On the way to happiness, I learned that perception is an abstraction of reality
I’m getting a crash course in reality and it’s changing the way that I think about how I perceive the world. By accident, I happened upon the work of Donald D. Hoffman, a professor at University of California, Irvine. You can find his UCI web page here. Check out this video below (I haven’t figured out how to embed videos on Medium yet):
In that video, we learn that evolution determines our ability to perceive reality. In other words, what we see isn’t necessarily the whole truth, or even some truth. What we sense in our world is only what we need to see in order to survive long enough to have kids.
I like the way Hoffman frames our perception of reality as a computer desktop. You see the icon on the desktop, that icon represents a file. It’s white with a little blue W, and rectangular and has a location on the desktop, but the file is none of those things. The actual file is stored as a series of magnetic fields on a spinning disk or solid state disk. To know the truth about that file, we must know how the magnetic fields on the disk are organized, how to interpret them, and how to display the contents of that series of magnetic fields on the screen so that we can read the contents of the file.
Even then, we’re only looking at what we need to see on the screen, we’re not seeing all of the formatting at the various layers of data encoding. We don’t see the 1s and 0s, the disk sectors, the file format or even how the file is translated from all of that into what we want to see in the file.
Our perception of reality is like that. We’re just seeing an abstraction of what is really happening all around us. Our eyes detect a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our ears only hear from a few hertz to 20,000 hertz. We have evolved this way because at the moment, that has been what was needed for reproductive success. We exist primarily to ensure our genes replicate again. It is good enough to keep us living, and that’s it.
Considering our very limited perception of reality, we are basically fumbling around in the dark. We don’t know exactly where we are as we’re moving all the time. Everything we see is evidence of the past. Most of what we see is empty space, and even that is debatable because we’re not even sure what space is. We don’t even know what matter is. All we know is what our brains construct based on sensory input, and we’re still uncertain about how that process works.
If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. — Richard P. Feynman
Everything that we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet. — Niels Bohr
I offer the quotes above to you further the point. Our lives utterly depend on quantum mechanics. We don’t understand quantum mechanics because we did not have an evolutionary or existential need to understand it. That’s why we need all those fancy instruments and lots of time to study it. We’re not built to observe quantum mechanics directly, but we are a product of it, and we use it every day.
I can recall reading an article where it was noticed that when theoretical physicists would do the math and predict the existence of some new and exotic particle, and then their friends in the lab would often find that particle. Then I learned of the random number experiments in the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know?”, where people were able to exert a small but measurable influence on random number generation.
And I come back to this statement that I made previously:
I look for the good in everything.
I look for the good in everything because I know that it is impossible to observe an experiment without affecting the outcome. I know that looking for the bad in everything tends to lead to poor outcomes. So I look for the good in everything, regardless of my circumstances. It took me a long, long time to learn how to do that, but I did it. I applied a blowtorch to my mind to heat it and bend it. That’s an abstraction.
Everything we see is an abstraction. Dr. Hoffman also demonstrates in that video that we can see what we want to see, and we can only see what we’re expecting to see. What we’re expecting to see is limited by our capacity to see, and that capacity is guided by natural selection. We cannot see everything that is going on in a quiet room without being overwhelmed. Our senses would be working overtime (thanks, XTC).
We don’t need to see the air, so we’ve evolved to see through it. We don’t need to hear the air moving past our ear every second of every day, and even in quite room, air is moving. We don’t need to see infrared in a dark room so that we can sleep at night. We don’t need to feel how everything is vibrating, everything is moving, yet our eyes have evolved to keep the frame of reference steady in our vision. We do not see anything when light enters our eyes. What we see is what our brains interpret from the light. We’re basically making it up as we go.
If we really think about it, as tough as we might make ourselves out to be, our existence is fragile, delicate and subject to environmental influence. So I look for the good in everything. I err on the side of peace. I make a point to observe, as objectively as possible, and I tend to roll with it rather than try to impose my will on reality.
If my perception of reality is an abstraction, then my happiness is only limited by my imagination. That means it is up to me to be happy. Happiness is an abstraction of the state of having one’s needs met. And we get to decide when to be happy, and how to be happy. Better still, we can learn from others by watching to see if they are happy and how they have made themselves happy.
We can read books, watch videos, practice yoga, meditate, seek spiritual guidance, whatever. We can decide if we have enough. We can decide if our needs are met and then decide how to negotiate with life to get our needs met. We can decide if we want to be angry, sad or happy, or even how to act on those feelings if they overwhelm us.
So when I am in a quiet room, I am mindful of the people sleeping in the next room. I sometimes imagine all the particles buzzing around me. I sometimes imagine that those particles are not even solid, they are not even point sources of anything, they are only probabilities, and that is all borne out by quantum mechanics. I use my imagination to see the things I cannot see.
When I interact with other people, I take the time to imagine the range of actions I can take and consider possible outcomes. I know from experience that if I get angry, they get angry. If I’m sad, I may elicit compassion. If I say something that I think is funny, they may laugh — or not. I am mindful that I am not getting the whole story of the person before me just by looking at him or her. All of that is a construction of my brain, and how I perceive reality is also a construction of the brain.
I am reminded of one of the stories I learned of in that movie, What the Bleep Do We Know, a story about how the native American Indians encountered the Pilgrims. When the Pilgrims could see the shores of the New World, the Indians could not see the ships on the water. The possibility of people on ships floating on water was simply not in their world view. That is how their brains constructed their reality. It was not until the ships sent smaller boats to shore that the Indians could comprehend this new concept. Their brains made up reality.
I am also reminded of Alan Watts in who said, in one of his books (I forget which one), and I paraphrase:
You cannot step outside your consciousness and say, “Look, there is my consciousness and that over there is reality.”
The brain cannot distinguish between dreams and reality. The brain isn’t even sure what reality is. While that may seem like a limitation, I don’t see it as a limitation.
I see that inability of the brain to distinguish self from everything else as an opportunity. An opportunity to make a choice to be happy. To let what I am now be enough. To let what I have now in my life, be enough. To accept everything exactly as it is right now, without reservation, and then decide what to do next. And once I’ve made my decision to act, I act not to make something happen, but to see what will happen next.
Originally published at steemit.com on October 5, 2018.