When the westward expansion of the new frontier finally
reached trails end at the Pacific, the American spirit of adventure moved on,
finding new horizons above and below the oceans surface. The last frontier
proclaimed as either deep space or the depths of the sea, depending on which explorer has
the medias attention. Amazing discoveries await in both directions, to be sure, but
theres something missing in all the hype. The knowledge to be gleaned from exploring
these regions pales in importance to the mysterious and uncharted horizons that greet each
of us every morning. The limits of our knowledge are nowhere more critical than in the
realm of consciousness.
The Real Truman Show
In a popular movie, The Truman Show, actor Jim
Carrey plays the unwitting star of a television show. Raised from birth on a giant sound
stage, Truman tests the limits of his reality, gradually discovering that the 'real' world
lies just beyond fake scenery bordering the set. When someone asks Christof, the director
of this mythical TV show, why it took Truman so long to question his predicament,
Christof's answer is: "We all accept the reality with which we are presented."
Einstein declared that
one of our bedrock beliefs about human nature, the view of ourselves as separate, isolated
and autonomous agents was "...an optical delusion of consciousness." What's
more, the laws that govern the universe seem to "exist in the mind of some eternal
spirit," according to Sir Arthur Edington.
We Never See What We See...
Philosopher Roger Trigg noted, "Knowing that a world beyond a window is as we see it through the window presupposes that we can go outside and see it for ourselves." But that's impossible for the simple reason that our view of the world doesn't come to us directly; it is filtered through a complex web of neurons in the brain. Our experience of reality rests on the release of neurotransmitters, fluids that facilitate an exchange of electrical signals between millions of neuron cells. Taking into account everything we know about the physiology of the brain, not to mention the innate human tendency to see only what we want to see, there is clearly no basis on which to claim that the world outside is exactly the way it looks to us through the window of perception.
It's the quintessential Catch-22:
Since we don't know precisely how our nervous system works, there's no way to figure out
how it is altering the data of experience -- and without knowing the precise nature of the
data, there's no way to ascertain how our minds are filtering it. Clearly, we can't
apprehend that culprit we call reality for a simple reason: unless we first remove the
filter that is our mind, we'll never be able to determine how much of the total reality is
being filtered out.
Scholar Richard Tarnas asserts in his seminal volume on the history of philosophy, The Passion of the Western Mind: Contrary to the usual assumption, the mind never experiences what is out there apart from the mind...rather, reality for man is necessarily one of his own making, and the world in itself must remain something one can only think about, never know.
In an age when 'spin doctors' are required to interpret news events, it was only a matter of time before the very nature of reality itself would be called into question. Perception is now reality, almost overnight usurping the power of mere facts to describe our world. As author Walter Truett Anderson claims, "An increasing theatricality of politics, in which events are scripted and stage-managed for mass consumption...is a natural and inevitable feature of our time. It is what happens when a lot of people begin to understand that reality is a social construction."
This might sound like much ado about nothing were it not for the fact that every value we hold dear, every belief we're willing to defend, is ultimately based on a set of underlying assumptions about the true nature of reality. "For all that we are and will and do depends, in the last analysis, upon what we believe the Nature of Things to be," declared Aldous Huxley. If our worldview happens to be false, then it follows that our actions will reflect an illusion. As we used to say: Garbage in, garbage out.
Now, for the sake of argument, let's apply this knowledge to a specific problem. Since the recent outbreaks of school violence are receiving so much attention, let's analyze this trend from a new perspective. Now that psychologists, preachers and pundits have had their say, it might serve to search further afield for answers to the awkward questions that follow in the wake of every new human tragedy. Despite centuries of moral persuasion, decades of depth psychology and unparalleled prosperity, society seems to suffer from a virulent strain of cultural madness. Littleton is one more mile marker on the road to a rueful realization: on the whole, society appears less healthy today than at any time in modern history. Measured in terms of murders, suicides and sheer numbers of sociopaths, the insanity index appears to be increasing.
Wilhelm Reich, MD, one of Freud's illustrious proteges, came to the conclusion that it made no sense to treat the individual when society was busy mass-producing neurotics. There simply aren't enough resources to treat everyone. In former times, the minister or priest shared the burden that now falls to the psychotherapist. Today, most of us look to the medical profession for answers. In any case, neither group is adequate to the task. If we want results in the search for remedies, we must look elsewhere.
Discounting the frightening and unwarranted conclusion that murder is genetic, our search must concentrate instead on behavioral factors. Behind every hateful act is a belief in the mind of the perpetrator which justifies, on some level, this misdeed. Mindless violence, in other words, is an oxymoron. A schizophrenic who has stopped taking their medicine is apt to become paranoid. Students who feel threatened or persecuted are prone to strike out at their perceived antagonists, especially if they view violence as a means to an end. But analysis of the symptom does little to provide us with a cure, especially if the underlying causes are neglected.
If we are going to do anything about the culture of violence, then we must understand more than the mindset of those who feel driven to these extremes. We must examine the social climate in which this behavior originates. As many great thinkers of our age have noted, we live on the boundary between two epochs: the old god is dying and the new one has yet to be born. Moral constraints have loosened due to the battering that religious beliefs have taken at the hands of science. In other words, an insatiable thirst for knowledge has undermined our belief in absolutes. If the universe is nothing more than a random process, then where do we turn for moral or ethical guidance?
Science, which is concerned with describing this process we call nature, is not in the business of supplying meaning. That was the traditional province of religion. In an age when the quest for a sense of personal validation is upstaged by the frantic pursuit of self-gratification, many are left by the wayside, trying in vain to glean a satisfactory self-image from such slim pickings as those one might find on a sitcom. Rather than encourage young people to explore their own psyches, to ask what it means to be human, we tend instead to impose our values on them. The educational system, most parents and the media all conspire to mold impressionable minds in their own image. Is it any wonder that those who resist this form of mind control turn to the cult of nihilism, or worse, to violence?
The Nature Of Violence
Many decry the depiction of violence in the media. There is little doubt that the pursuit of profit has nullified a sense of responsibility. However, brutality in the media would fail to generate a profit if the audience tuned out. Wherein lies our fascination with violence? In a time of great anxiety, amid daily scenes of bloodshed, people are understandably afraid for their own security. Death, our greatest fear, is also the biggest taboo. We dread to consider our own demise, let alone to discuss it openly. Psychology teaches us that aggression is motivated by fear. When fear is epidemic, violence inevitably results.
No, the problem goes much deeper than violence in the media or the lawful control of weapons. In order to uncover the genesis of brutality, it would seem advisable to examine the beliefs that give rise to it. Why does one group target another? Fear provides us with a motive, but intolerance selects the victim. The single common denominator in nearly all crimes against humanity is intolerance for others. Either we disagree with their views or we can't stand the way they dress. In any case, we see our intended victim as a threat to our own self-image. They're what we're not -- and that poses a threat to our notion of how things ought to be.
The crux of the problem is this: behavior is motivated by beliefs which are, in turn, derived from our perceptions of reality. To understand how our views impact the world around us, inflicting untold misery on our fellow human beings, we must look behind the curtain of appearances, thereby to catch a glimpse of the wizard who lurks in the shadows of our minds, concocting this madness. Just as behavior is predicated on belief, underlying every belief is a set of assumptions that determines how we view ourselves and the world around us. This worldview is key to understanding our actions. It forms our reality. Yet most of us rarely question the nature of this reality.
With so many complex issues dividing us at every level of society, sparking the bloody confrontations that occur between those on opposing sides of every ideological fence, it might be prudent to examine the perceptions that color our reality. Whether it's a world away, in the streets of the West Bank, or across town at the local high school, the message we're being bombarded with is the same: if perception is reality, then the reality of violence won't change until our perceptions do. We've become desensitized not only to the depiction of violence but also to the hidden cause, an inability to see that our beliefs are being held hostage by our perceptions.
Are We All Lemmings?
"We are all hypnotized from infancy. We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to see them," observed the late Dr. Willis Harman, Stanford University professor emeritus, former member of the Board of Regents of the University of California, and president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. We suffer, it would appear, from a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from thinking outside the proverbial box. But if each individual, ethnic group, or nation fails to understand that reality is not simply what our senses tell us it is, then forming the necessary consensus to tackle problems that are increasingly global in scope will be impossible. As long as each person believes that their reality, their god, their ideology is the only true one, then we are condemned to a world of violent confrontation.
Although it would seem absurd to argue that there is no reality independent of human perception, our view of the cosmos has clearly been distorted by our inability to recognize that we are peering through a tinted telescope. Unable to determine what has been filtered out of the picture, we nevertheless must strive to make sense of it all. Faced with a universe that remains largely unknowable, how do we arrive at a consensus on which to base our actions? If nobody knows reality, then aren't we on shaky ground when it comes to decisions of an ethical or moral nature?
For those who wish to avoid the quagmire of relativism,
hope does indeed spring eternal. Down through the ages, there has been substantial
agreement as to the existence of a deeper level of reality. Termed the "perennial
philosophy" because it has blossomed anew for thousands of years, "this stunning
unanimity of deep religious belief," as Ken Wilber characterized it, led Alan Watts
to declare, "the plain fact that there has otherwise been a single philosophical
consensus of universal extent. It has been held by [men and women] who report the same
insights and teach the same essential doctrine whether living today or six thousand years
ago, whether from New Mexico in the Far West or from Japan in the Far East."
This generation isn't alone in the quest for meaning. We stand on the shoulders of giants, peering across vast stretches of time, secure in the knowledge that they have pointed the way. The unsettled territory ahead has already been mapped by those who have gone before. Many of our current laws are derived from their insights. Removing the dogmatic trappings that have obscured the true intent of their message does not mean that we must throw the baby out with the bath water. It does mean taking an unbiased look at the presuppositions that inform our worldview, thereby gaining a new perspective on the underlying cause of the intolerance that creates so much discord: the mistaken belief that our personal reality is founded on a bedrock of certainty.
Since we simply can't determine to what extent our perception of reality is a product of our own imagination, it follows that all perspectives are ultimately philosophical. As mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, we all create a myth to live by. Not all myths are created equal, however. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. Believing that we had most of the answers, we've neglected to notice the deep-seated assumptions that suggest what questions to ask. But it's not too late to ask the most important one of all: If nobody holds the deed to reality, then don't we each have the freedom to take responsibility for our own?
Because, when you think about it, any person or group attempting to define your reality for you has thereby revealed a hidden agenda, a vested interest in the politics of reality. To a certain extent this is unavoidable, a necessary evil, a byproduct of the socialization process. Everyone who describes the world to a child has thereby infringed on the right of that child to think for themselves. If perception is reality, then we're all guilty of inflicting our bias on others.
And yet, isn't that what the story of human history is all about, each generation weaving a tale of its own, enriching the tapestry of experience handed down by previous generations, thereby shedding the cloak of superstition that conceals our illusions? In seeking to share that story with others, we uncover the common threads that connect us to the only perspective that honors all perspectives, the one that acknowledges a powerful truth: nobody owns the rights to reality.
As it becomes universally accepted that each person's unique perspective is merely one viewpoint among a vast universe of possibilities, no perspective need be defended from behind a barricade of preconceptions. Undermined by the loss of any concrete reality, the pillars that support intolerance will topple of their own weight, thereby destroying the foundation which supports so much human misery.
When psychology fails and religion no longer holds
sway, our best recourse is to admit that well never have all the answers. The
reality which drives us to wage war over the very resources squandered in waging war is
merely one myth among many. When this realization reaches critical mass, well create
a new one. The last frontier is the one that will last forever. Creating that myth could
be humankinds most lasting legacy.
We are continually seeking outstanding
thinkers and writers.
Send e-mail if you have something special to share with our readers.