A Short Piece Combining “On Thinking and Perceiving” and “Bridging the Kants”

Why Do We Think Bookcases Won’t Randomly Transform Into Butterflies?

Our confidence in the solidness of reality is more a product of perception than thought.

Unless we’re losing our minds, I’d wager most of us are fairly confident that the world around us is relatively “solid.” What I mean by this is that we tend to assume the tree in front of us won’t randomly transform into a dog, that we won’t blink and teleport a hundred miles away — you get the idea. Now, the universe of Quentin Meillassoux is much more interesting, but even “the speculative realists” have ways of explaining why our lived experience is relatively “solid” even if ontologically anything can happen for no reason at all (Quentin, for example, uses some tools from the mathematician Cantor). What about us? What is our foundation for thinking the world around us is relatively stable?

When we think about this question, we can quickly get existentially horrified. Who do we think we are? To trust that our subjective experience of the world is reliable? Our thoughts are all over the place! One second we’re thinking about breakfast, the next we’re pondering why anime is so awesome, and then we’re looking at our keyboard. Einstein argued light is the fastest speed in the universe, but I don’t know: thought is pretty fricking fast.

So why are we so sure the world out there is real or that it won’t change on us without warning? Well, I think it’s because from “lived experience,” we subconsciously and/or consciously erect our sense of solidness not upon “thought” but upon “perception.” And the problem with perception isn’t so much “subjectivity” as it is “limitedness.”

To use language from “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, the foundation for our “confidence” (or “practical certainty”) in our world (the idea that our cat won’t randomly turn into a bird, that the ground below our feet won’t crack open, etc.) is not primarily a result of our thinking about life. Rather, it is primarily a result of our perception about life. It seems like our understanding of the world around us is primarily a result of thinking, because thinking so quickly and instantly devours perception the moment perception is considered. Look at your hand. Is that your hand? And, bam, your thinking just consumed your perception (isn’t thinking fast?). It’s hard to even glimpse the world around us without it instantly becoming something thought.

Also, problematically, it’s impossible for us to consider how our perception grounds our confidence in life without instantly transforming that consideration into a thought. Hence, it seems as if subjectivity is always “filtering” our experience of the world in such a way that we cannot trust our experience. To stress the earlier point: just paying attention to what it’s like to think, this is not unreasonable: thoughts associate instantly into unrelated thoughts, consider contradictions and errors like gospel, and so on. But though subjectivity has something to do with perception (in a sense), it’s more so that subjectivity has something to do with thought while (individual) limitation has more to do with perception.

The mind is subjective, and so thought can be more associated with the mind than with the brain. Perception though has more to do with the brain, and the creatures throughout the animal kingdom have a wide array of perceptive differences (dolphins can use echolocation; certain shrimp have wider color spectrums; etc.). That said, both perception and thinking are “incomplete,” but that does not mean they are wrong. The fact I subjectively view a rock or hear a point of view, it does not follow that my view or what I hear are entirely wrong. Even if I lack the whole color spectrum to see all the colors around a rainbow, it does not follow that the colors I do see do not exist or are unrelated to the subject of my focus.

So, with this in mind, we can start to understand why it’s “reasonable” to believe the world around us will maintain its relative level of solidness. For even though my thought about the bookcase in front of me can instantly change into a thought about a butterfly, my perception of the bookcase does not instantly transform into a perception of a butterfly. To perceive a butterfly instead of the bookcase, I have to move my head, but if I do that, I have “reason to think” that the reason I’m now perceiving a butterfly is because “I turned my head.” I do not have reason to think that I am now perceiving a butterfly because the fundamental nature of the universe is unstable.

Now, I cannot perceive the bookcase and also see the wall behind it: my perception is indeed limited. But here’s the trick: I have reason to think why I cannot perceive the wall behind the bookcase (I mean, the bookcase is in front of it). It’s hardly any different from the idea that I need to turn my head to see a butterfly: the fact my perception is limited by spacetime and my biology does not mean what I can perceive is limited in unknowable and unexplainable ways (I can explain why my perception is limited). The subjectivity of my mind, however, is much more mysterious, and though that doesn’t mean it’s totally unknowable, it does mean that any confidence I erect on the foundation of my subjectivity will not be “as strong” as confidence I erect upon perception. And my sense of solidness in the world is primarily erected upon perception.

Yes, my brain is influenced by my mind and my mind my brain, and so we can’t be “certain” that my perception of the bookcase is entirely accurate, but there is good reason to be “confident.” Approaching this topic from another angle might help: do we think a squirrel’s experience of a tree is reliable? Surely a squirrel has less mind and thinks less than humans (not to make a hierarchy): does that mean a squirrel is as likely to be misled by his or her subjectivity as a human or less likely? Do we think the fact animals operate more according to instincts, experiences, and perceptions than humans make their world more reliably solid or less? Paradoxically, the squirrel might have more “reason to be” confident that his or her world is “like” the real world than even we do. Perhaps that’s the price for having a mind…

When we stop thinking and just perceive, we are more like a squirrel than a person, and it is upon our “animalistic” experience in these instances that we erect our confidence in the solidness of our world. It is our humanness, which often seems to be an advantage, that makes us less sure that the universe around us will be there tomorrow, while the moments in which we are more like animals are the moments that help us believe the sun will still be there to shine.

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