Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Tree With the Lights In It...

For my Philosophy of Religion class we were given a chapter of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," a wonderful book by Annie Dillard. We were given this chapter in order to see examples of how our sensory experiences are in no way subjective. They tell us nothing about the world as it actually is, only about how we participate in the world. That sounds a bit strange to most Western people, who believe that seeing and feeling something is proof that it is real, but really that just means you're participating with that object in a particular way which gives you a set of phenomenological experiences. It doesn't really tell you anything about the object. That's all somewhat beside the point, though.

Dillard spends time talking about a surgery that was created and enabled doctors to remove cataracts from people who had been born with them, making them blind their whole life. Can you imagine suddenly getting a new sense you had never had before? How would you react to it? Undoubtedly, you would be completely overwhelmed. More than likely you wouldn't have a damn clue how to use it, and even when you figured it out you would use it as an ancillary sense, only to add to the ones you're already good at using. That's what happened to the people who suddenly gained sight in the middle of their lives.

Dillard says,

"The vas majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, idea of space whatsoever."

"Those who are blind from birth...have no real conception of height or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps...The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal."

"One patient, according to his doctor, 'practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it."

This blew my mind when I read it. Try looking at the world not in terms of three dimensions, but simply in terms of blurs of colors. We've taught ourselves to look at the world a particular way. Shadows tell us about depth; objects aren't really getting smaller or bigger, they're getting closer or further away; we've learned how to distinguish objects by shape and size.

Knowing now that this really isn't the way the world is makes me feel incredibly naive, so small and arrogant. That's helpful to realize, because it helps me get a step closer to becoming the person I want to be and to realizing the true nature of things. I'm going to spend more time trying to see how things truly are instead of how I relate to them. Step outside myself. Decenter my ego a bit.


Paul said...

Hi Mark,

This addresses, I think, what the Buddha describes as delusion. It's not that the world is an illusion, it's that we interpret what we receive through our senses as true and real. With a little study (OK, maybe a lot of study), however, one can realize the natural world is not what we have come to believe it to be, but rather a complex series of phenomena that are constantly changing.

When operating within a state of delusion (which is part of human nature) we tend to do things with a considerable lack of skill. And this, as I understand it, leads to suffering.


Anonymous said...

Something I was thinking about earlier is a distinction that might be worth mentioning. When you and I were talking about this, and you said something like "we have to teach ourselves how to notice dimension to make sense of this bloomin', buzzin' confusion," I didn't notice it at first, but I came to realize that I had made an assumption that we were talking about assigning the property of dimension that exists only in our minds. Classic Problems taught me to walk on thin ice here, but I wonder if it's that we assign these ideas like dimension, or if--by using the word "teach"--we simply mean that we come to understand the ideas in time. Basically, I'm just curious as to whether or not this REALLY ends the empiricism/rationalism debate: maybe dimension isn't objective, but it seems that the event of dimension exists outside of our material and spiritual selves.

Then again, the stuff we talk about in Confucian Virtue Ethics reminds me that the idea that I'm an individual separate from nature might not be an intuition I want to hold onto. Also, I agree with you about decentering the ego, but I wonder if there's a way to do it by maintaining my cognizance of my inseparable relationship with the world. I think the conflict here is that Annie Dillard seems to be coming from a pretty solidly Zen background, and if that’s the case, then she’s operating from the notion that the world is little more than an impermanent illusion (or "delusion," as put by Paul), anyway.