We do not see the world.
When we look out and survey the universe, what we see is nothing like what our ancestors saw and nothing like what our descendants will see. Every culture and every time has its own way of seeing things. And so does every individual.
In previous articles, I have raised some questions about the ways in which we are more a part of the world than we might realize and that we are so profoundly interconnected with it that we cannot move, act, think or feel in isolation. In this final post in the series, I will try to draw a few strands together.
In The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett recounts an ancient Chinese way of classifying animals. It comes from a Chinese text called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and the classification includes categories of animal such as: those which belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that tremble as if they were mad; those that have just broken a flower vase; and mermaids. To the modern western mind, this list is simply an absurd way to classify animals and yet, presumably, it was used and had value and, more significantly, it embodied a certain way of seeing the world.
Two ideas dominate our modern western way of thinking. First, we see the world as being divided up into distinct objects which are essentially independent. When I was a kid, we used to play a guessing game – animal, vegetable or mineral. The idea was that, by asking a series of progressively refined questions, one could arrive at the identity of an object, living or not. The game relies on a worldview where everything is separate, independent and categorisable. Much of science is little more than taxonomy, the practice of putting different things into mental boxes, giving them labels and describing them. Interestingly, studies carried out on Asian children show they have a greater tendency to define and group things in terms of their relationships to each other than western children, suggesting that taxonomy has a cultural aspect.
‘Do not try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.’ From The Matrix.
Second, our thinking is driven by the idea of direct cause and effect. The distinct objects which make up the world can influence each other in a direct, causal way. If I kick a ball, it moves. If I smoke cigarettes for many years, I get sick. If I take medicine, I get better. There is a cause; there is a direct effect (or sometimes a chain of direct effects) and this connection has a clear mechanism.
Magical thinking – the idea that a thought can directly effect physical change ‘out there’ in the world does not sit comfortably with these ideas. We seem deeply suspicious of anything that does not involve direct contact. The idea that thought alone can change things makes us squirm.
Strangely, we are comfortable with the forces of gravity and electromagnetism, a mysterious form of ‘action at a distance’ which affects everything in our lives. We are used to these forces; we can feel them and see their effects everywhere, and so we accept them. But in fact, there is no good explanation for how these forces work. We have no idea why two massive bodies attract each other. The idea of a ‘field’ is just a formal way of describing and representing the phenomenon, but it is not an explanation.
‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.’
Alfred Lord Tennyson.
In his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Khun describes a simple experiment conducted by psychologists Bruner and Postman in which subjects were asked to identify a series of playing cards. Most of the cards shown to the subjects were just ordinary cards, but some were anomalous – a red six of spades or a black queen of hearts, for example. Each card was shown to the subject for a short time and the subject asked to name the card. Several runs were carried out, each one lengthening the time subjects were exposed to each card.
Almost all of the cards were identified correctly, and even the anomalous cards were identified – not correctly – but as being normal. For example, the black four of hearts might be identified as the four of hearts or the four of spades. As the exposure time increased, subjects did hesitate and say things like ‘there’s something wrong with that card,’ but they still did not spot the anomaly. On increasing the exposure time further, subjects began to show confusion and even distress and there usually came a point where subjects suddenly realized what was being shown to them and identified the anomalous cards correctly. A few subjects were never able to make the adjustment, however. Interestingly, even the investigators, who had created the anomalous cards, reported that looking at them was an acutely unnerving experience.
It would appear that we have a natural resistance to anomaly and tend to fit observations into our current conceptual models. We often tend to think of science as having a logical, orderly progression from a primitive and incomplete understanding of the world to one which is more accurate and complete. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most major scientific advances have involved the difficult emergence of novelty against a backdrop of resistance. It is worth quoting Khun:
‘Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where anomaly is later to be observed. Further acquaintance, however, does result in awareness of something wrong or does relate the effect to something that has gone wrong before. That awareness of anomaly opens up a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalous has been anticipated.’
In other words, science proceeds by a series of jumps from one paradigm to another. There is often a sudden realization that something new is happening and that a new way of thinking about things is needed.
Intriguing results from research in a number of different areas is suggesting more and more that we may need a new way of looking at things. In particular, research appears to show that we are not separate entities with distinct boundaries, that we are interconnected in a profound way and can influence things outside ourselves in ways which seem magical.
As a child, I loved science. I think I loved it because it seemed like magic: it was a way of getting to the bottom of what was really happening in this great and mysterious world. When I went to university, I read Chemistry and studied quantum mechanics. Somehow, the magic seemed to fade away, but I never lost a sense that magic is all around us – it pervades our whole experience; it is with us all the time.
Before we reject the possibilities of magical thinking, let’s remember the times when our paradigms were tested to the limit and fell apart. Who knows how we will see the world in the future? In the end, we may be well served by the advice of Lao Tzu, the semi-mythical founder of Taoism and author of the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching:
‘It is good to know that you know nothing.
Pretending to know is a kind of sickness.
The wise know they know nothing
And so they are well.’
Mark Harrison writes at effortlessabundance.com. Check out his latest book, Thirty Days to Change Your Life. (note that when you visit this link there is a very special discount for Evolution Ezine readers)
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