Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Perception and Reality

Over the past year, I have repeatedly encountered the notion that our perception ‘creates’ reality. The idea is based on the fact that in addition to the empty space that separates the stars and planets, there is a lot of empty space even inside things we think of as solid. Essentially everything that exists is made up of energy and its solidity is an illusion according to this view. Those things we perceive as solid are actually made up of atoms that have a good deal of space between them relative to their size and even within the atoms which are made up electrons, protons, and neutrons which in turn, it is argued are actually energy, not “solid”. From this, some writers, notably Robert Lanza author of Biocentrism, conclude that it is our perception of energy patterns that brings things into existence. The idea is that before we observe them, objects are merely potential and that when they are removed from our observation, they recede to being mere potential again.

Lanza’s book is not the only place I have encountered this idea. It also appears in the writings of Eldon Taylor and in at least some strains of Buddhism. It is an extension of the old question “if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”. To those who believe “perception creates reality” the answer would be “no” but I believe that is a semantic distinction. What we perceive and interpret as sound is a series of waves in the air and vibration in the ground and those would exist whether any sentient being that had ears was there to hear it or not. A blind and deaf person could still be aware of the tree falling by sensing that ground vibrations through their feet or even their skin from the changes in the motion of the air as the tree fell if they were near enough to sense the resulting draft.

But this notion carries the idea even further to suggest that even the tree does not exist (or the forest or anything else) until we observe it. That strikes me as a rather egocentric view. Obviously, you exist whether I am actively observing you or not, and I exist whether or not you are observing me. Likewise, the tree had to exist as more than just potential before it could cause the sound (vibrations and waves) that alerted us to the existence of the tree and the fact that it was falling. If you were deaf and had your back to the tree as it fell on you, you wouldn’t be any less dead for not having observed or heard it as it fell. Thus the distinction of what is reality is a semantic debate over what constitutes “sound” rather than a question of the existence of the tree as more than just energy that is a potential tree unless it happens to be observed. One only has to look at archeology, geology or cosmology to realize that lots of things existed as more than just potential long before human perception was around to ‘create’ it by observing it.

In reality, all of these things exist in potential simultaneously with the physical existence that our limited senses allow us to observe and even the physical existence has aspects that we are unable to see or that we routinely overlook. An insect or a bird or other creature with a differently constructed sense of vision will see the flower very differently than you or I but they are not ‘creating’ the flower by their observation of it any more than we do. The totality of the flower is greater than we are able to perceive. Our “creation” upon observing a flower is not the flower itself, but merely our limited impression of the flower and, if we photograph it, an artifact of that impression. This is what Minor White was referring to when he said “Don’t just photograph what it is. Photograph what else it is.”

The role of the photographer (and other artists) is to stretch beyond merely seeing the obvious and to present in their creations an impression of the greater reality of the subject. So how do we do that? We must cultivate a mode of observation that does not merely see and label what we see but sees beyond labels. As Shakespeare said "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We cannot show the smell in a photo, but there are many other aspects to the rose that we can relay to our audience. That is our goal.

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