When I was younger I was a great fan of George Bernard Shaw. I studied Caesar and Cleopatra at school. My English master was a devout catholic and dismissed Shaw as a lightweight playwright and insisted that we should read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in juxtaposition. Well, I am not about to criticise the works of Shakespeare, who had such an incredible understanding of human psychology, but I was also not about to dismiss Shaw because I found his writing erudite and often witty. I decided to read more of Shaw’s plays. He was very prolific so I must confess that my subsequent reading of Pygmalion, Man and Superman, Arms and the Man, and Saint Joan constituted a very small sample of his work.
Shaw believed that his life was not motivated by the pursuit of personal happiness or personal virtue. But he often spoke of finding his sense of life in “use” – that is applying his talents to make a difference in the world. In Man and Superman he put these words into Don Juan’s mouth:
“Religion for me has been reduced to a mere excuse for laziness, since it had set up a God who looked at the world and saw ‘it was good’, against the instinct in me that looked through my eyes at the world and saw it could be improved.”
Well of course it could be improved! It would be nice to have a world without droughts, cyclones, hurricanes, floods, ebola virus, jihadists, poverty, child abuse and whatever. What was God thinking?
But maybe, with his eminent approval, we should put God aside for a while.
Perhaps our pessimistic viewpoint about the world is our fault. Maybe we just haven’t learnt to see things properly.
I know it sounds trite but how we see things makes a huge difference to our lives.
Plato urged us “to know things as they really are – to penetrate behind appearance to reality.”
Unfortunately this is not possible. Oliver Wendell Holmes nailed it when he told us that there is no one way that the world is, so it follows that there is no one way that it can be accurately depicted. Instead there are myriads of ways which are enabled by our different views of the world.
Art has shown us this. After the classical period when artists strived to depict things in a very traditional and conservative way came an array of painters who wanted to view the world through their own world-views. At a time when our scientists were challenging the orthodoxy our artists began to do the same.
First we had the innovations associated with Impressionism. Out of this came the patchwork compositions of Cezanne, the Pointillism of Seurat and the Cubist works of Braque and Picasso.
As Peter Watson, in The Age of Atheists observed:
“Here the very foundations of reality – of seeing, of understanding seeing – were being experimented with, just as the experiments in physics taking place at much the same time were yielding – in the X-ray, radio waves and the electron , for instance – new building blocks of nature. Painting was overwhelmed by these innovations: they changed the very idea of art and how we are to understand ourselves.”
If we want a discrete example from art about the different ways of seeing things, Claude Monet presents a great example. In 1892 Monet rented a room opposite the west front of Rouen Cathedral. Rouen Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Gothic cathedral in Rouen, in north-western France. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen and Normandy. In the following weeks he made around twenty paintings of the same façade under different conditions of light. He demonstrated that the same thing could be seen in many different ways. Each painting might be seen as a different act of seeing the same thing!
It is a surprise to some of us that we see things differently. How we see things personally seems obviously to be the only way. But if we pause a little and take stock it is readily apparent that we are conditioned to see things the way we do and understanding that, it should be no surprise that others are conditioned to see things differently.
In The Psychology of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein uses a delightful 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 depicts 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.
It is evident then that our consciousness draws its picture of reality in a discriminatory way. It filters the various inputs to create its internal map. It is easy to see then that this concept of reality is only one of a myriad of such realities that it could have created. It is also apparent, that your picture of reality is, quite likely, unlike mine. Indeed as Anais 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.” Thus whilst our collection of beliefs and assumptions regarding “how things are” fashions our perception of reality, we 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, “for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones!”
That we all see the world differently is reinforced more and more by our experience. Take for example a friend who took his two boys to an amusement park. On the roller coaster ride one was terrified, the other exhilarated. Is this not a manifestation of different world views? What was exciting and stimulating to one was frightening to the other. Yet the physical environment and the physical experience was the same. However we wish to explain the different responses, one child was viewing the experience as threatening, the other as exciting.
At a macro level, our social conditioning also provides cultural filters. How we view the world is mediated by a myriad of cultural influences that make it difficult for different cultures to appreciate each other. R. Ross wrote, “Until you understand that your own culture dictates how you translate everything you see and hear, you will never be able to hear or see things in any other way. The first step in coming to terms with people of another culture is to acknowledge that we constantly interpret the words and acts of others and that we do so subconsciously but always in conformity with the way our culture has taught us is the “proper” way. The second step involves trying to gain a conscious understanding of what those culture-specific rules might be.” (Dancing with a Ghost, Exploring Indian Reality, Reed Books, Canada).
An example of how cultural impacts modify our perception of reality is exemplified by a radio interview I heard. The interview involved a lady from a city environment being guided around an Australian outback environment by a lady of aboriginal 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 sloping gently 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 acculturisation.
In essence then, there is a hierarchy of filters that shape our view of reality. We have filters that are due to our uniqueness as individuals that are both genetic and learned. We have filters as families, tribes, races, and nations that are largely due to our socialisation. Even different professions see the world differently. Each has learnt a way of perceiving through the strictures of their respective disciplines. An engineer will see the world differently from a psychologist who will in turn see it differently from a historian, etc. Professor Elizabeth Taylor in a paper titled, The Illusion of Control: an Issues for the Practice of Engineering told of a debate in the 1860’s between Physicists and Geologists regarding the age of the world. No consensus could be reached because neither profession could accept the evidence tendered by the other. She asks the question, “How does a geologist’s ‘reality’ differ from that of an atomic physicist?” and in part answer quotes J. Burke,
“Reality itself is only what you say it is because it is only there when you and your amazing technology say it is in the form your instruments give it. So time, for instance, is only what your clock says or when your plane takes off. Nothing more. Which is OK as long as you don’t pretend it’s some kind of real reality, the one we create. If you accept that as we rush headlong into the future, it’s a future already defined as the only one our instruments can take us to. So is there any direction to our journey into knowledge or do we make up the route as we go along. And if that is the case, what is knowledge?” [The Day the Universe Changed, (Series) BBC]
This is telling us that not only are our views of the world constrained by the extent and acuity of our physical senses, it is also constrained by the extent and acuity of the instruments that we use to augment our physical senses. And just as humans we trust some of our sensory inputs more than others, as professionals we learn to trust the equipment, processes and methodologies that we have learnt, and we are reluctant to accept evidences from other disciplines that rely on different equipment, processes and methodologies. The so-called scientific method is not unbiased and we all have a vested interest in accepting the evidence that we have become comfortable with.
We have seen then that what we see as the outer reality of the world is actually an inner construct of the mind. Such a construct varies with the individual. It varies from individual to individual with the filtering of sensory inputs, the brain preferences and the paradigm through which the person views the world. We now know to be doubly cautious about making assumptions about our fellows. Not only are our assumptions about their motives likely wrong, but more importantly, we have found here a principal underpinning of their functioning as humans, their world view, their construct of reality, may well be markedly different from our own.
Many of us go through our lives not aware of the fact that others have these different pictures of the world and therefore we can’t understand when they act differently to us. Because we think they see the world in the same way, their behaviour seems aberrant and we will judge them as stupid, naïve, perverse, or just plain mad. So even coming to know that others have different world views is a huge step to understanding other human beings and facilitates a greater tolerance and understanding. Being able to empathise with others requires an ability to visualise a world view more like theirs. For all the reasons mentioned above, it is impossible to see the world exactly as others see it. This problem is nicely explained by Ross (quoted earlier) who when talking about his exploration of Native American Indian reality said, “This then is the nature of the task at hand: learning to go beyond what we think we see and hear to ask what a person from a different culture and with a different reality is truly trying to tell us. I believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”