In a number of posts from planet Genetic Fractals, I have suggested that duality is a faulty illusion induced by the human mind (“Your anti-cartesian life“, “The Spectrum of Duality“). Since duality is at the basis of all debate, human thought process and science, I’d like to expand a little on the fractal nature of human perception and the relationship between our external reality and our perceived, internal reality.
Cutting short millennia of hardcore philosophy, I assume that there is a reality out there. Even if there is not, it doesn’t change much from my perspective and the whole game of philosophy is still about our role and interaction with that external reality.
When I think of the world out there, I’m thinking of the world we can sense, i.e. see, hear, touch etc. I include in that, the world we can sense indirectly using scientific apparatus. In the diagram above, the blue curve represents that external reality. It is infinitely complex and far too vast for us to observe and fully comprehend. This makes the external world jolly interesting, just imagine if we could experience and understand it all!? The fun would wear off quickly.
Our little human brains may not be big enough to take it all in, but we have come up with a clever solution to that: we break the world into chunks that we can take in. The messy desk scene before me includes a laptop with a worn keyboard, an iPhone and a Blackberry, a set of keys, a mug of tea and sheets of paper strewn about. That’s scene in some 30 words. In reality, each of these items, and their setting, is infinitely complex and I could stare at my mug of tea for eons and discover something new at every instant. Those few words hardly do justice to my desk.
And there is the solution and the problem.
Because of the processing limitations of our brain, senses and actions, we are forced to simplifly complexity. It turns out that this process of simplification is highly fractal. But just to make sure we agree on how simple we have to make it, consider the following:
- We can only say one word (or sound) at a time;
- We can only have one conscious thought at a time;
- We can only taste one flavour at a time;
- We can only touch one thing at a time;
- We can only see one ‘thing’ at a time.
Huh? Only seeing one thing at a time? Surely we can see a whole scene at once?
Blinded by ‘reality’
I don’t think we can see a whole scene at once. I know that we can look at a scene and appreciate it as a whole, but our eyes don’t see it like that. Right now you can only read this word, and this one perhaps. The rest of the text is peripheral noise around the word you are reading. Although my field of vision also shows a mug, it is not in focus and if I hadn’t looked at it before, it could equally have been a slice of cake, a hand grenade or guinea pig.
Seeing a scene, requires our eyes to make a slow scan and compose an image in our brain. Because we have seen 90% of things we see many times before, our brain has stored them as known items. We only have to see the face of the person we love very briefly for most for us to have ‘seen’ that face. In fact, we see nothing but an old memory. This is why husbands don’t see their wife’s new haircuts – even if she has cut most of it off. By the same statistic, we are 90% blind to the world out there. Scary, or what?
Our vision works like a fractal. Fractals are patterns that repeat themselves infinitely. The fractal tree above (the ‘brain’) is simply a line that splits into two directions at 60 degrees and at the end of each of these branches, the splitting is repeated, etc. When we look at a scene, our brain picks out a few rough shapes and colours first. It then takes each of these shapes and breaks them apart into smaller shapes and colours. At some point it hits on a known object and it will say: “got it: key ring”. Depending on the object of your focus, and the time you give it, it will discover more and more details.
Another feature of fractals is that the splitting and branching goes on infinitely. The blue curve above is (in theory) made up of infinitely many, infinitely short twigs. Since our senses work from the inside out, the longer you observe something, the deeper you traverse the fractal tree of sense and the more detail you see.
The only purpose of our senses is to inform our brain of the world around us. Awareness, if you prefer. But as I mentioned before, words, sound, sight, touch etc comes in one at a time. For us to make sense of this (serial) information, we need to reconstruct an image of that world around us. When I used 30 words to describe my desk, your brain constructed a simple image. Each of you will have seen something different but give or take, “you got the picture”. If I had given you more information about the precise position, colours, lighting, etc, your image would have been more accurate.
Our brain constructs a view of our world through a fractal process. It begins with the big chunks first (desk) and then adds more detail (phones, laptop, keyring, mug). If you were here, your brain would go further pick up the apps icons on my iPhone, the keyboard on my Blackberry etc.
If you feed the brain with huge quantities of relevant contextual information, the image it creates will be more and more detailed. If we were able to feed the brain with infinitely much information about the external reality and such a way that it reconstructed and retained it all correctly, we’d be able to ‘see’ reality as it really is.
Alas, this is not likely to happen. Instead our brain is given information about our limited exposure to the world and only then the limited sense detail that our focus has given us.
Still, so far so good. Let’s meet up with Isabel McCaffrey and Robert Montesquieu, a.k.a Isa and Monty. They are regular followers of your blog and can be described as good observers and excellent in dialogue. As shown below, they both sense the same external reality and over time have developed their own internal reality.
When Isa and Monty debate, they use words (written words!) to verbalize their views and opinions. In an ideal world, the purpose of this debate is for these two to compare their internal realities, uncover any differences and turn to other bloggers, or better still, the external reality to agree on an improved construction of their internal reality.
In an ideal world.
In the real world, all Isa reads is: “bla bla bla.” After all, she already knows how the external reality is and Monty simply doesn’t. Monty is no better, except that he reads “blà, blà blà”, because he’s French. And so they disagree.
Since they don’t live in an ideal world, Isa and Monty have no choice but to verbalize their views in a limited number of words. In fact, in the heat of the debate they have no choice but to simplify their views to just two positions. From there on they are in a dualistic arm wrestling contest. If they are not able to let go of their dualistic positions and explore the depth of their own internal reality that underpins their views, they will never resolve their differences other than through weariness.
If Lady Isabelle McCaffrey became Philosophy Chair at Cambridge University and Messire Robert Montesqueu dean at the Sorbonne, then their dualistic differences would polarise an entire generation of thinkers and possibly more than that. Perhaps people would still disagree a millennium later. This is the history of the world. That same history has shown that most pole positions were highly contextual and not at odds with their dualistic counterparts once seen from a new and/or deeper perspective.
Dualism is very much a feature of our brain, it finds its origin in our need to squeeze reality through a few narrow senses, a serialized language and an equally narrow system for conscious thoughts.
So are we stuck with a dualistic pendulum in our brains that will forever swing in the wrong direction? In much of our human interactions, I think that this is probably so. It is the very mechanics of human interaction. It begs the question whether we should try and resolve dualities at all expense or simply take them as beacons on the landscape.
At a personal level however, we can do better. We can shut down the dualistic limitations of our body. We can skip language for starters and just be silent. We can skip conscious thought and be still. We can skip the desire to understand and enjoy, both of which force linear and dualistic thought. We should stop focusing our senses on anything and simply let the world come to us as it will.
Such non-dualistic experience of the external reality does more than give us a holistic “perspective” of the world out there. You can probably figure that out but in any case, that’s another post.