Saturday, May 18, 2013

How It Looks to Us: the Human Frame of Reference


It has been fairly well established that humans do not perceive what has been called the “actual, free-standing reality.” It would appear that all non-deductive human knowledge of the world is mediated through the senses, which present to the brain a version of that reality, something perhaps linked to it, but not the essence of it.  Humans literally cannot directly experience this “real” reality, what Immanuel Kant called “The Thing in Itself”.  If a human were to be plunged into this “real” reality, we must suppose he or she would have no way of comprehending it or describing it to anyone else, since the human would have no basis whatsoever from which  to do so. Such a basis could only be grounded in what philosophers call absolute perspective, which can only be possessed by a fully transcendent being. This means that humans face a paradox from which they cannot escape. It is logically impossible for them to view reality from a non-human, transcendent vantage point. They cannot perceive as a human and a non-human simultaneously.

Humans can only perceive and describe reality within certain carefully bounded limits. There are, obviously, many physical limitations humans have, but here I am referring chiefly to how human consciousness processes the stimuli provided by the senses. The human nervous system seems to have evolved in such a way so as to sort out sensory input and arrange it in a form which facilitates our survival. The senses convert different kinds of energies coming into (or from within) the body into electrochemical signals that the brain uses to interpret these energies, converting them from raw sensation into the objects of conscious awareness, thus giving us a picture of reality that is comprehensible. (See Perception in a later volume.) The brain which processes and reacts to these signals appears to have evolved in a kluge-like, haphazard fashion, with many ancient functions conserved across both time and species. Within its processes, there is plenty of room for error or breakdown, and the deep nature of its functioning is not yet fully understood. 

The brain’s higher functions—ratiocination, language processing, abstraction, imagination, memory—appear to be vulnerable to physical limitations inherent in the brain’s anatomy and physiology and subject to errors caused by physical deterioration due to illness, injury, or age. Further, the brain’s intellectual functions seem to be inextricably bound to its emotional functions and expressions, which can manifest themselves in a very great number of ways. Therefore, the brain cannot be thought of as an infallible recorder of the external world.

The human attempt to understand all of this takes place, of course, within the confines of the physical brain itself. There is no empirical support for the proposition that mind can exist outside of the brain, although it is not logically impossible that it might. The brain must use its own resources to understand its own functioning. A deep paradox exists here: the very complexity that gives rise to intelligence makes the analysis of that intelligence an almost insuperably difficult task. As one neurologist put it, if the brain were simple to understand, we would be too simple to understand it.

There are many epistemological issues as well. How do we know what we know? How do we verify what we know? What is knowledge itself? Can humans have sufficient confirmatory evidence to support our contentions of validity? Perhaps we will have to settle for consistency as the chief test of our link to reality and surrender the quest for a certitude that may be unattainable.

So we must question the ability of humans to even engage in the kind of examination that I am proposing. In a sense, all such examinations of the human condition and the context in which human history has emerged are inherently, perhaps even fatally, limited and flawed. How can we put human history into the context of a reality that we cannot truly perceive? And in regard to what we believe we can perceive, we face other barriers, as well. Advanced types of communication (that is, those which rise above the level of mere gestures or simple signals) are dependent on language, which in turn is an imprecise tool (as I will stress repeatedly). So one can readily see the dilemma we face. Is language sufficient to discuss the limitations of language? If we perceive only a version of reality, how can we, with any coherence, discuss reality itself? We are trapped in the prison of human consciousness. We cannot imagine any other way of seeing the world because even the terms in which we try to imagine another viewpoint are grounded completely in our own frame of reference. It could be argued that even I don’t completely understand what I mean by what I am saying, and that you don’t either. It’s as if we are in an intellectual hall of mirrors, a world of psychological self-recursion, where we find ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves. Even at the very moment that you are reading this you might realize that you are reading about reading about reading…

We read that our understanding is imperfect, and because of our imperfect understanding we cannot fully realize it, thus illustrating the very principle we fail to grasp. It’s as if the best we can do when trying to convey our thoughts and impressions is to achieve an approximation of communication, with the hope that there is enough of a coincidence between our views, our experiences, and our understanding of language that some sort of communication might be effected. (And as a matter of principle, it would appear that the more abstract our words, the more imprecision of communication there will be.)


There are, naturally, perceptual similarities between humans and other animals, and these similarities are more pronounced in species which are evolutionarily closer to us. We may assume, for example, that other higher primates (such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) have very similar sensory apparatuses. We share with them visual traits such as color perception, depth perception, and highly developed maculae. We share with them weak senses of smell. We tend to have highly sensitive hands. (This is why an understanding of the phylogenetic tree of life is so crucial—it is the basis for our assessment of our own capabilities, similarities, and dissimilarities relative to every other living thing.) Extending this, we may argue that we share many experiential similarities with all mammals. (At some point, of course, we may ask if the members of other classes have a sense of their own existence, and it seems likely to me that the simpler a thing’s brain is, the less that thing would be “aware” of its own existence, however the term aware might be defined.) Human consciousness, of course, provides us with a unique vantage point. Many other animals certainly have the capacity to learn and imitate complex behavioral patterns, use tools, teach their offspring vital skills, and even perhaps communicate in symbols (such as cetacean sounds). But it is not the uniqueness of our mental capacities, but rather the degree to which they have been developed that sets us apart. Natural selection operated with its typical ruthlessness to give our immediate ancestors brains more capable of assessing a situation and acting appropriately in it, and storing useful information in our working memory, than any other species we know of.

But we shouldn't be fooled by our comparatively immense gifts. The human brain is both liberating and confining. Our experiences are the sum total of our sensory input and the way those inputs are interpreted, and the particular evolution of the human brain facilitates our survival and reproductive success; it does not give us infallible powers of assessment  and comprehension. Evolution has produced different capabilities in different animals, ones that we cannot truly imagine. Moreover, the different neural structures of other animals (even though many specific brain structures are conserved across species) probably create distinctive frames of reference.

For instance, no human can, by definition, know what it would be like to hear the high audio tones perceptible to dogs. Humans do not really understand the mental world created by the echolocation of bats, which may be as “real” as the visual world created by our eyes. (Some blind humans may have a version of this ability, however.) Humans cannot imagine what it would be like to experience the perception of infrared, as certain insect species can. Our perceptions and the neural structures that underlie them produce a frame of reference that is both unique and strictly limited. Humans can guess what it would be like to perceive the world as a dog, an ant, or a bat, but all of their guesses and suppositions could only be understood in human terms, an endless loop. (And if we have difficulty imagining the experience of being a dog, how much more difficult would it be for us to imagine the perspective of an omniscient being!)


We are therefore confined to a limited, mediated, human-centered version of reality. We are linked to the “real” reality, but we do not apprehend that reality directly. Knowledge of the reality in which we find ourselves can be obtained in only two verifiable ways. The first is through the senses, the basis of empiricism.  Even in the empirical realm, however, we can not be certain that we perceive what others perceive. The knowledge our senses gather does not appear to be infallible in all cases, nor does it seem that the senses of all humans are identical. It would appear that there are differences in degree in all sense perceptions. Additionally, as I have noted, there seem to be energies that humans are not capable of perceiving directly, such as the ends of the light spectrum or the lowest or highest megacycles of sound. Since there appear to be realities humans cannot perceive or experience, it would therefore seem that human perception is subjective (that is to say, not absolute). The testing of reality through experimentation, the goal of which is to replicate certain conditions and control particular variables within that reality in order to assess the effect of the variables on a given phenomenon, seems to be the most reliable method by which we can gather empirically-based information.

The second way we can obtain knowledge of our reality in a verifiable way is through inductive reasoning, the basis of mathematics. Mathematics may be something that is discovered by human reason, or it may be a construct and creation of human reason. By its very processes, it may be the closest we come to a direct connection with that which is ultimately real, but we will examine that question in more detail elsewhere. (See Is Mathematics the Real Reality?)

Knowledge claims based on revelation, the basis of much of religious belief,  cannot be independently verified, but they still may be veridical.  By its very nature, revelation is not testable—it cannot be repeated and observed in the manner of a replicable experiment, nor can it be expressed as an equation. And as we move from the testable realm of physical objects and their interrelationships, or the realm of mathematical proofs, the degree of certainty we can have declines correspondingly. It is the lack of certainty that affects the human world in many ways, however humans may wish to believe otherwise.

The human frame of reference is therefore a deeply confining one, filled with self-contradictions. Humans must use language to show that language is insufficient to the description of reality. They must imagine the existence and nature of an absolute perspective they cannot imagine. They must describe their own subjective perceptions using subjective perceptions. They must use their brains to figure out their brains. They must discuss their lack of certainty using uncertain means.

So in our examination of the world, we are confronted with an inescapable reality: everything that we look at can be explained only by such phrases as, “the way we see it” or, “according to human perception” or, “as it looks to us” or, “as it seems to us.”

There is no other way for us to proceed.

Note: The concept of absolute perspective is discussed in Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy

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