On a sunny winter morning several years ago, I was riding with a friend through some winding mountain roads. Coming around a hairpin turn, we hit a patch of black ice, went into a tailspin, slid across the opposite lane, and took out a half-dozen or so fence posts before the trunk of a towering pine tree brought our wild skate to a thudding halt.
The good news is that—though the car was totaled—neither I nor my friend (who had been driving) was seriously injured. It just took a couple weeks for my nervous system to recalibrate, and for the minor scrapes and bruises to fully heal. Not a pleasant experience, for sure, but nevertheless an interesting one (at least in retrospect).
Perceptual Shifts: Time Dilation, etc.
What I recall most vividly about this mountain-road mishap are the dramatic perceptual shifts that occurred during that five-to-ten second period: from the start of the slide to when we lodged against the foot of the tree. Most noticeable was the sense of time being dramatically dilated—everything slowing down.
Interwoven with the slowness was a deep silence and strange sense of calm. The sounds of the car crushing the fence posts—one after another—seemed soft and distant. Though my heart was racing and my entire body-mind on high alert, a vivid precise spaciousness pervaded the whole experience.
My visual perception plugged fully into some kind of meta-calculating function—which immediately understood the evolving trajectory of the car, the objects in its path, the likely outcome of each impact, and the optimal positioning of the body (to maximize safety) in each of those moments.
I knew intuitively to brace softly for the fence posts, and strongly for the final impact with the tree—to best protect my body’s vital internal organs. It wasn’t that I was intentionally thinking about these things, so much as a larger Intelligence had emerged to take full (and sublimely skillful) charge of the situation.
Perception & Evolution
Anyway, this kind of experience—viz. of dramatic perceptual shifts experienced during emergency situations—is relatively common. What brought it to mind again today was listening to an interesting TED talk by psychologist Donald Hoffman, titled Do we see reality as it is?
In this talk, Mr. Hoffman presents an overview of the hypothesis that he works out more completely in his book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. (For an intermediate-length version of the same, see the essay, Is Reality Real?: How Evolution Blinds Us to the Truth About the World.)
Since the central focus of Mr. Hoffman’s inquiry is perception—and in particular which types of perception are most beneficial, in the sense of maximizing the probability of physical survival—my experience of perceptual shifts in a potentially life-threatening situation came to mind.
Theories Of Perception
It can be quite interesting to explore all the various theories of perception that psychologists and neuroscientists have developed over the years, decades and centuries. I’ve done a bit of this myself, highlighting what I’ve learned in these two essays:
Mr. Hoffman poses a series of questions about the relationship between human sensory organs, the environment external to the body, and conscious experience. These are questions that are explored also within nondual spiritual traditions—so there’s potential for some interesting conversations.
In Search Of A Common Language
But to avoid talking apples-and-oranges—aka being like the proverbial ships passing in the night—we would need first to be clear about our respective definitions.
Practitioners of Advaita Vedanta (and other nondual traditions) tend, for instance, to reserve the word “reality” as a pointer to the non-phenomenal ground of being—the “dimension” of experience utterly devoid of measurable characteristics such as shape, size, color, etc.
But when Mr. Hoffman asks the question—Do we see reality as it is?—the word “reality” refers (as far as I can tell) to worldly phenomena: to measurable objects and events, unfolding within the space-time fabric of the so-called external world.
The heart of a nondual inquiry is looking deeply for the ultimate referent of the word “I”—and being clear about what the “I” refers to each time that we say it. We discover that the most essential “I” is no-thing at all—but rather the non-phenomenal Awareness to which all phenomena appear.
When Mr. Hoffman uses the words “we” or “I” he seems generally to be referring to an individual human body-mind, as the presumed perceiver of an external environment—and the entity of interest in evolutionary theory (i.e. the “me” whose survival is at issue within the evolutionary narrative).
Mr. Hoffman’s use of the phrase “reality as it is” is used to designate a purely representational theory of perception—which assumes sense organs can (at least potentially) function more-or-less like windows that provide a fully transparent view of the objects and events happening on the other side of the sense-organ windowpane.
When I hear the phrase “reality as it is,” it brings to mind instead Tulky Urgyen Rinpoche’s two-volume book As It Is—which presents the Dzogchen view of nondual spiritual inquiry. In this context, “reality as it is” is Buddha-Nature, as well as the “basic space of phenomena”—i.e. the non-phenomena field of Pure Awareness within which phenomena arise, abide, and dissolve. And seeing phenomenal appearances “as they are” means understanding them as emanations not-separate from this ground of being.
The point is that the way Mr. Hoffman defines these terms is quite different from how they are typically defined within the context of nondual spiritual inquiry. And there is no inherent problem with this. But before we can engage in meaningful conversation, we’ll need to account for these differences and agree on a common language—or make the necessary translations
Accuracy v. Fitness
With his terms thus defined, Mr. Hoffman challenges a basic assumption of evolutionary science, namely that “accurate perceptions are fitter perceptions,” i.e. that having a fully transparent view of the objects/events of the external view maximizes the potential for survival. Notice that the definition of “accuracy,” in this context, is situated firmly within a representational theory of perception.
To the question—Does natural selection favor seeing reality as it is?—Mr. Hoffman gives the answer: no. What he proposes instead is that natural selection favors perceptions which are “fit”—by which he means most appropriate to the given context. Organisms that perceive what’s most relevant to their survival, tend to survive better than those that perceive in a more wholistic, transparent, uncensored way.
While all of this makes sense to me, here’s the thing: How many people (who’ve considered the issue carefully) would actually defend a naively representational theory of perception? My sense is that, upon reflection, it becomes pretty clear that human perception does not operate in the mode of a true mirror, or a camera snapshot. It’s much more complex and interactive than that.
The human body-mind isn’t the equivalent of a roving camera or drone, randomly snapping photos or making sound-recordings of its surrounding environment, utterly free of tendencies or preferences. Instead, bodies, minds and worlds arise interdependently—which contradicts a purely representational theory of perception.
The perceptual shifts that I experienced during the car accident (as described above) are just one of a gazillion examples of this. In that instance, what came to the forefront of my perceptual field were a very limited range of objects—namely, those that provided the most vitally important information, with a precision made possible by a radically stretched temporal fabric.
Stories are told of Albert Einstein becoming so involved in a physics thought-experiment that he loses track of the time of day, and puts on sunglasses to go outside at night. And we can imagine Shakespeare so intent upon composing a sonnet that he clumsily runs into a table that’s “in plain sight.”
Or consider tennis players in battle with one another to determine who advances to the next round of a tournament: a straight-up “survival of the fittest” scenario. What the players perceive, moment by moment, is highly conditioned by the preferences installed via many years of training. They see the court, the net, that ball and their opponent. Ask them after the match what color the flowers were in the court-side gardens, and they’re unlikely to be able to answer.
In each of these scenarios, the scientist, poet or tennis player is perceiving what is relevant to them only—rather than the entire perceptual field. There’s a massive amount of filtering and organizing of raw sensory data—prior to the arising of sensory experience. What “makes the cut” depends upon our conscious or subconscious preferences and priorities.
Skin & Karmic Vision
In the same way that our skin functions as a semipermeable boundary, so it is with all the sense organs. What is allowed into the territory of a given body or mind depends, once again, upon that body or mind’s preferences—upon its immigration policy, if you will.
We might even say that the very existence of a seemingly separate entity depends upon the filtering mechanisms of perception/cognition. This constitutes what in Buddhism is referred to as the being’s “karmic vision.”
If there were no such filtering happening, there would be no boundary between the entity and its surrounding environment—and it would cease to exist as a (relatively) separate living being. A river that floods its banks entirely becomes indistinguishable from the field it was traveling through.
All this makes me wonder if Mr. Hoffman’s hypothesis isn’t a bit of a straw-man argument?
To the extent that “fitness” means acknowledging that (seemingly) individual organisms do not function in a vacuum—and that their perceptions do not emerge from an Archimedean point wholly unaffected by the surrounding environment—then of course it’s “fitness” more than “seeing reality as it is” (qua the theory of window-like perception) that’s going to be helpful in perpetuating the survival of the organism. How could it be otherwise?
Mr. Hoffman suggests an interesting analogy to describe the relationship between perceptual objects and “reality as it is” (i.e. what’s “really out there” behind the perceived/conceived images).
Perceptions, he suggests, are a bit like the icons on a computer desktop. Each icon represents a file or application—but the files and applications are quite distinct from the icons themselves. The icons are simply a convenient user interface. They allow us to access and manipulate the files—even though their perceptual qualities are radically distinct from the perceptual qualities of the files themselves.
Similarly, the human perceptual/cognitive system creates “hacks” as shortcuts that enhance fitness, i.e. increase the odds of our physical survival. As Mr. Hoffman puts it, perceived objects are “an interface that hides reality and guides adaptive behavior.”
Instead of perceiving the objects and events of our environment directly—in all their detail and with each object/event granted equal valence—we operate within the realm of user-friendly representations that increase our chances of successful navigation.
In this complex algorithm of preferences, it’s to the body’s evolutionary advantage to not grant equal valence to all sensory inputs—but rather to filter, censor and select in a way that privileges the information most relevant to an optimal outcome in the current situation.
Red Tomato & Rorschach
At the start of his TED-talk, Mr. Hoffman invites the members of the audience to imagine seeing a red tomato about a meter away—then imagine closing their eyes, so the red tomato is no longer appearing. Then he asks: Is there still a red tomato a meter away, even though you’re not currently perceiving it?
This harkens back to Bishop Berkeley famously wondering: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Most of us would agree that it’s quite reasonable to infer that our friend sitting right next to us would continue to perceive the red tomato—assuming their eyes remained open—even when tomato-image was no longer appearing to us (with eyes closed). In other words, we assume the tomato’s objective existence does not depend upon our perceiving it.
But what if—just for fun—we replaced the red tomato with the abstract ink-blot pattern associated with the Rorschach Test? If what I “saw” in the ink-blot pattern were, say, a butterfly—and what my friend “saw” in the ink-blot pattern were, say, a pair of whirling dervishes—how does that change the answer to the question?
When I close my eyes, I no longer see the ink-blot-qua-butterfly. And what my friend sees is the ink-blot-qua-whirling-dervishes. So has the ink-blot-qua-butterfly disappeared, or not?
Translations & Preferences
But let’s return now to our computer analogy, in which each perception is akin to an icon on our computer’s desktop. How exactly these icons appear—e.g. their position, shape, color, etc.—has to do at least in part with how we’ve set the computer’s preferences.
The translation—by our sense organs and attendant cognitive functions—of sensory impulses into subjective conscious experience is just as varied and imprecise as is the translation of a French, Spanish or Chinese text into English. The translator’s habits and preferences definitely play role in how exactly Chinese characters (or French or Spanish words) are rendered into English. And the same is true, presumably, for the translation of a near-infinite array of raw sensory data into the specifics of conscious sensory experience.
And this begs the question: How are such preferences originally set, and how are they modified?
Choosing The “Me” That Our Preferences Reproduce
We might consider, also, that one aspect of setting our preferences is designating which “me” we’re choosing to reproduce. Is it the physical body’s survival that we’re most concerned about? Or some aspect of our mind-constructed personal identity?
The answers to such questions will affect our hierarchy of preferences—which influence the construction of perceptual experience.
The bottom line is that what appears on our perceptual screen (i.e. our body-mind-world phenomenal experience) depends upon how we’ve set our entity- (or identity) reproducing preferences. Perception is constructed, and always relative to our preferences.
Mr. Hoffman ends his talk with the stark proclamation that: “Perception is not about seeing truth, it’s about having kids.” But perhaps this is only true so long as our preferences are set to privilege the survival of an individual organism, above all else.
Might it be possible to set our preferences to privilege the survival of entire ecosystems, cultures or planets—rather than individual organisms? Or set our preferences to privilege a body-mind “me” optimally situated to discover its True Nature: the non-phenomenal Reality of Pure Awareness?
Mr. Hoffman asks us to consider the relationship between our brain and our conscious experiences. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. Quoting Aldous Huxley, he references the “great mystery” of how consciousness can come about as the result of the “irritation of nerve tissue”—like a Genie suddenly appearing out of Aladdin’s lamp.
Isn’t it amazing that non-material consciousness arises out of the material interactions of neural tissue?! How does this happen?
Now one might argue this to be more-or-less equivalent to the child at the magic show asking: How does the lady survive being sawed in half? Because our initial assumptions are faulty, there will never be a satisfying answer to this question. There is no How because the assumed event has never actually happened.
Perhaps the correlation between neural activity and conscious experience has to do with them emanating simultaneously from a shared source (namely, transpersonal Consciousness)? This is an alternative hypothesis that may yield some interesting and perhaps more fruitful results.
Perceiver & Perceived
Anyway, lots of food for thought here—but good to notice along the way that most of what is being described by Mr. Hoffman belongs to the “perceived” category. Worldly objects/activities, human bodies, the content of human minds, brains and neurons alike …. are all observed.
His hypothesis, in a nutshell, is that:
Perception is not a window on objective reality. It is an interface that hides objective reality behind a veil of helpful icons.
But the question that Mr. Hoffman chooses not to explicitly address (at least in the TED-talk) is who or what is the final perceiver? There’s some vague assumption that it’s “me” who’s doing the perceiving, and this “me” is an individual sentient being, equipped with sensory organs. Are the sensory organs themselves the perceivers? Is the presumably individual mind the perceiver?
The suggestion of nondual spiritual inquiry is that non-local non-phenomenal transpersonal Pure Awareness is the final (and only real) perceiver. This is an “I” that has no fears regarding “survival of the fittest.” It is an “I” within which space, time and evolutionary cycles arise and dissolve. It is the most intimate subjective reality that is (or so the masters tell us) simultaneously the essence of objective reality. It is the Awareness that is perceiving and understanding these words, right now 🙂 .