Two Worlds

Rodin-The-ThinkerI seem to live in two worlds. One that might be called my “inner world” consists of my private thoughts, emotions, images, and sensations. The other which appears to me as an “outer world” is a shared world that consists of other beings (those who seem to possess an inner world) and objects (things that do not seem to possess an inner world). These two worlds make up my universe; nothing else exists…for me.

The interplay between these two worlds is complex. Much of what could be said to exist in my outer world, exists only in my inner world. For example, I have never been to Africa, so I have never experienced it in my outer world, I have never touched it, seen it, heard it, tasted it, or smelled it. The continent of Africa is an outer world shared by over one billion people that for me, exists only in my inner world through second hand experiences.

neo-wakes-upMy office, where I sit now, exists in my outer and inner world. My inner world, ostensibly fed by the “actual” outer world through my senses, makes my office appear to me as a part of my outer world. It seems real, but how do I know for certain what is real? The philosophical position of solipsism holds that the “outer world” cannot be known. Extreme forms of solipsism deny any outer world, which includes all the other inner worlds. The plot of the science fiction film “The Matrix,” plays with the concept that the outer world is constructed by the mind. The Matrix, a designed outer world, is a complex computer program which humans directly interface with through ports connected to their brains. The humans in the Matrix experience an outer world that does not really exist “out there.”

Chaplin.mirrorDebates about the nature of the outer world are not only happening in philosophy and science fiction, but increasingly in the scientific community. Thinking about the “realness” of my outer world can twist my mind in a Gordian Knot if I am not careful. Yet, I must also take heed of the other extreme, namely over-belief in the outer world. Questioning the outer worlds’ existence generally comes from an intellectual position, not an experiential one. Experientially, the outer world feels certain. Much of my inner world does too. I tend to believe my thoughts and interpretations. Certainty feels good, and these feelings are often necessary for survival — doubting the realness of the world is not a trait that will likely contribute to many descendants.

We crave certainty in both of our worlds; so much that we fight for it when someone challenges our sense of it. While we like suspense, surprise, and mystery, we do not like to sit with these feelings indefinitely. We ultimately want resolution; we want certainty. This can drive us in positive ways to understand our experience, and to use that understanding to improve our existence. But, this craving for certainty has the potential to destroy us. We see evidence of this in political, religious and other interpersonal clashes. What happens when two sides both feel certain of incompatible positions? Certainty can block mutual understanding, empathy, giving others the benefit of the doubt, or meeting in the middle. These are essential diplomatic and interpersonal relationship skills.

I am trying to learn how to question my own certainty, and to live a life that can embrace uncertainty. The scientific method, an approach based on confirming or disconfirming hypotheses based on empirical evidence, may be the closest that we can get to certainty in a subjective world. It provides a structured way to dialogue and find consensus about our shared outer world. Yet, consensus is still lacking, even science is subject to biases and current paradigms. Humans are naturally stubborn and resistant to evidence that works against their beliefs, even when it might provide a better explanation.

population-2014There are over seven billion people in our consensual outer world, each possessing a different inner world; each providing a unique perspective on the outer world; each potentially at odds with many of the others; each feels their “truth” deeply, craves understanding, and desires some sense of connection. The interplay of these many worlds might not be survivable, but if we are going to make it, then we must learn how to live together between the inner and outer worlds. Science alone is not enough, we must also find ways to understand, abide, and share our bewildering inner worlds.

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

Walt Whitman


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Black Boxes

black-boxI can only dwell in my personal experience. As the protagonist of my story, I am the subject and everyone and everything else is an object to me. Likewise, I am an object to everyone else who encounters me. Not only can I not enter another’s subjective experience, but I am unable to experience myself as an object. I live inside the “black box” that I am to others, a box that prevents me from experiencing the outside of the box. From inside my black box, I interact with other black boxes. I can never experience others’ subjectivity, and they cannot experience mine. This is an existential predicament — a predicament replete with peril and opportunity.

The peril stems from our instinctive feel that we are the experts of ourselves. We do indeed have access to exclusive information about ourselves which makes us experts of a sort, but this expertise is both biased and limited. The insufficiency of our expertise tends to be neglected like a blind spot. Like the eye’s blind spot, we fill in the missing information — never realizing it was missing in the first place.

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. — Katha Upanishad

Communication with others often leads to the blind debating the blind and arguing about what they cannot see. We feel so sure of what we know that what we do not know is ignored. What we do not know is in part what others know, and here lies the opportunity.

Accepting our ignorance, opens the door to knowledge and intimacy. If, in my blindness, I can accept rather than reject the perspective of another, then my world is expanded.

The road to self-insight runs through other people.
— David Dunning

Successfully negotiating this existential predicament requires skill and eloquence. Feedback can be given in many ways, only some of which are effective. Effectiveness is increased when both parties acknowledge their “blindness.” This leads to dialogue, a type of mindful communication that is collaborative and open-minded rather than oppositional and close-minded. Dialogue does not come natural to most of us, but it is vital to learn if we ever hope to be the experts of ourselves.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Intuitive Realness

The “realness” of the world is something we intuitively feel.  However, as I indicated in my previous post, “objective reality” might not be so objective. Even if there is a real world “out there” we can only experience it mentally, and mental experience is unavoidably subjective, unavoidably filtered. We all experience a self-biased world which feels very real, very”truthy” and actually unbiased. If you know someone who does not have access to one or more of their senses, you are very aware that you experience the world very differently than they do. Our self-biased world is also species specific, as anyone who has lived with another species has experienced. Each species highlights or tunes out part of “reality” depending upon its own survival needs. The world your dog experiences is not only different but unavailable to you. Science may have instruments more sensitive than our bodies, but these instruments cannot give us the true experience of the “real world.”

Our minds generate our reality; we are continuously and actively constructing the world we experience. Our experienced world is filtered and infused with our unique human emotions and thoughts. Donald Hoffman, a professor at UC Irvine who studies visual perception, has a hypothesis that perception is more of a multimode user interface (MUI): “The conscious perceptual experiences of an agent are a multimodal user interface between that agent and an objective world.” (1)  This theory suggests that what we experience as objects are more akin to the icons we have on our computer desktop than what is likely really going on. In the same way that the user friendly icon on your computer in no way represents the reality behind it, our observed objects are but useful fictions that allow us to interact with an unfathomable “reality” that can’t be fully experienced. Hoffman also points out that it would not be an advantage to us if we could.

Necker-Cube

The image above is the Necker cube which Hoffman likes to use as a demonstration of our reality construction. Our minds take the patterns within these eight circles and construct a cube, but this cube can be seen in multiple ways. Is it a cube on top of the red circles? Is the small red x on the front or back? Or, are we looking through the red circles to see the cube as if through small windows, and in that case is the x on the front or back? When our mind constructs the cube in front it also puts in the white connecting lines — even though they aren’t really there. These lines disappear when we are looking through the red circular windows. We can actually experience “reality” shifting as we move between these different perspectives (be patient). How does our past experience with the cube shape impact what we see? Would some people, perhaps young children, only see the red circles with patterns in them?

Our minds generate our reality and then believe that world is real. We feel like our sense organs are like open windows letting in what is really “out there.” We believe in objectivity, unfortunately, we have been fooled.

(1) D. Hoffman. Conscious realism and the mind-body problem. Mind & Matter, 2008, 6, 87-121.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.