Facing Facts/Perceptions are Personal

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We often hear that “perception is reality” and that “everything is relative”, despite knowing that a shared reality exists, and reality is our common ground. What is going on here?

Perception is the interpretation of sensory information representing our environment. For example, vision involves light striking the retina of the eye, odor molecules stimulate our sense of smell, and hearing involves pressure waves.

Perceptions are vivid. Seeing things from our own point of view is always easier, and first-hand experiences seem more real than understanding another's point of view can ever be. Our eyes, nose, taste buds, tactile sensors, and ears connect directly only to our brain. Only you experience first-hand the direct sensory input of the world; you, your self, is the observer. This raw sensory input is interpreted and gains meaning through your unique perceptions and past experiences. Furthermore, contemplation, desire, intent, pain, introspection, consciousness, and reflection are all private and solitary. This unique first-person experience creates a fundamental asymmetry that contributes to many of the other asymmetries that govern social interactions. It also contributes to the asymmetric character of egotism, narcissism, selfishness, greed, and the magnitude gap[1]. We judge others based on behavior and we judge ourselves based on intent. Your own point of view, the way you see things, is unique. The golden rule and our empathy struggle to overcome this fundamental imbalance.

blind men and an elephant
(wall relief in Northeast Thailand)

The parable of the blind men and an elephant helps us understand the role of our own perception. The parable has many versions, but broadly goes as follows:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

In this parable each person accurately described their perceptions but made a mistake in concluding that what they perceived is all there is. A complete and accurate account of an elephant requires that all of the evidence—the perceptions of each individual blind man—be assembled, integrated and reconciled into a coherent and consistent understanding of reality.

Perceptions are personal. We are often like a blind man examining the elephant. We are each correct within the limited scope of our reference frame, but we are incorrect when a global perspective is adopted.

It is often a mistake to generalize our personal perceptions beyond our own experiences. Standing in a meadow we see a flat earth, yet sunrise, time zones, global travel, earth satellites, GPS navigation systems, images from space, and travel to the moon all assure us the earth is nearly spherical. Reality is vast, complex, and dynamic, and our perceptions are only a tiny glimpse of all there is to know about reality. Only a global perspective brings us uncensored realty.

Reality exists and provides us with matters of fact. The Eiffel tower is 300 meters tall. You may perceive that as too short, others may perceive that as too tall, and many perceive that as simply beautiful.

See beyond the illusion that what you see is all there is. Perceptions are personal, but reality is our common ground. Our unique first-person viewpoint creates a powerful asymmetry that requires deliberate effort to see beyond. Transcend your personal perceptions, investigate the vastness and complexity of reality from a global perspective, and embrace reality as our common ground.

Notes[edit]

  1. In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Roy Baumeister states “most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil”. Baumeister also described how the evil act will be of much greater importance to the victim than the perpetrator, he labelled this gap in importance the magnitude gap.