To Begin With, It’s In The Mind

January 19, 2009

[First published January 25, 2006] “Why can’t they see this?” is an often expressed frustration of conservatives over many liberal reporters and editors not seeing their liberal bias, but the question goes beyond this. Why didn’t the CIA and FBI connect the dots and anticipate 9/11? Why was the insurrection of the Sunnis and their coalition with foreign terrorists not anticipated before our military victory? Why is it so hard to understand the need for spying on calls to terrorist organizations by American citizens? And so on.

Such questions assume that the real world out there is what we perceive. But it is not. What we believe reality to be is our painting. We are the artists. We mix the colors, draw the lines, fix the focus, and achieve the artistic balance. Reality disciplines our painting, of course; it is our starting point. As the artist, we add here, leave out there; substitute color, simplify; and provide this reality with a point, a theme, and a center of interest. We produce a thousand such paintings every moment. With unconscious artistry, each is a personal statement; each is individualistic.

Now, Perception is what we hear, see, taste, smell, and feel (touch). Most people realize that their perception of things can be wrong, that they may be mistaken. We all have had disagreements with others on what we saw or heard. And we have heard of eyewitnesses who widely disagree over the facts of a crime or accident. Some teachers who wish to dramatically illustrate such disagreement have staged mock fights or holdups in a classroom. A masked man rushes in, pointing a weapon at the teacher, and demands his wallet; and with it hastily exits, leaving the class stunned. Then each member of the class is asked to write down what he saw and heard. Their versions usually differ widely.

But, of course, such are rapidly changing situations in which careful observation is difficult. Surely, one might think, if there were time to study a situation or event, as do intelligence analysts and academics, one would perceive it as others do. This is easy enough to test. Ask any two people to describe a furnished room, or a specific car. Then compare. We would find many similarities, but we should also find some important and interesting differences. Sometimes such differences result from error, inattentiveness. However, there is something more fundamental. Even analysts and attentive reporters often see things differently. And each can be correct.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, people may have different vantage points and their visual perspectives thus will differ. A cylinder viewed from above will appear round and flat; from the side a rectangle slightly rounded at the top and bottom if long enough; and from an angle, it will appear the cylinder it is.

But people can compare or change perspectives. Were this all, perception would not be so individualistic. The second reason for different perceptions is more fundamental. We endow what we sense with meaning. The outside world is an amorphous blend of interwoven colors, lights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. We make sense of this complex by carving it into different concepts, such as table, chair, terrorist, democracy, Iran. Learning a language is part of learning to perceive the world, and each language is a slightly or vastly different system of perceptions.

We also bestow this reality with value. Thus, what we perceive becomes good or bad, repulsive or attractive, dangerous or safe. We may see terrorists as freedom fighters, the U.S. as imperialist, Iran as evil, and Israel as a threatened democracy.

Cultures, and to a lesser but similar extent, ideologies (including theologies) are systems of meanings laid onto reality; to become acculturated and an ideologue is to learn the language through which a person gives the world unique shape and evaluation. A clear example of this is a cross, which to a Christian signifies the death of Jesus for mankind as well as the whole complex of values and beliefs bound up in the religion. Yet, to non-Christian cultures a cross may be meaningless, simply two pieces of wood connected at right angles, or a sign of infidels.

Besides varying perspectives and meanings, a third reason for different perceptions is that people have unique experiences and learning capacities, even when they share the same culture and ideology. Each person has his own background. No two people learn alike. Moreover, people have different occupations, and each occupation emphasizes and ignores different aspects of reality. Simply by virtue of their separate occupational interests, philosopher, priest, engineer, union worker, and lawyer will perceive the world differently.

Two people may physically see the same thing from the same perspective, therefore, but each through their diverse languages, evaluations, experience, and occupations, may perceive it differently and endow it with their own personal meaning. Dissimilar perspective, meaning, and experience together explain why our perception will often differ radically from others, or that between CIA and DOD analysts will sharply differ.
There is yet an even more basic reason for differing perceptions, however. What we sense is unconsciously transformed within our mental field in order to maintain a psychological balance. This mental process is familiar. People often perceive what they want to perceive, what they ardently hope to see. Their minds go to great pains to extract from the world that which they project onto it. People thus tend to see things consistent with their beliefs. If we believe Bush is bad, we will tend to see his failings. If we like Hilary Clinton, we tend to see her as good. Moreover, as to events, some people are natural optimists, always seeing sunshine; others are pessimists, seeing storm clouds instead.

Our perception is thus the result of a complex transformation of amorphous sensory stimuli. At various stages our personal experience, beliefs, and character affect what we perceive.

This process of perception may be described in a way to show its importance people being free. Consider that things outside our mental field have different powers to make us perceive them. I like to use the examples of a thunderclap, a screaming baby, or a dripping faucet late at night. Each has a different degree of strength, but for most of us, each has the power to force itself on our perception. Even were we busily occupied with something of great interest, a thunderclap (or an earthquake, or smell of fire, or a scream) will break through, making us perceive it. However, the rustlings of leaves, a humming in the background, or a low, monotonous voice, are weak. We may have to “reach out” to hear them. Concentrate on something and we no longer perceive them.

Independent of the outside world’s powers to force our perception, we have power to impose a perception on reality. We can hallucinate. We can magnify some things such that we perceive them in spite of what else is happening. Think of the whisper of one’s name.

What we perceive in reality is a balance between these two sets of powers, one the outside world’s power to force us to perceive specific things, and the second our power to impose a certain perception on the world. This is the most basic opposition, the most basic conflict. Its outcome is what we perceive reality to be.

This balance of our mental field changes with our interest and concentration. Its shape and extension will depend on our personality and experience. And, of course, our culture and ideology. No wonder, then, that we are likely to perceive things differently from each other. Our perception is subjective and personal. Reality does not draw its picture on a clean slate in our minds. Nor are our minds a passive movie screen on which sensory stimuli impact, to create a moving picture of the world. Rather, our minds are an active agent of perception, creating and transforming reality, while at the same time being disciplined and sometimes dominated by it.

What I have said so far can lead to several kinds of misunderstanding that I will clarify.

Misunderstanding 1: “There is no real truth — reality is relative.”

To say perception is subjective is not to deny that we can have true perception. Through trial and error, we can converge on a reality sufficiently true for us to survive and prosper. Consider that we cannot long survive driving a car unless we have a reliable perception of the road, other cars, driving conditions, and so on.

Science is the best method humanity has developed for distilling truth from our subjectivity, and there is no doubt that this truth has been sufficiently precise to aid us in understanding and coping with our environment.

Misunderstanding 2: “We only perceive what we want to perceive.”

While we do tend to perceive things consistent with our desires and beliefs, for the normal person this tendency is limited by what in fact exists. While we may tend to see a girl we do not like as hostile or negative, we will still perceive the specific girl, what she is wearing, doing, saying. Nor will we perceive her if she is not there, unless our senses have been distorted by drugs or alcohol. To understand perception as subjective is to comprehend that we color, select, and differentiate the world through our mental field, not that we generally create a wholly new world.

Misunderstanding 3: “There is one true perception.”

Two people may perceive reality differently and both may be right. They are simply viewing the same thing from different perspectives and each emphasizing a different aspect. Blind men feeling different parts of an elephant may each believe they are correct and the others wrong about their perception. Yet, all can be correct; all can have a different part of the truth.

Misunderstanding 4: “If there is agreement on the physical facts of an event or object, perceptions will agree.”

Here is a source of much confusion about perception and its subjectivity. A European intellectual and an American conservative can agree on the physical facts of Iran’s nuclear development, but to each this will have also intense and opposing complexes of meaning making their perceptions of it different in quality.

The problem here is that there are two aspects of a sensory fact: its physical nature, with which natural science has been most concerned and about which people can most easily establish agreement; and its endowed meaning. Now, meaning is a matter of culture, of ideology, of personal experience. Among Americans in a committee meeting, a participant who pleasantly questions the chairman, disagrees with the others, and presents his own views may well be seen as independent minded and making a contribution. Among Japanese, such a participant might be perceived as rude and destructive of consensus. A Republican might see a new government regulation what should be on food labels as another unnecessary intervention in business of big, bureaucratic government; a Democrat may see this as a compassionate attempt to help people make decisions about buying and eating food.

Misunderstanding 5: “We are the victims of our perception.”

This is the belief that we cannot help what we perceive and therefore cannot be blamed if we act on it. That is, we cannot censure a Marxist (communist) for his view of the world, or a Catholic, or a Frenchman. I disagree. To point out the subjectivity of perception is not to excuse one for allowing a particular perspective to dominate. The best test of one’s perception is checking the facts, comparing meanings, and keeping an open mind on the possibility of misperception. And the most important corrective to being a victim of perception is that we realize its subjectivity, our tendency to see things our way. This helps avoid a belief in one’s infallibility, a disease of the mind intrinsic to many political movements and religions.

Given all this, what can we do as a society to minimize or compensate for misperception? Maximize freedom, openness, and political transparency. That is, promote liberal democracy. In this way, different perceptions, and at their most basic, competing cultures and ideologies, contest against each other. Over the long run, those that best fit reality will win, as they do in natural science. You might say that this is an evolutionary challenge and response theory of perception.