17 February 2017

Experience and Reality

"Our relation to the world is not that of a thinker to an object of thought"
—Maurice Merleau Ponty. The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences.

Introduction

In this essay and some to follow, I want to look an an error that many philosophers and most meditators seem to make: the confusion of epistemology and ontology; i.e. the mixing up of experience and reality. This essay will outline and give examples of a specific version of this confusion in the form of the mind projection fallacy.

I agree with those intellectuals who think that we do not ever experience reality directly. This is where I part ways with John Searle who, for reasons I cannot fathom, advocates naïve realism, the view that reality is exactly as we experience it. On the other hand I also disagree with Bryan Magee that reality is utterly different from what we experience and we can never get accurate and precise knowledge about it. He takes this view to be a consequence of transcendental idealism, but I think it's a form of naïve idealism.

The knowledge we get via inference is not complete, but we can and do infer accurate and precise information about objects. This makes a mind independent reality seem entirely plausible and far more probable than any of the alternatives. So we are in a situation somewhere between naïve realism and naïve idealism. 

This distinction between a mind-independent reality and the mind is not ontological, but epistemological. The set of reality includes all minds. However, the universe would exist, even if there were no beings to witness is. The universe is not dependent on having conscious observers. So by "reality" I just mean the universe generally, i.e. the universe made up from real matter-energy fields arranged into real structures that have emergent properties, one of which is conscious states. And by "mind" I specifically mean the series of conscious states that inform human beings about the universe. 

What I don't mean is reality in the abstract. I'm deeply suspicious of abstractions at present. For the same reason I avoid talking about conscious states in the abstract as "consciousness". Things can be real without there necessarily being an abstract reality. Reality is the set of all those things to which the adjective "real" applies. Things are real if they exist and have causal potential. Members of this set may have no other attributes in common. Unfortunately an abstract conception of reality, encourages us to speculate about the "nature of reality" as though reality were something more than  a collection of real things; more than an abstraction. Being real is not magical or mystical.

I'm not making an ontological distinction between mental and physical phenomena. I think an epistemological distinction can be made, because clearly our experience of our own minds has a different perspective to our experience of objects external to our body, but in the universe there are just phenomena. This is a distinct position from materialism, which privileges the material over the mental. What I'm saying is that what we perceive as "material" and "mental" are not different at the level of being.  

When we play the game of metaphysics and make statements about reality, they arise from inferences about experience. There are three main approaches to this process:
  • we begin with givens and use deduction to infer valid conclusions.
  • we begin with known examples and use induction to infer valid generalisations.
  • we begin with observations and use abductions to infer valid explanations.
We can and do make valid inferences about the universe from experience. The problem has always been that we make many invalid inferences as well. And we cannot always reliably tell valid from invalid.

For example, we know that if you submerge a person in water they will drown. That tells us something about reality. However, for a quite a long time Europeans believed that certain women were in league with the devil. They believed that witches could not be drowned. So they drowned a lot of women to prove they were not witches; and burned the ones who didn't drown. The central problem here being that witches, as understood by the witch-hunters, did not exist. The actions of some women were interpreted through an hysterical combination of fear of evil and fear of women, and from this witches were inferred to be real. It was a repulsive and horrifying period of our history in which reasoning went awry. But it was reasoning. And it was hardly an isolated incident. Reasoning very often goes wrong. Still. And that ought to make us very much more cautious about reasoning than most of us are.

One of the attractions of the European Enlightenment is that it promised that reason would free us from the oppression of superstition. This has happened to some extent, but superstition is still widespread. Confusions about how reason actually works are only now being unravelled. And this meant that the early claims of the Enlightenment were vastly overblown. If our views about the universe are formed by reasoning, then we have to assume that we're wrong most of the time, unless we have thoroughly reviewed both our view and our methods, and compared notes with others in an atmosphere of critical thinking, which combines competition and cooperation. The latter is science at its best, though admittedly scientists are not always at their best. 

Into this mix comes Buddhism with its largely medieval worldview, modified by strands of modernism. Buddhists often claim to understand the "true nature of reality"; aka The Absolute, The Transcendental, The Dhamma-niyāma, śūnyatā, tathatā,  pāramārthasatya, prajñāpāramitā, nirvāṇa, vimokṣa, and so on. Reality always seems to boil down to a one word answer. And this insight into "reality" is realised by sitting still with one's eyes closed and withdrawing attention from the sensorium in order to experience nothing. Or by imagining that one is a supernatural being in the form of an Indian princess, or a tame demon, or an idealised Buddhist monk, etc. Or any number of other approaches that have in common that seem to take the approach of trying to develop a kind of meta-awareness of our experience.To experience ourselves experiencing.

It's very common to interpret experience incorrectly. As we know the lists of identified cognitive biases and logical fallacies, which each have over one hundred items. From these many problems I want to highlight one. When we make inferences about reality we are biased towards seeing our conclusions, generalisations, and explanations as valid, and to believing that our interpretation is the only valid interpretation. This is the mind projection fallacy.


The Sunset Illusion

An excellent illustrative example of the mind projection fallacy is the sunset. If I stand on a hill and watch the sunset, it seems to me that the the hill and I are fixed in place and the sun is moving relative to me and the hill. Hence we say "the sun is setting". In fact we're known for centuries that the sun is not moving relative to the earth, but instead the hill and I are pivoting away on an axis that goes through the centre of the earth. So why do we persist in talking about sunsets?

The problem is that I have internal sensors that tell me when I'm experiencing acceleration: proprioception (sensing muscle/tendon tension) kinaesthesia (sensing joint motion and acceleration) and the inner-ear's vestibular system (orientation to gravity and acceleration). I can also use my visual sense to detect whether I am in motion relative to nearby objects. A secondary way of detecting acceleration is the sloshing around of our viscera creating pressure against the inside of our body.

My brain integrates all this information to give me accurate and precise knowledge about whether my body is in motion. And standing on a hill, watching a sunset, my body is informing me, quite unequivocally, that I am at rest.

I'm actually spinning around the earth's axis of rotation at ca. 1600 km/h or about 460 m/s. That's about Mach 1.5! And because velocity is a vector (it has both magnitude and direction) moving in a circle at a uniform speed is acceleration, because one is constantly changing direction. So why does it not register on our senses? After all, being on a roundabout rapidly makes me dizzy and ill; a high speed turn in a vehicle throws me against the door. It turns out that the acceleration due to going moderately fast in very large circle, is tiny. So small that it doesn't register on any of our onboard motion sensors. The spinning motion does register in the atmosphere and oceans where it creates the Coriolis effect.

Everyone watching a sunset experiences themselves at rest and the sun moving. It is true, but counterintuitive, to suggest that the sun is not moving. Let's call this the sunset illusion.

I'm not sure where is comes from but in the Triratna Order we often cite four authorities for believing some testimony: it makes sense (reason), it feels right (emotion), it accords with experience (memory), and it accords with the testimony of the wise. Before about 1650, seeing ourselves as stationary and the sun and moving, made sense, it felt right, it accorded with experience, and it accorded with the testimony of the wise. The first hint that the sunset illusion is an illusion came when Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in January 1610.

Even knowing, as I do, that the sunset illusion is an illusion, doesn't change how it seems to me because my motion senses are unanimously telling me I'm at rest. This is important because it tells us that this is not a trivial or superficial mistake. It's not because I am too stupid to understand the situation. I know the truth and have known for decades. But I also trust my senses because I have no choice but to trust them.

The sunset illusion is sometimes presented as a 50:50 proposition, like one of those famous optical illusions where whether we see a rabbit or a duck depends on where we focus. The assertion is that we might just as easily see the sun as still and us moving. This is erroneous. Proprioception, kinaethesia, the vestibular organ, and sight to make it a virtual certainty that we experience ourselves at rest and conclude that the sun moving. It takes a combination of careful observation of the visible planets and an excellent understanding of geometry to upset the earth-centric universe. If some ancient cultures got this right, it was a fluke.

The sunset illusion exposes an important truth about how all of us understand the world based on experience. Experience and reality can be at odds.

And note that we are not being irrational when we continue to refer to the sun "setting". Given our sensorium, it is rational to think of ourselves at rest and the sun moving. It's only in a much bigger, non-experiential framework that the concept becomes irrational. For most of us the facts of cosmology are abstract, i.e. they exist as concepts divorced from experience. Evolution predisposed us to trust experience above abstract facts.


Mind Projection Fallacy

The name of this fallacy was coined by physicist and philosopher E.T. Jaynes (1989). He defined it like this:
One asserts that the creations of [their] own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus in effect projects [their] own thoughts out onto Nature. (1989: 2)
I think it probably more accurately described as a cognitive bias, but fallacy is the standard term. Also instead of imagination, I would argue that we should say "interpretation". The problem is not so much that we imagine things and pretend they are real, though this does happen, but that we have experiences and interpret them as relating directly to reality (naïve realism).

The sunset illusion tells us that reality is not always as we experience it. 

We all make mistakes, particularly these kinds of cognitive mistakes. We actually evolved in such a way as to make these kinds of mistakes inevitable. However, reading up on cognitive bias I was struck by how some of the authors slanted their presentation of the material to belittle people. I don't think this is helpful. Our minds are honed by evolution for survival a particular kind of environment, but almost none of us live in that environment any more. So if we are error-prone, it is because our skill-set is not optimised for the lifestyles we've chosen to live. 

This fallacy can occur in a positive and a negative sense, so that it can be stated in two different ways:
  1. My interpretation of experience → real property of nature
  2. My own ignorance → nature is indeterminate
David Chapman has pointed out that there has been considerable criticism of Jaynes' approach in the article I'm citing and has summarised why. He suggests, ironically, that Jaynes suffered from the second kind of mind projection fallacy when it came to logic and probability. But the details of that argument about logic and probability are not relevant to the issue I'm addressing in this essay. It's the fallacy or bias that concerns us here. 


Interpreting Experience
    A problem like the sunset illusion emerges when we make inferences about reality based on interpreting our experience. For example, when we make deductions from experience to reality, they invariably reflect the content of our presuppositions about reality. For example, a given for most of us is "I always know when I am moving". In the sunset illusion, I know I am at rest because motions sensors and vision confirm that it is so. The experience is conclusive: it must be the sun must be moving. My understanding of how the universe works and my understanding of my own situation regards movement are givens in this case. We don't consciously reference them, but they predetermine the outcome of deductive reasoning. This means the deduction is of very limited use to the individual thinking about reality.

    If I watch a dozen sunsets and they all have this same character, then I can generalise from this (inductive reasoning) that the sun regularly rises, travels in an (apparent) arc across the sky and sets. All the while I am not moving relative to earth. What's more I've experienced dozens of earthquakes in my lifetime, so I also know what it is like when the earth does move! From my experiential perspective, the earth does not move, but the sun does move. Given our experience of the situation, this is the most likely explanation (abductive reasoning).

    So here we see that a perfectly logical set of conclusions, generalisations, and explanations follow from interpreting experience, which are nonetheless completely wrong. I am not at rest, but moving at Mach 1.5. The earth is not at rest. The sun is at the centre of our orbit around it, but it also is moving very rapidly around the centre of the galaxy. Our galaxy is accelerating away from all other galaxies. The error occurs because our senses evolved to help us navigate through woodlands, in and out of trees, and swimming in water. And we're pretty good at this. When it comes to inferring knowledge about the cosmos, human senses are the wrong tool to start with!

    A common experience for Buddhists is to have a vision of a Buddha during meditation. And it is common enough for that vision to be taken as proof that Buddhas exist. But think about it. A person is sitting alone in a suburban room, their eyes are closed, their attention withdrawn from the world of the senses, they've attenuated their sense experience to focus on just one sensation and have focussed their attention on it. They undergo a self-imposed sensory deprivation. They've also spent a few years intensively reading books on Buddhism, looking at Buddhist art, thinking about Buddhas, and discussing Buddhas with other Buddhists. We know that sensory deprivation causes hallucinations. And someone saturated in the imagery of Buddha is more likely to hallucinate a Buddha. This is no surprise. But does it really tell us that Buddhas exist independently of our minds, or does it just tell us that in situations of sensory deprivation Buddhists hallucinate Buddhas? 

    The Buddhist who has the hallucination feels that this is a sign; it feels important, meaningful, and perhaps even numinous (in the sense that they felt they were in the presence of some otherworldly puissance). They are immersed in Buddhist rhetoric and imagery, as are all of their friends. As I have observed before, hallucinations are stigmatised, whereas visions are valorised. So if you see something that no one else sees, then your social milieu and your social intelligence will dictate how you interpret and present the experience. If you mention to your comrades in religion that you saw a Buddha in your meditation, you are likely to get a pat on the back and congratulations. It will be judged an auspicious sign. And all those people who haven't had "visions" will be quietly envious. If you mention it to your physician, they may well become concerned that you have suffered a psychotic episode. On the other hand, in practice psychotic episodes are rather terrifying and chaotic, and not all hallucinations are the result of psychosis. 

    Not only do we have the problem of our own reasoning leading us to erroneous inferences, we have social mechanisms to reinforce particular interpretations of experience, especially in the case of our religiously inspired inferences. Our individual experience is geared towards a social reality. One of the faults of humans thinking about reality is to think that reality somehow reflects our social world. A common example is the nature of heaven. Many cultures see heaven as an idealised form of their own social customs, usually with the slant towards male experiences and narratives. Medieval Chinese intellectuals saw heaven as an idealised Confucian bureaucracy for example. If we take Christian art as any indication, then Heaven is an all male club. The just-world fallacy probably comes about because we expect the world to conform to our social norms in which each member is responsive to the others in a hierarchy where normative behaviour is rewarded and transgressive behaviour is punished.

    So given the way our senses work, given the pitfalls of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, given the pressure to conform to social norms, the mind projection fallacy can operate freely. As we know, challenging the established order can be difficult to the point of being fatal. And understanding the power of the something like the sunset illusion is important. Facts don't necessarily break the spell. Yes, we know the earth orbits the sun. But standing on a hill watching the sunset, that is just not how we experience it (our proprioception and vision tell us a different story that we find more intuitive and credible, even though it is wrong). And this applies to a very wide range of situations where we are reasoning from experience to reality.


    If I Don't Understand It...

    The second form of this fallacy was rampant in 19th century scholarship. In the first form, one erroneously concludes that one understands something and projects private experience as public reality. Mistaking the sunset as resulting from the movement of the sun, because our bodies tell us that we are at rest. This leads to false claims about reality.

    In the second case there is also a false claim about reality, but in this case it emerges from a failure to understand and the assumption that this is because the experience or feature of reality cannot be understood. This is a problem which is particular acute for intellectuals. Intellectuals are often over‑confident about their ability to understand everything. These days it is less plausible, but 150 years ago it was plausible for one intellectual to be well informed about more or less every field of human knowledge. So if such an intellectual comes across something they don't understand, then they deduce that it cannot be understood by anyone. 

    A common assertion for example is that we will never understand consciousness from a third person perspective (leaving aside the problematic abstraction for a moment). Very often such theories are rooted in an ontological mind/body dualism, which may or may not be acknowledged. Many Buddhists who are interested in the philosophy of mind, for example, cannot imagine that we will ever understand conscious states through scientific methods. They argue that no amount of research will ever help us understand. So they don't follow research into the mind and don't see any progress in this area. On the other hand they hold that through mediation we do come to understand conscious states and the nature of them. Many go far beyond this and claim that we will gain knowledge of reality, in the sense of a transcendent ideal reality that underlies the apparent reality that our sense inform us about. In other words meditation takes us beyond phenomena to noumena. 

    Another common argument is that scientists don't understand 95% of the world because they don't understand dark matter and dark energy. People take this to mean that scientists don't understand 95% of what goes on here on earth. But this is simply not true. Scale is important, and being ignorant at one scale (the scale that effects galaxies and larger structures) does not mean that we don't understand plate tectonics, the water cycle, or cell metabolism, at least in principle. The popular view of science often seem to point towards a caricature that owes more to the 19th century than the 21st. Criticism of science often goes along with an anti-science orientation and very little education in the sciences. 

    The basic confusion in both cases is mistaking what seem obvious to us, for what must be the case for everyone else, either positively or negatively. 


    The Confusion
    "It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality"
    The basic problem here is a confusion between what we know about the world (epistemology) with what the world is (ontology). In short, we mistake experience for reality. And this problem is very widespread amongst intellectuals in many fields.

    The problem can be very subtle. Another illuminating example is the idea that sugar is sweet. We might feel that a statement like "sugar is sweet" is straightforward. Usually, no one is going to argue with this, because the association between sugar and sweetness is so self-evident. But the statement it is false. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is a stimulus for the receptors on our tongues that register as "sweet". We experience the sensation sweet whenever we encounter molecules that bind with these receptors. But sweet is an experience. It does not exist out in the world, but only in our own conscious states. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is one of many substances that cause us to experience sweet when they come into contact with the appropriate receptors on our tongue. Equally, there is no abstract quality of sweet-ness, despite the effortless ease with which we can create abstract nouns in English. Sucrose, for example has nothing much in common with aspartame at a chemical level. And yet both stimulate the experience of sweet. Indeed aspartame is experienced as approximately 200 times as sweet as sucrose, but this does not mean that it contains 200 times more sweetness. There is no sweet-ness. The experience of sweet evolved to alert us to the high calorific value of certain types of foods and the enjoyable qualities of sweet evolved to motivate us to seek out such foods. 

    For Buddhists, the application of this fallacy comes from experiencing altered states of mind in and out of meditation. Meditators may experience altered states of mind that they judge to be more real than other kinds of states, causing them to divide phenomena into more real and less real. And they manage to convince people that this experience of theirs is reflects a reality that ordinary mortals cannot see. A transcendent reality that is obscured from ordinary people. 

    The problem is that an experience is a mental state; and a mental state is just a mental state. No matter how vivid or transformative the experience was, we must be careful when reasoning from private experiences (epistemology) to public reality (ontology) because we usually get this wrong. I've covered this in many essays, including Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and
     Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? (15 Aug 2015) etc.

    Most of us are really quite bad at reasoning on our own. This is because humans suffer from an inordinate number of cognitive biases and easily fall into logical fallacies. There are dozens of each and without special training and a helpful context, we naturally and almost inevitably fall into irrational patterns of thought. The trouble is that we too often face situations where there is too much information and we cannot decide what is salient; or there is too little information and we want to fill the gaps. 

    Our minds are optimised for survival in low-tech hunter-gatherer situations, not for sophisticated reasoning. The mind helps us make the right hunting and gathering decisions, but in most cases it's just not that good at abstract logic or reasoning. Of course some individuals and groups are good at it. Those who are good at it have convinced us that it is the most important thing in the world. But again this is probably just a cognitive bias on their part. 


    Conclusion

    The whole concept of reason and the processes of reasoning are going through a reassessment right now. This is because it has become clear that very few people do well at abstract reasoning. Most of the time, we do not reason, but rely on shortcuts known as cognitive biases. A lot of the time our reasoning is flawed by logical fallacies. Additionally we are discovering that most mammals and birds are capable of reasoning to some extent. 

    In this essay I have highlighted a particular problem in which one mistakes experience for reality. Using examples (sunset, visions, sweetness) I showed how such mistakes come about. Unlike others who highlight these errors, I have tried to avoid the implication that humans are thereby stupid. For example, I see the sunset illusion because my senses are telling me that I am definitely at rest, because they tune out sensations that are too small to affect my body. Social conditioning is a powerful shaping force in our lives, and visions are valuable social currency in a religious milieu.

    In terms of our daily lives the sunset illusion or the sweetness illusion hardly matter. It's not like the mistakes cost us anything. Such problems don't figure in natural selection because our lives don't depend on them. We know what we need to know to survive. Although our senses and minds are tuned to survival pre-civilisation environments, we are often able to co-opt abilities evolved for one purpose to another one. 

    But truth does matter. For example when one group claims authority and hegemony based on their interpretation of experience, then one way to undermine them is to point out falsehoods and mistakes. When the Roman Church in Europe was shown to be demonstrably wrong about the universe, the greater portion of their power seeped away into the hands of the Lords Temporal, and then into the hands of captains of industry. For ordinary people this led to more autonomy and better standards of living (on average). Democracy is flawed, but it is better than feudalism backed by authoritarian religion.

    But as Noam Chomsky has said:
    “The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
    In subjecting Buddhism to rational inquiry I do often elicit incomprehension or outrage. And sometimes not masked at all. There are certainly Buddhists on the internet who see me as an enemy of the Dharma, as trying to do harm to Buddhism. As I understand my own motivations, my main concern is to recast buddhism for the future. I think the urge of the early British Buddhists to modernise Buddhism and particularly to bring it into line with rationality was a sensible one. However, as our understanding of rationality changes so Buddhism will have to adapt to continue being thought of as rational. But also we have to move beyond taking buddhism on its own terms and to consider the wider world of knowledge. The laws of nature apply in all cases.

    Whilst Buddhism is largely influenced by people who mistake experience for reality, Buddhism will be hindered in its spread and development. This particular error is one that we have to make conscious and question closely. Just because it makes sense, feels right, and accords with experience doesn't mean that it is true. The sunset illusion makes sense, but is wrong. It feels right to say that sugar is sweet, but it isn't. It accords with experience that meditative mental states are more real than normal waking states. But they are not. The testimony of the wise is demonstrably a product of culture, and varies across time and space. 

    ~~oOo~~

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