Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is Perception Reality?

I have often heard it said that perception is reality.  In fact, I have used that expression myself, and in many ways this phrase is true.  From the time of our birth, and perhaps while still in the uterus, we begin to form a mental model of what the world is like.  Our sensory organs are continuously feeding information into our brains about the world around us, and as we process that information we evaluate, make judgments, plan responses, and filter additional input based on our perceptions.  To us, this is reality whether we are completely rational or are a paranoid schizophrenic.

What kind of world do we live in?  Is it safe or hostile?  Are the inhabitants friendly or cruel?  Can I rely on others to cooperate with me, or do I have to continually struggle with them in order to achieve my desires?  My perceptions regarding these issues and thousands of others will influence how I interact with the world around me.  Furthermore, my behavior will impact those that I encounter, and their reactions will often serve to either confirm or discredit my preconceived ideas.  So, are my perceptions about reality accurate, or is reality being influenced by my perceptions?

What if my perceptions are merely based on a narrow segment of information?  Can I truly trust my perspective?  And, if I don’t know something, how will I know that I don’t know it or how much information I am lacking?  If we really carry this line of thinking to its ultimate conclusion, we won’t be able to do anything because we won’t be able to trust the validity of our perceptions.  So, we content ourselves with knowing what we can and proceeding through life based on that awareness.  However, this is the very reason why we need to be open to new discoveries and revelations.

Early man was quite convinced that the earth was the center of creation.  Ancient religions were based on this geocentric perspective, and even early scientific theories reflected this errant belief.  Beginning in the 5th century BC, Greeks developed elaborate mathematical models to describe how the sun, moon, planets, and stars orbited around the earth.  It took men like Galileo and Copernicus to recognize that the earth was merely part of a vast universe.  (see History of Astronomy)

Our existence is filled with amazing events that we do not perceive.  Our understanding of reality is still primarily earth-bound and the way in which it appears to our senses, but this does not make our perception real.  In fact, material reality is much different than what we think it is.  One example of this constantly stretches my comprehension.  It is the speed at which we are traveling through the universe.  Our general perception is that the earth is merely lumbering along through space; however, the table below is an attempt to show what is really going on.

                                                                        Time required to travel
from N ew York City to Los Angles
Object                                      Speed              approximately 2,500 miles
Automobile                               100 mph           25 hours
Jetliner                                      500 mph           5 hours
Sound                                      660 mph           3.8 hours
Earth rotation at the
equator                                     1070 mph         2.3 hours
.50 cal. Sniper rifle                    .5 mps              1.4 hours
Kinetic energy penetrating
round from M1A1 tank 1.1 mps            38 minutes
Earth rotation around the sun     19 mps             2.2 minutes
Solar system rotation within
The Milky Way                        175 mps           14.3 seconds
Milky Way traveling through
the universe                              300 mps           8.3 seconds

mph= miles per hour                 mps= miles per second

The next time you find yourself staring up into the night sky, try wrapping your brain around the fact that we are speeding through the universe 300 times faster than a shell fired from a tank.  Even though I have known the reality of this for years, I still cannot fully grasp it.

Another area which reveals a gap between our perception and reality is the illusion of
matter.  Everything around us appears to be solid; however, this is not the case at all.  In fact, approximately 99% of matter is empty space.  The illusion of solidity is the result of electromagnetic bonds among the subatomic particles comprising atoms, between atoms, and within molecules.  The gaps make it possible for trillions of neutrinos and tachyons to pass through the earth and everything on it every second without causing any significant damage.

I am so glad that reality is not dependent upon my ability to perceive it. Because the composition of the cosmos simply leaves my comprehension in the dust.  However, what I am able to understand about the material world reinforces my conviction that there is much more going on in this universe than what appears in the phenomenal realm.  In light of these clear discrepancies between our perceptions and reality, in our search for truth, it is imperative that we remain open to rethinking traditional concepts of reality, God, humanity, even our existence.

Misconceptions remain misconceptions even if they are held by the majority.

                                            ----Leo Tolstoy


  1. While reality is not dependent what we can perceive, isn't that really all that matters? We are going to act on what we believe to be true. I find myself very often questioning the validity of what I believe, and therefor hesitate these days to act on it. I am always seeking, but rarely finding, at least not to my satisfaction. Kinda has me in a rut in many ways.

  2. I believe it was Stephen Hawking who pointed out that if we could view all of the Electromagnetic Spectrum (not just the narrow visible light portion in the middle) the universe would appear to be a very different place, and thus our reaction to it would vary accordingly. In other words, most of what is going on is not perceived by the average human, like you pointed out.

    I try to apply this to my own life through awareness exercise, primarily in the form of journaling & making inventories, and it demonstrates that my own narrow view of what is going on around me, in most cases as it involves other humans, is grossly distorted. A lot can be said for objectivity, which is the goal of Vipassana Meditation practiced largely among the Theravada Buddhists. One of the ideas is not to clear our mind of thoughts and emotions, but simply to detach ourselves from them and view them objectively. In other words, stop being the center of the universe.

  3. Very interesting points. Personally, I have found that balance is the key to most things in life. I know that Buddhist philosophy teaches that detachment is the path to avoiding suffering, and there is no doubt that we need to be far more objective with ourselves than we are. However, I am not up for being overly detached from my experiences because I don’t want to lose the joy that comes from being a participant rather than merely an observer. It’s a delicate balance, but from my perspective, it’s worth pursuing.

  4. Cousin, you point out the contradictions that are inherent in trying to define "reality" empirically. There is certainly more going on out there than the mind of any one individual can conceive. It doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to keep trying to understand more, or to act according to what our best understanding of new evidence has led us to Believe. The knowledge that we can't possibly know it all should help us keep hubris in check.

    Detachment is okay, but I have found true detachment to be rare. All too often, cynicism or apathy masquerade as detachment. I believe that life should be lived in the active voice. Compassion is not detached, it is participatory.

  5. I agree entirely. Check out my "Be The Change" posting

  6. Living in a Buddhist community, I know few who aspire to complete detachment for their lives. It is an idealized state usually reserved for the clergy, more accurately referred to as the Sangha, or order of monks. There are also few laymen who actually seek to practice Vipassana meditation, at least that is the case in Thailand. And even among lifelong monks, who are expected to hold much higher standards of detachment, there is only a handful who take it extremely seriously. People live life, have families, careers, property, and a general carefree attitude, and suffering, grief, fear, pain are as much a part of life here as anywhere. Can't speak for Tibet, however, where the general population as a whole, at least before the Chinese occupation, took the philosophies of Buddhism to very extreme levels.

    As with everything, there are different levels of commitment. Here, the idea of reincarnation makes moderation in spiritual practice an accepted norm. Most people do not expect to reach enlightenment or Nirvana in this lifetime, but try to make at least some effort to minimize the amount of bad karma to pass onto the next.

  7. Because I do not share the Buddhist belief regarding reincarnation, I do not feel the need for that level of detachment. However, I absolutely respect and admire their dedication.