The Question Of Perception

The be­low text is an ex­cerpt of this ar­ti­cle.

Once dur­ing an In­dian co­conut har­vest, a farmer, tired from his day’s work of chop­ping down fruit, slumped down in the shade of a tree to en­joy a co­conut, and upon split­ting it open, found in­side a mes­sage from God (or in this case, from Vishnu, his Hindu de­ity). The Brah­mic writ­ing was plainly visi­ble for any­one to see, spelt out in the two halves of oily white meat. The im­pli­ca­tions of such an ex­pe­rience could only have been one of the fol­low­ing: the first is that the Supreme Be­ing has no qualms about re­veal­ing his Div­ine Will in the con­tents of mere palm fruit, any more than in a whirlwind or through an or­a­cle. The sec­ond is that the farmer’s per­cep­tual sys­tems pro­duced an in­ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what he saw en­graved in the fruit lin­ing. It’s any­body’s guess as to which it re­ally was. But re­gard­less of what­ever in­for­ma­tion was con­tained in the co­conut, the moral of the story is that whilst mir­a­cles are known to hap­pen, it can also be said that peo­ple reg­u­larly see things which are not there.

That we end up be­ing mis­led by our senses is a widely-ac­cepted tru­ism, as most hu­mans mis­take the limits of their per­cep­tion for the limits of the world it­self. It’s not un­com­mon for peo­ple to push for­ward in their en­deav­ors with a pre­ma­ture un­der­stand­ing of things, us­ing in­ad­e­quate stan­dards to mea­sure what they see in the world around them. Such er­rors in judge­ment range from be­ing mild, such as mis­tak­enly pur­chas­ing a rot­ten ap­ple be­cause you didn’t in­spect its un­der­side, to be­ing detri­men­tal, such as pre­sum­ing that the oa­sis in the mid­dle of the desert is real, when it’s only a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Hence, there are times when peo­ple are not so much moved by ex­ter­nal ob­jects as by their per­cep­tion of those ob­jects; what they claim to “know” is in fact only known con­di­tion­ally, since hu­man knowl­edge is always limited, thanks in part to our limited per­cep­tual sys­tems. Rare are those whose con­cep­tion of re­al­ity is not ex­clu­sively de­pen­dent on their per­cep­tion of it, who un­der­stand that there are things which you know and things which you don’t know, and in be­tween are sev­eral door­ways, of which one is called “Per­cep­tion”; this door must be en­tered with pru­dence.

It is a com­mon pre­sump­tion that peo­ple see the world pri­mar­ily with their eyes, but in fact, that is only true when they look at the ob­jects that they rec­og­nize; things they have seen be­fore and have cat­e­go­rized in their mind. In a case like that, they would have already built up the nec­es­sary per­cep­tual tools that al­low them to prop­erly iden­tify what they’re look­ing at. But when they look at some­thing that they don’t rec­og­nize, some­thing alien or new to them, the imag­i­na­tion takes over the func­tion of the eyes, and be­comes their pri­mary tool of ori­en­ta­tion. Whilst our phys­i­cal senses may re­veal to us the phys­i­cal world, it is our imag­i­na­tion that al­lows us to pro­ject our­selves be­yond finite time and space, into the realm of pos­si­bil­ities, ab­stracts and nar­ra­tives.

In terms of per­cep­tual ex­pe­rience, the dom­i­nant line of thought is that the world is pri­mar­ily made up of ob­jects. This may seem fairly straight­for­ward, since you pre­sum­ably see these ob­jects all around you: build­ings, street lights, ve­hi­cles, tele­phones, an­i­mals, hu­mans, etc. As a con­se­quence of see­ing these ob­jects, you gen­er­ate thoughts about how to in­ter­act with them, and af­ter com­plet­ing your thought pro­cess, you pro­ceed to act. As self-ev­i­dent as this might ap­pear, it begs fur­ther re­flec­tion. Let’s imag­ine a sce­nario where you’re sit­ting in a cafe, and you hap­pen to catch a glimpse of an at­trac­tive in­di­vi­d­ual at a nearby table. On one level, you per­ceive them as an ob­ject of in­ter­est, i.e, a in­trigu­ing ma­te­rial thing to be ob­served. Cap­ti­vated by their ap­pear­ance, you im­me­di­ately start to draft as­sump­tions about what kind of per­son they are, and how you might ap­proach them to ini­ti­ate a re­la­tion­ship. But in your en­am­ored state, what you failed to con­sider was that there are other lev­els of this per­son’s ex­is­tence which are in­visi­ble, yet equally defin­ing for them. In terms of the biolog­i­cal, that per­son ex­ists as a col­lec­tion of billions of cells that perform nu­mer­ous func­tions un­in­ter­rupt­edly. At a higher level of or­ga­ni­za­tion, the cells form tis­sues that perform spe­cific bod­ily func­tions, and those tis­sues col­lec­tively form or­gans, and so on un­til we fi­nally get to what the per­son looks like in front of you in their to­tal em­bod­ied form. None of these other lev­els of biolog­i­cal ex­is­tence are less rele­vant than the per­son’s over­all ap­pear­ance to you as an ob­ject. If it turns out that he or she is a can­cer pa­tient, bat­tling a tu­mor, then the im­port of their un­seen cel­lu­lar re­al­ity be­comes quite rele­vant. And there are yet other level of anal­y­sis: this per­son will have in­ex­tri­ca­ble so­cial ties that define them, such as friends and fam­ily, who may come from differ­ent back­grounds, cul­tures and other group cat­e­gories based on their eth­nic­ity, level of ed­u­ca­tion, in­come bracket, etc. And even those groups are con­nected to yet other group­ings, un­til who this per­son is can be ex­panded to en­com­pass vir­tu­ally any­thing. But when you bliss­fully ob­serve them from your nearby table, you don’t see any of that re­flected in them as a mere ob­ject. You can only see them at a cer­tain level of re­s­olu­tion, as me­di­ated by your ideas and im­pres­sions, yet all of the other de­tails that es­cape your at­ten­tion are equally rele­vant for defin­ing who they are.

The idea of the world be­ing more than just a col­lec­tion of ob­jects can be seen not only in so­cial re­la­tion­ships or biolog­i­cal mat­ter, but also in how we in­ter­act with inan­i­mate de­vices. A com­puter is viewed as an ob­ject, but when you in­ter­act with it, you’re not re­ally in­ter­act­ing with the com­puter it­self, which is es­sen­tially a moth­er­board and other in­ter­nal elec­tric com­po­nents. A key­board, mouse and a graph­i­cal user in­ter­face have been pro­vided for you to use, and those tools will in­ter­act with the com­puter for you. But if the com­puter were to un­ex­pect­edly crash, then you would be forced to in­ter­act with the ma­chine it­self, which most peo­ple find frus­trat­ing, as they re­al­ize that they know very lit­tle about how com­put­ers ac­tu­ally work. Similarly, when you in­ter­act with the world, your de­sire is mainly to pro­duce a fa­vor­able re­sult for your­self, for which a tech­ni­cal un­der­stand­ing of how things work is of­ten un­nec­es­sary. This is why, from pub­lic trans­port to con­sumer tech­nol­ogy, we are of­ten met by a friendly, un­com­pli­cated user in­ter­face or con­trol sur­face when in­ter­act­ing with the in­fras­truc­ture around us, which hides the com­plex con­figu­ra­tions that more ac­cu­rately would define the ob­ject in front of us. What this means is that peo­ple’s per­cep­tions are ul­ti­mately framed by the things they want or have been trained to see, and not an ac­tual un­der­stand­ing of the world or its tech­ni­cal work­ings. So in terms of per­cep­tual ex­pe­rience, the world is not pri­mar­ily made up of the in­nu­mer­able ob­jects that you see around you; it’s made up of in­for­ma­tion. More prac­ti­cally speak­ing, it’s made up of tools and ob­sta­cles; things that you can use for your pur­poses, and things that get in your way. An illus­tra­tion of this can be seen in how ba­bies re­late to the world: it takes years for them to build up an ob­ject-based view of their en­vi­ron­ment, as they have lit­tle to no com­pre­hen­sion of what their sur­round­ings ac­tu­ally are, yet they still man­age to ori­ent them­selves, albeit some­what clum­sily. So even though peo­ple may look at the world and think they only see ob­jects, there are in fact mul­ti­ple pro­cesses that in­fluence them to make that judge­ment, such as their pre-con­cep­tions, de­sires, and past ex­pe­riences. It is only be­cause peo­ple have such a limited per­cep­tion of things that they fail to re­al­ize that an ob­ject always tran­scends the man­ner in which they frame it.

It would be in­ter­est­ing to hear whether peo­ple rec­og­nize the above ideas as some­thing fa­mil­iar, or view them as a set of open-ended con­cepts that have yet to reach a satis­fac­tory con­clu­sion.

This is a con­tracted ar­ti­cle of what was origi­nally pub­lished on Greek­