The Veil Of Perception

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This post is the first in a four-part series. Check out the rest here.

The veil of perception

If I close my eyes the world disappears.

     Not the actual world of course, but my visual image of it. And I can make the image pop in and out of existence simply by opening and closing my eyes. The visual image, along with the other perceptions that make up my experience, is how I perceive the world.

Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting is what the world is made of to me. They are my senses, and it is through them that I experience anything at all. If I could somehow stop them, the world would cease to exist for me – but the actual world, the world independent of me, would remain. Thus, we must conclude that the world and my awareness of it are not the same. The world is one thing, and my experience of it is something radically different – for if the existence of the visual image depends on whether or not my eyes are open, while the existence of the world does not, then they cannot be the same.

So, on the one hand we have the world, and on the other we have our experience of it. However, the experience of the world does not constitute the entirety of our awareness – our body and mind is included as well. The total perceptual snapshot at a given moment contains all the perceptions that make up the world, the sensations that make up the body, and our thoughts – all contained within one experience. The world, body and mind are all part of the view, and together they constitute the content of our consciousness.

Our consciousness is not only that in which this content is appearing, but it is also that which is experiencing it. There is no separation between the content and the experiencing of it – the presence of content is what experiencing is.You can think of it as a self-aware TV-screen that is both playing a movie and at the same time watching it. But unlike a simple TV, this screen provides a full-fledged three-dimensional experience with surround sound.

In fact, no thinking is required, just look. Consciousness is right there. Just as the substance of the movie images is the screen, the substance of all experience is consciousness. It is what experience is.

Intuitively, experience seems to give us a direct access to the real world – but what we are really experiencing is the content of our consciousness. Thus, the world as it appears to us is not the actual world – it is an experiential representation of the world. And this representation, this constantly refreshed virtual depiction of ourselves and the world around us, is all that we can ever encounter. There is nothing you can do to ever make yourself experience anything other than the content of your own consciousness. For this reason, the actual world, the world independent of experience, can never be known. The world as it is in itself is always beyond reach, for when it is observed, it becomes an experience and thus, a representation.

Questioner: But I feel that I have a direct awareness of the real world.

If we are in direct contact with things themselves, how is it that a straight stick appears bent when halfway under water? Does the stick actually bend? Illusions are evident in everyday experience. Rainbows only appear to exist, but on closer inspection they are nowhere to be found. A dinner plate may look circular from one angle, but oval-shaped from another. Blue doors appear green in certain light and a snake on the road might turn out to be a rope. But the actual stick does not bend when submerged in water. What you are experiencing is a mental representation, an internal copy, composed of perceptual imagery in your consciousness. If your friend is watching the stick from another angle, he will have a completely different experience of it, one that will be radically different from yours even though you are both looking at the same object. The stick in itself does not change depending on who views it, so what differs must be your mental representation.

While the idea of a representational view of the rest of the world might be true, one might still think that we are in direct contact with the body. The body is a private experience, nobody else can know how you experience it, and that is what gives this impression. But the experience of the body is subject to similar perceptual illusions as those that occur in the world. Phantom limb pain is one example. Having a fever or being intoxicated another. These conditions cause a shift in the experience of the body, without actually changing it. Like the world, the body can only ever be accessed through the representation appearing in our consciousness.

Questioner: I still don’t see how the objects are in here. The objects of my experience seem to be outside me.

It may seem as physical objects are out there, external to us. But the experience of them, our representation of them, exist in us. Why physical objects seem external is because we are always ordering them spatially in relation to ourselves. This is a faculty of the mind. I’m judging the distance to physical objects as I am experiencing them, but the experience itself is right here in my consciousness. Ask yourself while looking at the moon: “What is the distance between me and the experience of the moon?” You’ll find that there is no distance at all. The moon may be far away, but that is our judgment about the content of experience, not the experience itself. The experience and its content are right here.

The veil of perception

Our representation is a veil that covers the world. It is a veil of sense perceptions, and they are what constitute the totality of our experience. But if all that we can ever encounter are these perceptions, how can we know that our apprehension of the world corresponds to what is actually out there? In fact, what warrant do we have for believing anything exists at all? What if my own body, coffee shops and other people are simply what is playing on the veil of perception tonight?

     All scientific theories that attempts to explain the world, such as how external objects impinge on our senses and how our brain process this information into experiential content; or how subatomic particles are the substance of all things, are theories that are inferred from observing the world. But the only world the scientist can ever observe is the one inferred from perceptions. And thus, all empirical data is derived, not from the actual world, but from our representation of it.

      When we observe a falling apple and construct a theory describing its motion, our theory can only tell us something about how things appear to be. It is only valid in relation to our representation and not to the world in itself. If our representations are inaccurate, then so are our theories. A very drunk scientist may come up with a theory about how the world sways. The theory will be scientifically sound in the sense that all his empirical data, which were derived from appearances, conform to his theory. However, once he sobers up he will realize that it was not the world that swayed, but his representation of it.

A common belief among those scientifically inclined is that our consciousness is something that emerges from a physical process in the brain inside our head. But the head that we’ve come to know as our own is not our true head – it is merely a representational replica positioned within our representation of the world. And thus what we believe to be the container of our consciousness is itself made of sense perceptions.

But all of this, the entire representation of the world and ourselves, must then be contained inside our true head – the head in itself. Or at least that is what we believe – for if the head in itself is outside the veil of perception, how can we know that it actually exists? What if the mechanics behind our consciousness have some other explanation? We may all be living our lives in some kind of computer simulation. Maybe your life is a nothing but a dream? What if consciousness is simply an inherent function of reality?

     The existential implications can make you dizzy. “Who am I? I thought I was this body – but the body I know is made up of nothing but perceptions, and I usually don’t consider myself as being an experience. What am I then? Am I my thoughts? They are experiences too. Am I something that is beyond experience? How can I know my true self if it is beyond experience?” These questions have troubled not only philosophers, but the man in the street for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

     Our understanding of the nature of reality relies on this one belief that our perceptions and experiences corresponds to the actual world out there. And the experience of ourselves seems like a true account of what we are. But to find the essence of our being and discover the truth about the world, we need to pierce through the veil of perception – for it is on the other side that the key to this mystery lies.

This is the first article of a four part series, please continue to read here.
 
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18 Responses to The Veil Of Perception

  1. Johan Argus says:

    Hello Goran,

    happy to see that you’ve taken up philosophy!

    Supposing your theory is correct, what do you mean when you say for instance that “the actual stick does not bend”? According to a concept of reality as mere consciousness, what is the difference between the perception of the stick being bent and the stick actually being bent? If consciousness and reality are to be the same, then you can’t account for this phenomenon as a difference between mere appearance and what is actually there, because what you are claiming is that what is actually there is mere appearance.

    Another example is the rainbow. We know what a rainbow is. It is an optical phenomenon, resulting from light hitting droplets of water in the air. The rainbow is actually there, but is not a colourful bridge somehow suspended in the air. It is, once again, a quite well understood optical phenomenon. It is not an illusion and it is not a dream, even though it is not a continuos physical object. It is the interaction of light, water and our sensory apparatus. Our sensory apparatus is that by which we perceive physical reality.

    The fact that the only perceptions I will ever have are my own does entail that reality is a mere projection in my consciousness. A rainbow is an actual physical phenomenon, a unicorn is (as far as we know) not. A person seeing a rainbow when there is an actual rainbow there to be seen is not on the same level as a person seeing unicorns where there are none be seen. We have different words for “dream” and “reality”. If I see unicorns and then I wake up, I was dreaming. If I see unicorns while awake, I am either suffering from optical delusions or I am a soon to be famous zoologist. If I believe them to be there, even though noone else can see them, I am most likely afflicted by some sort of mental illness. A mental illness is, among other things, defined by an inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

    I could go on about this for quite a while. I have actually written a book about philosophy, including a criticism of the metaphor of consciousness as a screen whereupon reality is projected. You can find it here:

    http://www.anomali.se/bok/ff.php
    http://www.adlibris.com/se/product.aspx?isbn=9197633143

    Kind regards
    Johan

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi Johan!
      From start, I am provisionally granting existence to the external world, in order to refute it later. The point I’m making with the stick is that if we believe that an external world exist, we must necessarily accept that our apprehension of it is a internal representation. Once we see that the external world doesn’t exist, we see perception as reality and no longer regard the bent stick as a misrepresentation of what is “actually” there, since we realize that, other than this perception, there really is nothing there.

      I will check out your book!

    • Johan Argus says:

      Hello again!

      So what you are saying is that there is no difference between seeing rainbows and seeing unicorns? I would claim that there is. If a person comes up to me and says “Oh, look att the rainbow!” and I look over and there is a rainbow, I will have no reason to doubt that persons perceptive abilities or mental health. That is not the case if someone comes up to me and says “Oh, look at the unicorn!” when there is no unicorn to be seen. My point is that equating reality with perception leads to a conception of reality where rainbows and unicorns are equally real. This cannot be right. Rainbows are a real physical phenomenon, wheras unicorns are mythical creatures.

      The point about the stick is essentially the same as the point about the rainbow. We know why we perceive the stick as bent when submerged under water and as straight when we take it up. It is because the water is affecting the angle of the light reflected from the object. If I reach down and touch the stick while submerged, I will not perceive it as bent. From the mere fact that all these perceptions are my own, it does not follow that there is no stick. My senses are that by which I perceive the stick. I may sometimes be fooled by my senses, as in the case of the stick appearing as bent, but that is because most of the time I am not.

      There is an external world. The external world is that which surrounds my body and which I perceive with my bodily senses. There is an indepedent reality. The world is not dependent upon my perceptions of it in order to exist. When I close my eyes, the universe does not cease to be. That does not, however, mean that I am a metaphysical realist.

      There is a plethora of fallacies and historical misconceptions surrounding these issues, not least concerning the concepts “internal” and “external”. The way to untangle them goes, I believe, through language. If we come to the conclusion that what is real is not real, something has gone wrong. What do we mean by “real” when we say such things? Are unicorns and rainbows equally real? If not, why? If reality is a mere internal reprsentation by my mental faculties, what separates it from a dream? Nothing? But I am able to separate dream and reality. Among other things I know that rainbows are real and unicorns are not. This is one example of how I use the word “real”.

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hello!

      You say:

      So what you are saying is that there is no difference between seeing rainbows and seeing unicorns?

      What is determined real and what is not is usually determined by a intersubjective agreement, that is, if enough people confirm the validity of a perception it is determined real. But that already presupposes an external world and can therefore not be used as an argument against its refutal. The intersubjective agreement is part of the dream! So are unicorns, if one sees them, and they are as real or as unreal as everything else, regardless of whether or not other people see it.

      We know why we perceive the stick as bent when submerged under water and as straight when we take it up.

      Our scientific knowledge also presupposes an external world, so that can’t be used as an argument against its refutal either.

      If we come to the conclusion that what is real is not real, something has gone wrong.

      “Real” and “Unreal”, “internal” and “external” only means something if one presupposes an external world. In the absence of that idea, there is no longer any need for such concepts.
      Göran

    • LiverTom says:

      Hello,
      Everyone see the rainbow: most people see the bent stick in the water in most angles of view.

      Some people see the unicorn: some people see the straight stick on top of that stick in that specific angle.

      No one could assert which one is true since all are merely depend on the angle of view.

      How can you assert the people who see the unicorn is really see the unicorn(although what he see is merely the shadow, the copy) from some viewpoint? Maybe the real world is 4d but most people could only see 3d imagine. But some people can, so that is why he could see that unicorn, in some specific point of view.

      I think what Goran say is :not matter what you see is just an specific angle of view-a shadow. A shadow could never be true thing since that is just shadow

      Sincerely.
      LT

    • Ankita says:

      Interesting. I have one question. It’s with the stick under water example.

      Different people seeing it from different directions with have different perceptions. But the science that all scientists perceive is the same for everyone. Why so?

  2. Johan Argus says:

    Howdy!

    Yes, what is real is determined intersubjetively. If we all stand around and look at a stick, we might say: “We all individually perceive a stick, therefore the stick is real”. Your argument, on the other hand, would appear to be this: “We all individually perceive a stick, therefore the stick is not real.” From the mere individuality of sense experience, it does not follow that sensory experience is false. If we all perceive a stick, then the burden of proof rests on the one claiming that there is no stick there, rather than the one claiming that there is.

    The notion of reality does not depend on the metaphysical presumption of an external world, but rather on our use of words such as “real” and “unreal” about the same things. The metaphysical notion of an external world rests, I would say, on a false dichotomy between “internal” and “external”, based on a spatial metaphor for understanding the relationship between our mental faculties and the physical world.

    If concepts such as “real” only have meaning in relation to the mistaken presumption of an external world, what then do you mean when you say that consciousness is “the ultimate reality of all”? If there is no meaningful concept of being real, it makes no sense that consciousness should be the ultimate “reality”. Consciousness must be considered as unreal as everything else, and then where are you?

    The fact that all my knowledge and apprehension of the world is seated in my own consciousness does not entail that the content of my knowledge and apprehension can be reduced to consciousness. If I have a box full of things, it makes no sense to say that the things are actually the box simply by the fact that they are contained by it.

  3. jimmy says:

    Hi!

    Regarding the stick example, the stick is not actually bent, nor are we disillusioned that it is.
    In fact, if it is through our senses that we perceive the world, in most cases, what is happening is that our senses find it difficult to be in accord with each other. Our eyes see the stick bent, but if we touch it and examine it, we would perceive the stick as straight. Vision tells our consciousness one thing, touch tells it another. Which to trust?

    What do you think?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi jimmy! Thanks for commenting.

      The question regarding which of the senses we should “trust” presupposes that there is an external world that we can apprehend “correctly” or “incorrectly” – but there is no such external world, and that is what I argue in part 2 and part 3 of this series of articles.

  4. Jonathan says:

    There is a difference between being unable to know anything about the reality external to our consciousness, and flatly saying it doesn’t exist or that the two are the same. It makes sense that our senses, perceptions, and mind are limited, so our understanding of reality is limited, but one thing is for certain, there is a reality; something is true. You start off by stating that all of reality is contained within our consciousness but never provide proof of that statement. Am I missing something?

    I’m going to think out loud for a minute.

    So we know we have, at a minimum, one thing: a reality. Of this reality, there are the three hypothetical things, consciousness (the observer of the interface of senses, perceptions, and thoughts), reality external to consciousness, and the interface itself. The question is whether the interface is part of the external reality or part of consciousness. If the external reality is defined as everything that’s not consciousness, then the interface is part of that reality. However, it seems that we have the ability to affect the interface but by what means, through the consciousness? If so, perhaps senses, perceptions, and thoughts are contained within consciousness but that does not mean that we have the ability to affect the external reality. None of this really matters, because I don’t think that any of this is knowable other than the fact that we are conscious and that there is a reality. Whether consciousness is the reality or one part of the reality is not knowable.

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi Jonathan! Thank you for your comment. It seems to me that you haven’t read the other parts of the article. This is a 4-part piece. At the end of this article is a link to the next. Keep reading and you’ll see that I indeed is providing the proof you’re looking for.

  5. Josh S. says:

    Perceived reality vs Reality.
    Through our perceptions we give labels, meanings, functions, descriptions to objects/subjects that are other wise as are, existing without labels, meanings, functions and descriptions. We give things labels, meanings, etc in order to better understand what is and how to communicate such ideas within our species. Outside the function of WHY we do this, the things are actually no-thing, they have no inherent quality, inherent function or description nor does it have a name. Simply put, we give life the meaning we want to give it, our human desire pulls us towards knowing the unknown, because we believe we don’t fully understand something as it is, we start creating a “this is” profile based on our experiences and observations.
    This is actually all new to me, I was in the midst of delusion just a year or so ago :D. Right now, for laughs I’m trying to conceive a new way to experience/observe. If perception of reality is deconstructed and reconstructed under specific guidelines, special parameters of “seeing” we might have a clearer look into what is.
    We might not ever come to understand all that is existence, but we may just be able to find some answers as to how it functions. Humans after all create the belief of what something is based around what “it” does.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Goran,

    I have another thought for you. Your argument starts off by assuming that whatever your conscious perceives of an object, the object is not. Take the stick, for example. Could multiple perceptions of the stick be correct? In the case of the bent stick, it’s not the act of observing that changes the appearance of the stick – it’s the water. Adding the second observer, why are the two views of the stick necessarily in conflict? Couldn’t the whole reality of the stick be larger in scope than either view and thus contain both?

  7. chong says:

    Yes! In fact your point has been proven in the heart sutra…The image of the external world formed in our brain is in fact the shadow of the shadow of the external object…We can never know the true form of the external world…Thanks.

    amituofo.

  8. Brutus says:

    Quite late to the discussion, I won’t argue about bent sticks, rainbows, or unicorns. Those arguments are inane and inherently irresolvable within the philosophical framework established. Much of that framework is built upon questionable understandings of consciousness, perception, and the subjective nature of experience. Little is illuminated by the doubletalk, which I find bothersome.

    With babies, the game of peek-a-boo has a short lifespan because they typically develop “object permanence”: a parent’s face doesn’t actually disappear when hidden behind his or her hands. Writ large, we all develop over time a coherent set of expectations about the behavior of reality outside the body, which maybe we can relabel internal experience. The semantic argument about how they differ does not really lead anywhere but to confusion of a sort that is the special province of philosophy: a “thing represented” is not the “thing in itself” and other such folderol. There is a long history of this basic argument in philosophy, BTW, by some pretty significant thinkers, usually understood collectively as the “subject-object problem.”

    The comments reveal that this basic structure was a red herring, a set-up to refute later. It’s unclear why or whether there will be a payoff for suspending disbelief long enough to continue the pursuit.

  9. Michael says:

    If there was a real solid external world out there: Where would it be? Around here, over there, up there? Doesn’t make sense.

  10. Oliver says:

    Apologies for all the mentally challenged people who’ve come to comment with a lower level lack of insight. Some have missed the mark by miles and they don’t even realize the fact, let alone how. It does take a mind which has reconciled a considerable volume and scale. I’d like to thank you, and also celebrate your incredible mind. Very, very impressive! 😉

  11. Elijah says:

    “Our representation is a veil that covers the world.”

    Maybe. Or it could be that there is nothing behind the veil, that the veil is the world.

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