its application to physical reality. Exploring the nature of a circle is an example of abstract exploration. While there are examples of circles in the physical world, there is a lot to explore with respect to the abstract concept of a circle, divorced from concerns of physical reality. The final group of knowledge–twice as large or important as the third group–is the result of using abstract exploration to discover abstract universal “truths” or what would become “First Principles”. This is the holy grail of knowledge in the eyes of at least Socrates.
With the Analogy of the Divided Line, Plato seemed to draw a parallel between the first two groups of ‘knowledge’ and the last two. Perception of the physical world (the first group) helps drive and direct the development of an objective understanding of it (the second group). Similarly, perception of the non-physical or abstract (the third group) helps direct the pursuit of objective understanding of it (the fourth) as well. As with Socrates, Plato placed a greater importance on abstract knowledge than on knowledge of physical reality.
Another significant message in The Republic is an illustration of the impact of vision on knowledge in the Allegory of the Cave. Plato was in my opinion brilliant in at least one way–he observed and recognized the impact of vision and perception on understanding and knowledge. He recognized this despite the driving and directing influence of vision and perception on discovery and understanding. The Allegory of the Cave focuses on the physical world in its analogy although it also applies to concept thought. For anyone unfamiliar, people in the analogy are restrained in a cave where the only entrance is covered by a sheet. Behind the sheet is a space occupied by objects and people, with a light source in a fire behind them. The light casts their shadows onto the sheet, and those restrained in the cave see only shadow projections of the objects and people on the other side. With no other source of perception available, these people may firmly believe that the objective world consists of two dimensional shapes of various shades of black on a two dimensional surface.
The Allegory of the Cave illustrates multiple notable aspects of thought. A central aspect is of course the idea that while perception may inspire and influence the pursuit of knowledge, in and of itself it sheds only a subjective light on the empirically or logically provable. Another limiting aspect to perception is that knowledge and understanding of the physical world is greatly impacted by what is available to perceive of it. In addition, as it applies to what Socrates and Plato believed to be important, knowledge of the abstract is also constrained by what is made available to perceive it. However, in the eyes of Socrates and Plato, the key to the ‘science’ of abstract discovery is philosophy. Philosophy in this way can provide a means to discover, understand, and know abstract concepts through the empirical means of logic (ex. mathematics). They describe philosophy as akin to becoming unrestrained in the cave and seeing behind the sheet, in essence loosening the moors of perceivable reality on thought.
Socrates and Plato were focused on a specific type of abstract thought: discovery of “truths” obtained through the use of logic. There are of course other types. Much (all?) of it can be categorized into the provable (but not connected to a body of known truth) and un-provable (opinion). There is an inherent risk though in not acknowledging this type of abstract thought within the context of a greater whole. The ‘types’ of abstract thought in ways defy finite categorization. Some of this sea of thought has been explored in the time since, even within the realm of philosophy, but much has seemingly existed in a context limited by previous work. This is at least understandable. With us programmed to survive in a physical world, when you first start thinking about thought, physical reality might naturally be a main theme having a large influence on thinking. Constructs like mathematics might also be attractive for being both abstract and having easily observed application to the real world. With religion also being a constant theme in society, a hard line can naturally be drawn between logic and that which logic cannot seemingly apply to. It was likely natural for philosophers of the time to focus on logic as opposed to other types of abstract thought.
Recorded Eastern thought has parallels with respect to treatment of physical reality. Buddhism in ways views all value placed on the physical as a distraction from growth, and Taoism in ways embraces the beauty of the physical and the ‘distractions’ it represents. Both are bodies of thought where physical reality is a main focus. At the same time, these bodies of thought represent a different type of goal than what Socrates and Plato were aiming for. Greek philosophy focused on the goal of knowledge about logical truth through reasoning. Chinese philosophy focused more on the goal of knowledge about existence and contentment. Rooted in a much different past, this type of thought can explore the unknown in unique ways.
Stepping back from these, there are some commonalities shared by all forms of thought where the goal is understanding. One is the accumulation of stimuli related to the subject to be understood. Stimuli fuel observation, another commonality. Much like the scientific method, observation feeds many things, one being conjecture or theorizing. Observation also assists in testing theory, discarding that which is not supported by observation and bolstering that which is. Theory bolstered adequately can be categorized tentatively as “truth”, regardless of the subject matter. Related truths can be used to build a picture of the subject to be understood. This picture can be thought of as a “model” of the subject. Sufficiently developed, this model can be thought of as a reality in itself. This is empiricism used to grow knowledge. At the same time, this method of accumulating a coherent body of knowledge also mimics methods of human understanding, which makes it a method with a natural fit for human thought in general.
While the scientific method provides one formalization of it, we build models constantly while learning new subjects. We seek out relevant stimuli about an unknown subject, we collect and observe, we conjecture, test, and build models of the subject. There’s a danger that some new as-yet undiscovered observation may invalidate the entire model, but a useful model helps discover these types of observation and can at least serve to eliminate possibilities within the search space being analyzed. There is also the danger as Plato demonstrated that a model may not represent the subject accurately, but being built from attainable observation and proof/disproof, the model may focus on that aspect of the subject that is able to be interacted with, which may have value in itself. If the model is advanced sufficiently it may also aid in refining itself and subsequently understanding.
Here is how fundamental this concept of model building is: I believe that humans not only build mental models to form comprehension of subject matter, I believe those models which serve us well are integrated as much as we can mentally manage into a single core model that envelops everything we understand into a single whole. Sometimes this is easy because one model may contain enough surrounding context to fit within an overarching context of a larger whole.
Sometimes this is hard, especially when there are sufficient gaps between models. My understanding is by definition limited, and this belief may just be a product of who I am. On the other hand, having a single model helps reduce the strain on memory. I forget a lot. I forget very little of what I fully understand within an understood context.
We constantly build models about aspects of the physical world with which we can interact. They allow us to operate within it in a semi-intelligible way. With great work by people like Donald Hoffman, we are finally exploring how this furious model-building relates to its subject. With similarly great work, famous people like Elon Musk question what the observable, ‘interact-able’ physical world really is and whether there is an agent or agents behind it.
Right now is a great time for thought and understanding. An aspect of it that has me currently consumed is the impact of thought on sentience, specifically the impact of mental models on our notion of reality. Because as there are different kinds of abstract thought, those different kinds of abstract thought provide the possibility of infinite kinds of models or “realities”, where a reality can be thought of as the experience of employing a model of an unknown but observable subject.
With that, I want to shift a little (okay maybe a lot) to what I promise are related aspects of psychology. It’s been observed that children have greatly accelerated mental growth that parallels their physical growth. Children can learn at a faster rate than their older selves for various reasons. It’s also been observed that stimuli and observation greatly shape a child’s growth (a great argument for good parenting) in comparison to stimuli and observation experienced later in life. Nature or nurture, there also seems to be an innate aspect to someone born, whether it’s a product of genes or other factors, that also greatly shapes a child’s growth. I want to take this observation about adolescent growth further. I believe we as children form a notion of reality–both physical and non-physical–that sticks with us throughout our lives more permanently than any other age. That reality is developed and partially ‘hardened’ by the time adulthood is reached.
That model of reality drives–practically defines–what we actually experience. For example, a child who for various reasons forms a liking for extroversion may experience a social setting as inviting, whereas a child who prefers introversion may experience the same social setting as uninviting. While that may seem obvious, think about an example where you experienced both settings. How much do you think your notion of reality influenced how you experienced the setting? How much do you think your notion of reality was influenced by what you believed to be the *factual* aspects of the setting? This is key, because we often mistake our experience for factual reality. It happens much more often than we are willing to think. It happens on a constant basis. Maybe it’s influenced by our physical survival programming. Maybe it’s also influenced by our spiritual survival programming.
All understanding is of course constrained. A major source of constraint is what’s available to sense. In terms of physical reality, sensing more of the world in various ways increases availability of information to sense and absorb. In terms of logical knowledge, building tools to aid in sensing and exploring abstract logical concepts helps increase availability of information to absorb. In terms of personal contentment, reflection and meditation are similar tools in exposing the self to itself, observing existence and experience, and drawing conclusions about them. While these non-physical journeys of thought may be less constrained by availability of information than understanding the physical world is, they’re still greatly constrained in terms of generation of stimuli to fuel observation and conjecture. The tools used to explore thought and even the overall model of existing knowledge that we build upon about those subjects constrain this type of exploration.
That’s worth dwelling on I think. Acknowledging our limited awareness, our limited experience can serve not only to humble us but encourage us to action. We often accept certain suppositions as aspects of immutable fact or objective reality, and we even at times value the acceptance of those things and the ability to be at peace with them. The problem is that this limits our ability to grow our understanding.
This not only affects our growth individually, it affects our growth as a society. The impact can be easily seen by the state of our world today. We are in so many ways diametrically opposed in belief to one another. This serves to discourage understanding of what others experience. This suppresses empathy. It divides us. It does not have to, but preventing it at least requires acceptance of our limitations. None of us have “all the answers”. Anymore, I tend to believe that each of us barely has answers for ourselves. While that may seem bleak, I see it as incentive to be open to growth individually and socially. More on this later, but we each (and all together) have a lot to gain.
subsequent topics for later:
- more on the notion that philosophy focuses on understanding concepts, while there is the emotional side to existence as well
- the role of the subconscious, both in terms of thought and feeling
- the impact of perceived reality on our faith and well-being
- dialectic method: its power; contrast to the power of more than two views personified