Mini-Feature: Perception in Real Time

Our perception of the world is what our brain constructs for us from the signals sent by our senses. Plus, there is a delay. So, you don’t experience the simulation in real time. What would it be like if humans could perceive what the world is actually like and do it in real time? What are the ramifications of every single person’s reality being a little different and unique to them?

Our friend Matt Meehan at Hillsdale recently reminded me of the following passage from A. D. Sertillanges's The Intellectual Life, which is the rare sort of book every serious person should read.

[Y]ou must defend your solitude with a fierceness that makes no distinctions whatever. If you have duties, satisfy their demands at the normal time; if you have friends, arrange suitable meetings; if unwanted visitors come to disturb you, graciously shut the door on them. It is important, during the hours sacred to work, not only that you should not be disturbed, but that you should know you will not be disturbed; let perfect security on that score protect you, so that you can apply yourself intensely and fruitfully. You cannot take too many precautions about this. Keep a Cerberus at your door. Every demand on you from outside is a loss of inner power and may cost your mind some precious discovery: 'when half-gods go, the gods arrive.'

In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the guard dog at the gates of the underworld. It would make a great name for an app (let's talk!), as we all need him now.

The point of the wise old Dominican who wrote the above passage is vital in our era of lockdowns and beeps and boops coming from multiple apps on our phones and laptops. If you do not take his advice, your vital human energies will be sapped. You will lose the ability to perform the highest and best functions you can possibly perform and thereby lose out on a fulfilling life. You will lose yourself in the deepest sense.

Think of the world around you as a stream of currents engineered by various sources: some are legitimate and of good will; others from enemies who seek to extract from and use you. They are all trying to get in front of you. The good news is that the real and most important work is often completed in short spurts. You will rarely get eight uninterrupted hours even if you exhaust yourself working a likely counter-productive sixteen. So you need less of this sort of time than you probably realize. But you do need a set series of shorter but uninterrupted times in which you chip away at the stone. This is the way. 

So our first task "at work" is to build up a rock hewn shelter that protects our inner life from the currents for some period of time or we will be swept away. Otherwise, we will lose ourselves to the tide. It's not easy, but you and I must refuse to go under. And we have to constantly work to keep up that shelter as the tides batter up. Get to it. We have work to do.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Since we are each imprisoned in the cage of our senses it seems plausible to imagine that our individual experience of the world is totally unique. His colorblindness and her being tone-deaf, for example, shape different realities for them as they experience it.

Is this true? It seems kind of unlikely. How much of our understanding of the world is actually mediated through our senses, once we ceased being babies and acquired language? Most of the time we experience reality through symbols, and our shared existence is determined by the general "fit" of our symbolic construct with that of other people. If you asked fifty 12-year-olds to cut out paper circles measuring 3 inches in diameter, you'd get a stack of circles that more or less match; that "more or less" is like the world of mutual understanding.

It's not perfect, but it pretty much works.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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We are up this week against a very delicate problem in consciousness and perception. The archetype of it is Plato’s story about Socrates, who was late to the dinner party in the Symposium because he peered so deeply into the heart of things that he saw what his teacher, the lover-priestess Diotima, had called “beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, without diminution and without increase, or any change.”  

If anything we say to one another is to be meaningful or truthful, any connection we make more than mere imagination and self-reference, then there must be something “out there” whose raw and unmediated character neither depends on our perception nor alters when we go blind or mad. But—as Schrödinger reminded us—there is simply no way of examining what things are like “outside” our perception because in order to examine them, we must perceive them in some way.  

This is true even if the mode of perception is very indirect—even if we have a machine record something and then perceive the record. Still, the moment we engage with the outside world we “defile” it from the standpoint of the “reality purists”: we encounter it and so destroy our fond illusion that we can know it outside of relationship with ourselves. This is what led Kant to place the “noumenal” world outside all human knowledge except the knowledge that it exists: we know it’s out there; by definition we can’t know anything else about what it’s like. Pure Socratic objectivity is a parable and an ideal, not an achievable reality: it is a limit which we always approach but never attain. Out of frustration with that constant reaching, many moderns have given up the project altogether. 

The Abrahamic approach to all this is somewhat different. From the beginning God creates in relationship: he “speaks” and “sees” creation. Then he invites Adam to do the same, and to give names to the things made—thus man puts the finishing touches on creation as God’s representative within it. What this suggests to me is that “out there” absent any perceptive interaction might well be a fantasy of our own making. Reality just is tension and relationship between perceiver and perceived, a tension the Stoics recognized when they envisioned the whole universe as inert matter animated everywhere by a rational mind.  

Matter—“stuff”—is outside of us, but consciousness predates it and gives it the form it always has: it is never just a blob of gunk except in our own conception of what it would be like without God and man to see it. In our efforts to resolve this paradox we may try and outsource all perception to machines, which will keep a perfect and impassively objective record of “reality.” But this will be a fond mistake: what use will such a record be? To whom? The subjective, squishy, intuitive experience we have of the world is built-in—is part of reality. It was there even before matter in an eternal dance of knower, knowing, and known: three in one, “established from everlasting, poured fourth before the world began.” 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind