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.
Further reading: