Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

Solipsism, Semantics and Science, Between You And Me

Previously I wrote that all our experiences of the world happen within our nervous system, that we cannot truly see past our perceptions and experience reality directly. While this is a fact, it doesn’t mean we remain completely separate from each other.

Dictionary.com defines solipsism two ways.

1. Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption

Obviously if all we can ever experience happens within our nervous systems, it’s tempting to think that we will always remain apart, that our experiences are never truly shared and don’t even overlap. Too strong a belief in that separation can cause feelings of isolation. But experience happens on many different levels, and some of these levels allow more connection with other people and the world at large.

Nothing in the Universe happens in isolation. Fundamental forces tie all matter together, so everything is related to everything else in a real, physical way, in differing degrees ranging between 0 and ∞ (not inclusive). This is why we have theories like the Butterfly Effect which claim the wind from a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane across the planet. (Careful! Don’t watch the movie of the same name starring Ashton Kutcher.)

Everything that exists is in constant flux, constantly changing and never static. When we talk about any thing, that thing is different one moment to the next (it may change in temperature, mass, and so forth, but at a minimum, the atoms and electrons, etc., are in different positions). So it’s wrong to speak of things as static, unchanging blocks of reality. A static noun implies an unchanging object. It’s much more accurate to discuss reality in terms of process transactions, using active verbs and avoiding the verb is and its other forms (to be, being, was, etc.).

So here we are in a whirling field of activity (of which we are a part). When we observe a part of the universe, we can never know all the details of an event because the characteristics of any event are linked to the details of every other event which are always changing, and so really, the universe is just one big, continuous, ever-changing event, never twice the same. What we perceive are objects abstracted from that event that fall within our range of frequency response.

By frequency response I mean that there is a range frequencies that are perceivable by the ear, other frequencies that are perceivable by the eye, and so forth. These naturally observable frequencies—including others like infrared that, through technology, come within our frequency response—are all we can perceive externally.

So we observe an object, a part of the whole event, and we abstract a set of details. Let’s say I’m watching tennis. Tennis is a sport that depends physically upon the sun, Earth, gravity, nuclear forces, and so forth, even though we do not think about or even perceive these factors. Instead, I focus on the ball, or the short skirts, depending on who’s playing.

The ball or skirt that I perceive is a tiny part of the entire event. The characteristics that I perceive in the ball are finite (because I can only perceive so much), but unlimited (I can always find new characteristics by looking in different ways). So what I perceive, the ball or skirt, will always contain fewer details than the actual event.

But this perception comes together inside my brain. The visual information, audio, movement and relations to surrounding factors (rackets, the net, etc.) all happen on an unspeakable, objective level. My brain compiles the information together into a workable model before I even become aware of it. And I cannot take my perception directly out of my head and place it into the head of my friend. But now that I have a workable model based on perception, I apply a label to the object of my attention; I choose to call it “ball”.

When I call it “ball”, I am applying a verbal label to this non-verbal, objective level of experience. It is the label that I communicate to my friend. But this label is just a label, a semantic tool used to signify my experience. The word “ball” stands for the assembly of perceptions in my brain. The label does not contain the same quantity or quality of information that my perception does. The label has few possible values, because “ball” is a generic term, but for my tennis example, “ball” has one value; the word signifies the actual object being hit back and forth by the players. My label leaves out all the information that I perceive when I perceive the actual ball. But now that I have a label, a means to communicate with my friend, something special happens.

I can apply labels to my experiences and attempt to describe that wordless, objective experience, and my friend can do the same. If I say, “the ball is fuzzy and purple”, my friend can think about what those words mean, or look them up if need be, and say, “actually, you lunatic, the ball is fuzzy and green. Take another look,” at which point I can test my perceptions against his at the verbal level. When I look and find that the ball is green and not purple, I have learned something. I am colourblind.

So while we cannot know reality directly, and we cannot know another’s perceptions, we can communicate with one another to compile more and more information about the experience of our fellow humans. Labels allow us to communicate, which is fundamental for human progress. Without communication, we would still be primitive instead of domesticated primates.

At the label level of life, we can have meaning. There is no such thing as meaning on the objective level of reality, and I doubt the universe as a whole has meaning. Meaning comes from language, and on that level we share reality with our friends.

If we really want to share reality, the key is clear communication. The more thoroughly we communicate our experiences, the more we are connected. This is part of the reason that clear language, proper grammar, and creativity are important to me. There is also a direct link between clear language and clear thinking. At the very least clear language is a symptom of clear thinking. But I have a hunch that clear language can lead to clear thinking. As our rational brains use language and logic to piece together our worldviews, increasing our linguistic capacities can only help the rational process.

Knowing what is communicable and how best to communicate is a key to creativity. Part of that is learning how to differentiate the real from the unreal, fact from fiction, and so forth, so that our friends can weigh our communications accurately. Semantics is essential to how we live and learn; it is how we translate our wordless experience of reality into shared experience. If we can nail down a systematic way of testing experiences against one another, we might learn how the universe operates. This is what science tries to do.

Science is based on a method of experiment and observation, a reduction of hopefully irrelevant variables, and then proper communication of the data to others for verification through further experiments. This is how we methodically tally one person’s experience with another. Through science we learn tendencies about the wordless, objective level of objects, and we can compile theories about the actual events, even the manifold of spacetime in which reality happens. Though science doesn’t prove anything 100%, the more scientific evidence there is for a theory, the more reason there is to believe it.

The goal of science is the discovery of our reality. Science is intentionally sterile to reduce the subjective variables that change so radically from person to person. If we can discover how the universe works independent of our personal experiences, we can fit our personal experiences to the truths of the universe to avoid unpleasant surprises.

In my personal experience, I can apply whatever metaphysics I want. I can believe in faeries, gods, demons, or whatever, and I can talk about them meaningfully and even use them to explain my experience, but this is not science. I might enjoy my metaphysics more than yours, but that doesn’t make them right. Even still, differing viewpoints are essential to scientific testing. The metaphysics of Ptolemy, Gallileo, Newton or Einstein helped move science forward because their metaphysics increasingly seemed to tally with the experience of others and the evidence of the day.

As science moves forward it becomes more and more sure of itself. Science continually out-modes metaphysics. That’s progress. It’s crucial that people keep posing new questions about the world as long as theories don’t get in the way of experience. Since theories can alter the power of our investigations, it’s a good idea to pause, take a breath, let the sense data register and be processed by higher abstractions, and try to see things for what they really are. Then, communicate.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. If my opinion tallies with your experiences, feel free to believe me. But you should feel free to not believe me as well. Belief might change your actions and perceptions, but not the external facts of reality.