Common Sense? IV

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Let’s now take a ‘common sense’ view of our world, with all its sights (drab or colourful) ; its sounds (soothing or raucous) ; its smells (inviting or unpleasant) ; its tastes (sweet or bitter) ; and its textures (soft or unyielding). If you’ve been reading these posts, you’ll know what’s coming next. These ‘appearances’ are all an illusion, and the underlying ‘reality’ is very different.

Our eyes are not windows through which we gaze out on our surroundings. They are receptors, which receive incoming electromagnetic radiation in the form of ‘light’. This is interpreted by way of incredibly complex electrochemical activity in our brains, and the end result experienced by us is colourful mental ‘representations’ of the ‘outside’ world. We tend to forget, however, that electromagnetic radiation is itself colourless. It enters our eyes in different wavelengths, which we experience as different colours. An apple is not, in itself, red. It’s the wavelength of light reflected from it that determines how we experience it. It is we who are the creators of the ‘appearance’ of colour. The world, in ‘reality’, whatever ‘common sense’ makes of this, is colourless.

A large tree crashing to the earth in a forest, doesn’t make a thunderous noise. It causes vibrations in the air. If these reach our ears, they cause related vibrations in the diaphragms in our ears which, as before, are electro-chemically processed and give rise to the mental experience we call ‘sound’. If there are no ears in the forest, there are no sounds. Similarly, smell and taste involve molecules carried through the air to chemoreceptors in the nose and mouth, the signals from which are then processed and interpreted, giving rise to the mental experiences of smell and taste. Molecules themselves, have no smell, and are tasteless (no offence intended). As for touch, the  Common Sense? II  blog in this series showed how that is also a mental experience, given that the negatively charged electrons in nearby atoms ‘forcibly’ repel each other, and cannot touch. 

The sum and substance of all of the above is this – that we live in a world of what we may call subjective ‘appearance’ and objective ‘reality’. Whatever the nature of that ‘outside’ reality is, it has neither colour, sound, smell, taste or texture. In and of itself, we might be tempted to say that it’s utterly and uninterestingly dull and drab. It’s you and I, creative artists that we are, who supply it with a kaleidoscope of colours, a cacophony of sounds, a cornucopia of beautiful scents and inviting tastes, and a conglomeration of various textures. The world of ‘things-as-they-really-are-in-themselves’ must be very different, but the world of ‘appearances’ which our minds create, is a masterpiece in its own right.

Let’s not mistake it for the ‘ultimate reality’, but simply enjoy it for what it is. Let’s celebrate the incredibly creative, imaginative propensity of the human mind. Let’s remember that every human person has one, and try to treat all our fellow beings with mutual value and respect. However and whenever this universe of ours began, and whether it will end in collapse followed by a new ‘big bang’, or in a long, dark, lonely, lingering ‘death’, nothing can alter the fact that, for us, it is awesomely magnificent, terrible and beautiful, destructive and creative, pitiless yet benign. To have been able, for a brief moment, to become aware of this, and to have been allowed to play a small part in it, is surely nothing less than an immense, a priceless, and an unmissable privilege.

4 responses to “Common Sense? IV”

  1. What is language? Language evolves through agreement: that, among other things, the world of the senses can be agreed on (allowing for exceptions, such as what is considered colour blindness, because it disagrees with the norm). Your argument however seems to suggest that our labour to evolve language is unreal because the differences a particular language discerns through agreement are unreal. I find this diminution of language difficult to accept.

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    1. I think you’re missing the point of what’s being said. The world of which our senses and minds create mental representations is not ‘unreal’, and is, of course, meaningfully describable using words and language. It should be noted that the word I’ve used in these blog posts is “illusion”, but not “delusion”. A delusion has no existence in reality. An illusion does. It is not ‘unreal’ (Dr. Johnson’s stone) but neither is it ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

      There is a ‘reality’ there, otherwise our senses and minds would have nothing to experience and interpret. But we have to recognise that our senses and minds provide us with necessarily limited and entirely indirect mental representations of external reality as it is, in and of itself. We have no direct access to the latter, apart from our senses and minds, to enable us to cross-check how accurate, or otherwise, our mental representations actually are.

      In my view, it would be entirely illogical and unsustainable to equate our ‘mental representations’ with ultimate reality itself. We have no words, of course, to describe the latter, since it lies outside the reach of our sensory apparatus. I have suggested, however, that the well established findings of quantum physics give us a hint that what is ultimately real can at least be imagined – in terms of invisible, intangible, electro-magnetic and other force fields, in continuous inter-related dynamic processing, which gives rise to what we experience as matter, life, intelligence, consciousness, self-awareness and, of course, the ability to use language to facilitate our efforts to experience, imagine, question, understand, represent and communicate.

      So I think your use of the word “unreal” is mistaken, as I’ve argued above, and I would replace the phrase “diminution of language” by the phrase “limitations of language”, which phrase I cannot imagine you disagreeing with.

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      1. Yes good what you say about the difference between illusion and delusion so I accept what you are arguing.

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  2. We’re moving here in difficult to grasp, counter-intuitive territory. It took me a lot of reading, questioning and thinking to begin to get my head round it. I find it fascinating in opening up fresh possibilities which can be integrated into existing (or traditional!) categories. But I always try to remind myself, that I could easily be entirely wrong, so I appreciate your comments, which force me to re-express, and therefore to re-think, issues in question. It’s good mental (and spiritual) exercise, to complement the Scottish country dancing, which my shoulder pain (not an illusion) is currently keeping me from. Such is life …

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