The Critics’ Corner
What Is Perception?
by Don Webb
Brian L. Steed’s “A Commentary on “Without Sky”” appears in this issue.
Brian L. Steed’s essay asks what public perception means in the context of refugees who are fleeing conflict zones. What does “Without Sky” suggest? Are the victims of war merely forgotten? Or are they deliberately ignored by the powers that started the war in the first place?
Whatever the case, the essay appears to cite at least one reader as taking a radical point of view: “if one does not perceive the suffering, then it does not actually exist.” And the reaction is based on George Berkeley’s principle of idealism: esse est percipi, ‘to be is to be perceived’.
Well, okay: let’s follow the reader’s surmise to its logical conclusion. Berkeley’s principle raises a question: If a tree — or anything — exists, say, on a university quadrangle, where does it go at night or whenever nobody is around to perceive it? The classic rebuttal to Berkeley comes in the form of duelling limericks:
There was a young man who said God
must find it exceedingly odd
when He finds that the tree
continues to be
when no-one’s about in the Quad.
Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd.
I’m always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
continues to be,
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God.
First, the practical applications:
God provides not only a moral standard but a guard against the absurd error of solipsism, i.e. “Only what I think is real; all else is fantasy” — or, if you will, “fake news.”
Now, the solipsist is not a liar. A liar respects the truth but spins another version of it to suit his own ends. The solipsist is a psychopath: he may or may not know the truth but, in either case, he doesn’t care what it is. He generates his own version of reality in his own mind and, for him, it is the only reality.
In light of solipsism, we may infer that Homo sapiens seems somewhat misnamed. We’re less “wise” or “knowing” than we are Homo relator, “man the storyteller.” We tell stories to explain what we feel and perceive.
Sometimes the stories make sense; sometimes they don’t. If we don’t know why the Earth rotates, we can make up a funny story about it. We can do the same if we want others to be damned to Hell for who they are. And such stories, though not funny at all, swiftly become quite ludicrous.
Does Dubovitsky’s story depict the public’s ignorance as denying human suffering as unreal? The interpretation is debatable, but at least one reader seems to make the inference. Let’s grant it for the sake of argument. A denial of reality would have to take the form of mass solipsism.
Such a thing did occur in the nationalistic and imperialistic ideologies of the mid-20th century. The propaganda effort required — witness the Nazis’ “big lie” technique — was considerable, but it did work, mainly on the principle of confirmation bias. Hermann Goering is quoted in “Go Tell the Spartans” as saying it’s simply a matter of stoking fear of the Other.
The consequences are well known. When the brainwashing reaches a kind of “critical mass” of intensity in the mind of the populace, mass hysteria replaces reality and can be easily manipulated by the “leaders.”
Second, the theoretical applications:
Returning to Berkeley’s idealism, we can see that it is a counter-argument to the philosophy of materialism, which can lead to mechanistic determinism and, at its own extreme, nihilism.
Berkeley’s motto esse est percipi — which can be parodied as “Seeing is believing” — tends to skip lightly over a couple of vital points. Who or what is doing the perceiving? And how can perception account for processes, even time itself?
For example: Berkeley has a fire going in his fireplace. He leaves the room and locks the door. He knows that no one else is in the room and that no one else enters it until he returns. When he comes back, he finds that the fire has gone out. How could that possibly have happened when nobody was present to witness the process? The room should have been the same as when he left it.
Likewise, the prehistoric immigrants to the Americas discovered continents teeming with life. How could the continents — let alone the life — exist when nobody was there to perceive them? Absence of evidence — or perception — was not evidence of absence. At this point, “what” rather than “who” becomes essential. And Berkeley’s philosophy finds an application he could not have anticipated.
For example: A photon is a quantum element whose nature is a model of ambiguity; it has characteristics of both a wave and a particle, but it is neither and both at the same time. When it arrives from, say, the sun, it may be perceived by an eye or by a leaf. If by an eye, it becomes a particle, and the eye perceives light. If by a leaf, the photon likewise becomes a particle and may cause photosynthesis.
Berkeley deserves credit for trying to resolve a conundrum. What is mind, if not matter? And what is matter, anyway? The world would have to wait until Einstein showed that matter is local condensations of energy in the space-time continuum.
We have to ask Berkeley: “Who are you — or is anyone — to define existence? Doesn’t Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum do the same as your esse est percipi, that is, define a whole by one of its parts? Never mind what ‘is’; rather, what do you think you perceive?”
Likewise, we have to ask everyone, be it readers, writers, politicians or the public: “What on earth are you thinking?! Don’t you know what it means? Remember: God is watching.”
Copyright © 2018 by Don Webb