Kant, perception, and other things you probably don’t care about.

I have been having an on-going conversation with someone recently who, upon reading Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God (upon my suggestion), quoted this section of his book and responded (below):

The fact that we observe a universe moving through time, ever changing, from the furthest point to the left onward to the right on the diagram above, is the product of the physical nature of both our minds and the universe: it is in one sense and illusion, like the illusion of solidity, when in fact solid objects are mostly empty space; but in another sense it is an interpretation of a pattern that really does exist — a pattern that does not really move or change, but is genuinely experience, just a solidity is genuinely experienced and, in its physical effects, is a real fact of the universe.

Everything we experience is a construct, a convenient way for the brain to represent the otherwise complex and jumbled data of the senses and brain systems. But we have ample evidence, ample reason t believe this “reconstruction” of a world outside of us is based on real data from that world, and thus strongly corresponds to it.

[her emphasis]

First of all, read this book.  It stands, for me, as one of the best defenses of metaphysical materialism I’ve seen, and is written for laypeople.

Now, onto her response (in part) and my continued discussion.  Warning, this post contains philosophical terminology and may only be interesting to people who care about this issue.

She said (again, in part):

This is what I meant when I was talking about reality being an illusion. Yes, there is a real universe (particles, energy, etc.) but our experience of it is subjective because we are in fact human and not some other mode of creature. We experience time even though time exists all at once. If we weren’t human, but instead a different kind of living creature, for example, a black hole, then (possibly) we wouldn’t experience time, or gravity, or even matter in the same way. In this way, our reality as human beings is an illusion and our experience is entirely subjective. Does that mean there are “laws” of our collective subjective experience that apply to all humans? Of course, gravity is one such law. But gravity is subjective to our experience as humans, and it applies to us only because we are such a creature as such a law applies to. Therefore, our human reality is an illusion because of our collective subjective experience. And a collective subjective experience (I suspect) is the closest we will ever get to an objective reality.

So I understand your point (I think).  I’ve bold-faced the important statements, which I will be focusing on.

I want to make a distinction between subjective experience and illusion.  The fact that my experience of, say, eating some ice cream is subjective does not mean it’s an illusion.  It means that I have a privileged perspective on that experience, one that others only have a limited perspective on, but it still is a real thing.  My experience of the ice cream is different from yours (if you are watching me eat it.  If we are sharing it that is a more difficult question), but so long as there is actual ice cream, there is no illusion.

The word “illusion” means, for me, an experience with no referent.  It means that if I experience the flavor of ice cream (which is subjective) and there is no ice cream, then I experienced an illusion.  If I hear the voice of god (and there is no god) I’ve experienced an illusion.  But my experience with ice cream, when actually eating ice cream, is not an illusion,  It may not be reliably 100% accurate with some hypothetical objective reality, but the fact that there is some difference between the truth and what I’m able to perceive does not imply an illusion, but rather mere inexact perception.

Before I address this further, let’s see what else you said:

Objective reality could possibly exist but it would be impossible for anyone to experience. By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective. Objective reality, therefore, even if it exists cannot be experienced except through limited subjective experiences. And each being/creature/thing will have their own subjective experience of what is. All of us–humans, superior alien intelligence, black holes, or vampire, blood-sucking rabbits– are just blind men feeling up different parts of the elephant (a sexy elephant wearing lingerie).

And I venture to guess you would agree that a “strong correspondence” is still not actual reality.

If I’m looking at a desk, my perception of it creates a simulation of what I’m able to perceive with my eyes.  That is, a small set of radiation (visible light).  Immanuel Kant was famous for (in part) noting the difference between the phenomena and the noumena.  The phenomena is the perception–the simulation our mind creates–and the noumena is the proposed actual desk.  He agrees with you, and says that the phenomena is not the noumena.  He thought it would be impossible to ever experience the actual desk.

I reject this very framework.  My argument is not that we actually see the noumena, I reject this type of model of perception altogether.  I don’t think the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena is a meaningful distinction.  I think trying to project an actual thing in itself (this is Nietzsche’s term) out there, as an objective being, is nonsensical. This does not mean that the desk does not exist, it just means that the desk is not a separate ontological category as my perception (the phenomena).

The Vedantic tradition, of which both Hinduism and Buddhism are part, offer the solution that says that all is the phenomena, that all of reality, is actually an illusion (maya).  That the world exists in mind.  This interpretation is dependent upon the subject-object distinction that Kant talked about.  It allows the phrase “the world is an illusion” to mean something (or at least to attempt to mean something).

But I view the problem differently.  And here, describing it is difficult because our very language (and possibly all language) is modeled on this metaphysical framework.  We say, for example, “I see the desk” (subject-object).  But there might be another way to describe it.  The physicality of the desk, myself, and the radiation interacting with both are part of a larger system (the universe, yes, but the room I’m in is sufficient).  There is a continuous physical connection between all of them.  The reality of any of them are indicated by the interaction, one specific example of which is perception.  That is, my perception is one kind of physical interaction among physical objects, even if it seems different from our point of view.

The problem comes in with subjectivity.  The subjective experience is a created phenomenon when a part of this system is self-reflective.  It simulates itself, and creates a small “strange loop” (this is Douglass Hofstadter’s term) and this creates the illusion.  But the illusion is not the desk (or the world in general).  The illusion is the separation (this may be like Zen non-duality, in fact).  The illusion is the concept of the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena.  In a strange (and imprecise) way, the illusion is the very phenomena itself (but that would still allow the subject-object ontology to be valid).

Remember when you said, above:

By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective.

Well, that to me is telling (assuming I’m interpreting you correctly).  Because becoming this “one” is where the illusion comes in.  I think this is what some philosophers mean when they argue that consciousness is an illusion (I’m looking at you, Dennett!).  It’s not that consciousness does not exist (it is a physical thing), but rather it’s that it creates an illusory separation from the rest of reality and an illusory unified self.  I am not sure, but it may have to do this by the very nature of how consciousness works (which is a mystery, still).  The illusion of your singular identity, a pattern out of chaos narrative if ever there is one (cf. Dimasio), creates the sense of a subject-object relationship with the rest of the universe (or at least the rest of the room). In reality, you are just a continuous part of that reality.

It’s tempting to flip Kant on his head and say that it is the phenomena which is the illusion (since it actually has no referent, since our simulation is imperfect and is not a faithful representation of the thing) and that the noumena is all we can see (because we are the noumena ourselves), but this does not work because it is equally dependent upon Kant’s same ontologically dualistic description.  Whether you look at Kant as he wanted or upside down, the same ontology is necessary, and it is this ontology which is at issue.  It fails for the same reason as Kant’s formulation does, just upside down.  Perhaps flipping it makes it more clear why his original concept fails, actually.

Kant, Vedanta, and other epistemological/ontological solutions to this problem seek to define the world as the illusion.  But it is, in fact, the separation (and thus the subject-object relationship) which is the illusion.  So it isn’t that the objective reality might exist but we may never experience it, rather it’s that reality (not subjective or objective) exists, and we cannot help but experience (some of) it.  We can’t not experience it because we are part of that reality.

At least, we can’t not experience it until the created loop of our subjectivity can no longer be physically maintained, because the organism which supports it falls apart.  So long as the physical (often biological) foundation (our bodies, or whatever computer which simulates something similar) upholds the subjective separation (subjective consciousness), we cannot help but experience the world.

In my framework, we replace Kant’s noumena, or the world “separated” from us, with the problem of resolution.  Rather than being dualistic, this is a monistic ontological solution which is left with problems of information transfer rather than ontology-bridging problems (that is what my MA thesis was about).  It’s not that we don’t see the real world, it’s that our (current) perceptual gear cannot perceive all existing information (the whole radiation spectrum, every level of detail at all sizes, etc).  For this, the solution is not that the other information does not exist or is an illusion, but rather that we need more perceptual tools to see them.  Technology, in other words.  Science and skepticism.

In the history of religion and philosophy, most metaphysical constructs have separated our (often “limited”) world from the ideal or heavenly world.  It may have started with Plato (at least philosophically), but it is pretty universal across cultures. Many materialistic responses have sought to simply reject the transcendent (logical positivism), rather than realize that it’s just not transcendent at all.  Many criticisms of this largely universal concept still hold onto, at least implicitly, the dualism that underpins the problem.

Once we realize that we create the illusion, merely by thinking (hence why Zen meditation is still worth pursuing, even if some of the religious associations and rituals still stick to it), we can start to realize that Kant’s phenomena/noumena distinction is not actually a real thing.  Then we can go on with our lives, actually living in a real world where words like “objective” and “subjective” are concepts which no longer have any meaning.  Then we can stop arguing about objective and subjective (relative) morality and truth, because those distinctions are no longer real either.
Wouldn’t that be something!


5 thoughts on “Kant, perception, and other things you probably don’t care about.

  1. “The word ‘illusion’ means, for me, an experience with no referent”

    Can you expand on that? Even the things we commonly refer to as “illusions” have causes. A person who hears the voice of god is not actually hearing god, but neither is nothing happening. Even if they are only imagining the voice, there are neurons firing, which are influenced by the heat in the room, the chemicals in the body, the ambient noise level, and tons of other stimuli. An “illusion,” using the common definition, is nothing more than, as you say “inexact perception.”

    It seems as though, under your framework, nothing qualifies as an illusion.

  2. Let’s take for example two different subjective experiences. One would be the desk, in front of me. The other would be a god of some kind. In each case there is a subjective simulation (with their specific attributes, whether vague or well defined), and each simulation has a corresponding physical process in the brain. That is, both are real insofar as they have a physical process which is responsible for the simulation itself.

    The desk, however, has a physical correspondence outside of my brain. It exists in the universe as more than a simulation process in my brain. The god (as far as I can tell) does not have existence outside of my brain. I can point to the desk, measure the desk, describe how it interacts with the room it’s in, and so forth. I cannot do this with a god (some people try to, but the anti-theist project is to demonstrate that such attempts always fail; the atheist project is simply to point out that those attempts are not convincing).

    So yes, the sentence you quoted is insufficiently clear. When I said “no referent” I meant a physical referent outside of the set of cognitive process which are the simulation itself. An illusion is a subjective concept which, while having a physical process in the brain (or many brains, for that matter), has no further corresponding referent in the world.

    Another way of saying it would be that if* the simulation is intended to point to something other than itself (and other simulations in other brains), and if that indication does not actually point to anything besides itself, then it is an illusion. The concept of god, in most theology, it supposed to indicate something besides itself, so the concept is an illusion.

    Of course, this leave abstract concepts in a strange place. Is, for example, justice an illusion or a real thing? That’s thornier, and beyond the scope of this post.

    * the “if” is there because somethings, such as emotions, are only intended to refer to themselves. In this case, they are not illusions.

  3. It seems to me that your definition of illusion is contingent on how a person interprets their experience. If someone hears a voice but doesn’t interpret it as coming from a god — in fact, recognizes that their brain sometimes generates the experience of hearing a voice and interprets their current experience in that way — is it still an illusion?

    You said “Another way of saying it would be that if the simulation is intended to point to something other than itself…” Intended by whom? Surely an experience is just an experience, without intent. Do you mean, “if an experience is interpreted as pointing to something other than itself”?

    I have further thoughts on what that means for things like emotions, but it can wait till we’ve clarified whether my “interpretation” framing matches the way you’re thinking.

  4. This answered some questions for me. I detest dualism but as you said logical positivism doesn’t address the issue either. This makes sense but then as wfenza and Ginny pointed out defining illusion is problematic. Consciousness is one of the weirdest things in existence (or do I just think that because I’m conscious?). Or rather it’s strange for us to study. I wonder how many ideas would click into place if we ever did figure it out. I think I’m babbling, though. Thank you for posting this. It’s food for thought.

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