Wisdom and understanding of the world may be limited in its scope but it is ubiquitous. Whilst we expect it from great philosophers and learned scientists, we often overlook that it is embedded in folklore and expressed in the sayings and anecdotes of the commonest people.
When it comes from the wise philosophers and the erudite scientists we often can’t grasp it because their language is often arcane and aloof. When it comes from ordinary folk we often discount it because of our lack of humility.
It is easy for sophisticated folk to laugh at such colloquialisms as, “A stitch in time saves nine” or “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip”! But underlying these simple aphorisms is still a certain wisdom.
You will, no doubt, be able to recite at least a half dozen of such pithy sayings that you learnt on your mother’s knee and probably discounted in later life because they seemed to have little relevance. But some of these contain more than a germ of truth.
Let us explore one such saying which comes from the Quaker tradition. There is an old Quaker saying which states, “The water tastes of the pipes.”
On first reading this I was reminded of the time I lived in Collinsville thirty odd years ago. The water supply for Collinsville was derived from the Bowen River. A pumping station delivered the water to the town from a weir built across the river. The pipeline was above ground. Unfortunately there was a mollusc that was disposed to live on the walls of the pipe. In the summers which were quite hot the heat would kill the molluscs which then tainted the water and left it foul-smelling. So indeed the water did “taste of the pipes” or at least of the aquatic creatures that attached themselves to it.
Or in one of the workplaces I supervised a group of men were required to do a large maintenance job in a more remote location. There was a water cooler there and when they stopped for a break and went to have a cold drink complained about the taste of the water. The water was fed to the water cooler through a copper pipe. Because it was in a remote location the water cooler was barely used and as a consequence the water had absorbed enough copper to render the taste unpleasant. Of course a reasonable flushing of the line soon rendered the water palatable again. Here again one might say quite literally “the water tastes of the pipes”.
But I am sure the Quakers didn’t have such a literal translation in mind!
In simple terms the saying might be translated as there is no such thing as an indifferent observer. We see the world through our own perceptual filters. In this analogy our mind is “the pipes” and our thoughts and perceptions are “the water”.
I have written many times about how we perceive things differently.
In The Psychology of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein uses a parable to show how consciousness creates the experienced world of the individual.
A father says to his double-seeing son, “Son, you see two instead of one.”
“How can that be?” the boy replied. “If I did, there would seem to be four moons up there in place of two.”
Our everyday sense of reality is in fact the tapestry that our consciousness lays out. We make the same mistake as the double-seeing son; we assume that our own personal consciousness is the actual world. We, indeed, mistake the map for the territory. The world that we know and accept to be real is in fact a mental construct of our consciousness.
But to understand the selective nature of this world that we internally create, all we have to do is to look at the selectivity of the sensory inputs that we use to create it. Of all the sensory stimuli available in the external world our bodies have only the capacity to receive a limited amount. Consider the auditory range of humans. There are many sound waves that are both of shorter and longer wavelengths than we can hear. The higher frequency sound waves that are sensed by dogs or bats cannot be heard by humans. Similarly with respect to electromagnetic waves, our visual perceptions are restricted to light waves in a defined range. With our eyes we can merely perceive the visible spectrum; yet we know from the artificial receptors we have created, that there are x-rays and infra-red rays and so on that our sensory preceptors do not have access to. Even within the bounds of these constraints the visual and auditory acuity of individuals will vary from one person to the next. Consider, for example how the construct of reality must vary between those of us who are colour-blind and those of us who are not. The same could be said of all our sensory inputs. The basic inputs then, which we use to fashion our concept of reality, will also vary. Consequently it is inevitable that we must all deal with the world with different views of reality.
Whilst this of necessity constrains our ability to apprehend the world, it is of vital necessity that we are so constrained. If we were able to assimilate all the wide range of information available from our environment, we would be overwhelmed. Such an overload of perception would not leave us any capacity to discern and to act.
So then our physical view of the world is reduced to something meaningful by the limits to our perception and these vary considerably from person to person. But our world views are even more dramatically fashioned through the filters that our assumptions and beliefs manufacture.
Indeed as the American author Anaïs Nin has written, “We don’t see things the way they are – we see things the way we are.” But “the way we are” is more than the sensory filters we have and the range of thoughts and feelings we have access to. As Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we tend to filter our perceptions of the world to reinforce our internal paradigm of how we believe the world functions. Consequently we are inclined to dismiss evidence that is contrary to, and accept evidence that reinforces our current paradigm of “how things are.” These beliefs and assumptions fashion our perception of reality and they do so in a way that is largely unconscious to our rational thinking processes. Consequently we have a very selective view of the world that is determined, in its interpretation, by our personal characteristics and our social conditioning. Yet because it is largely done so unconsciously, we believe that this is the way things actually are and that all humans share this view of the world, or perhaps, if they don’t, there is something wrong with them!
Darwin is reputed to have written down observations that were inconsistent with his theories because, as he said in one of his diaries, “for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones!”
Our picture of the world then is mediated by the filters we have in place that allow only selective material to come into consciousness. Those filters are constructed not only by physiological means but also psychological means.
This, of course is one of the reasons that change is so difficult. We have built up our world views over long periods of time and subsumed them into our unconscious. There has been a significant psychological investment in their development. Consequently we tend to try and make the world fit our worldview! It is only when our worldview is so out of fit with reality that we are suffering considerable pain are we motivated to question and perhaps to change it.
Anthony de Mello in Awareness spoke of this difficulty. He related how early in his career as a therapist he would try and ease the pain of those coming to him for therapy. Later he realised that it was necessary for people to experience the pain before they would be motivated to make real and lasting change. Applying balm only gives temporary relief when the real problem is that our world view is not congruent with reality.
But not only is our current picture of “outside” reality selectively constructed, so is our memory of past situations and happenings. When we remember an incident from our past we create a picture internally which is built on one or two salient facts but embellish it with reconstructed detail. Just as we saw that we selectively accepted sensory signals into our current concept of reality, the picture our memory builds of a time past is also biased. Again that bias will be designed to affirm significant paradigms. The basic information stored in the first place which we subsequently recalled to reconstruct the picture will have been selected to confirm that paradigm. This is most significant because our meaning making capacity is derived from our memory and thus our attempts to “make sense” of our world is flawed by a tendency to store and recall in a way that supports and reinforces what we “want” (mostly unconsciously) to believe.
Our world view is largely determined by our genetics, our environment and our socialisation. The impact of socialisation can be readily observed by examining cultural differences.
An example of how cultural impacts modify our perception of reality is exemplified by a radio interview I once heard. The interview involved a lady from a city environment being guided around an Australian outback environment by a lady of indigenous origins. They arrived at a vantage point overlooking a large tract of a typical outback landscape. The lady from the city began to describe the vista in front of her. “We are on top of a sand ridge, looking down on a dried up lake bed. In front of us is a thicket of native plants, mainly Melaleucas. Beyond that there is a flat, largely devoid of vegetation leading down towards the lake.” The first commentator then asked the aboriginal lady what she saw. She responded, “I see native food and medicine.” Obviously pointing, she said, “There is a place we can dig for yams. Over to the right is a shrub which has berries which are good to eat. They will be in season in a month or so. That tree there has leaves we chew to help when we have a belly-ache.” Two women viewing the same landscape largely saw different things due to their different cultures and culturisation.
It would be easy to give you more examples to demonstrate how we see things differently. The problem is greater than the realisation that “The map is not the territory”. We need as well to realise MY map is not THE territory!
We could draw on the work of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers to support this thesis (and indeed in other places I have). But we could assemble all their words and still find it not spelled out as convincingly as the simple Quaker saying –“the water tastes of the pipes”!