Dec 4, 2012

Why We Never Truly Experience Reality

When I was little, my dad would sing an old Armenian song at holiday dinners that went something like this in English:
Your love is like the sun, it will burn me if I get too close. Admiring you is like watching the sunset, you have to enjoy it from a distance, always an ocean away in my view, always out of reach, always too dangerous to get close to and touch. Loving you is to watch you, being close to you will burn me instantly.
If my dad's song taught me anything, it was that love is always out of reach, only there for us to appreciate and enjoy from a distance.  If we replace love with reality, then the song still resonates with me.  What I mean is that reality or "truth" will always be out of reach of humans or will it? 

In order for us to experience reality we use our senses.  Our senses, however, in the process of measuring reality, create a new version of 'the truth' or 'Reality' that is a function of the limitations and characteristics of our senses and how the resulting signals are processed in our brains.  Our conscious experience then no longer resembles 'Reality'.  To illustrate further, a dog will have a completely different 'Reality' than humans.  Even within humans, a 6 year old African boy will have a completely different 'Reality' than an old Japanese woman ('Reality') neither of whom will ever truly experience 'Reality'.  This notion then would imply that experiencing reality would be impossible since we will always require our senses to measure and our brains to process reality and in doing so we create a new versions of 'the truth'.     

So now it looks more like this:
Reality + Senses = Reality 2.0

Reality 2.0 + Brain Processing/Mental State = Reality 3.0

Reality 3.0 + Symbolic language  = Reality 4.0

If recalling an experience from memory we even get another degree apart:

Reality 4.0 + Memory = Reality 5.0

This separation from reality is also true with realities that originate from within our own consciousness such as emotions.  We first have to feel these emotions and then use language to break them down to explain them to our selves while comparing them to previous similar emotions.  Each of these steps get us one degree away from 'Reality' into the symbolic territory.     

Now having established the notion of reality separation, let's look at an example:

What does a good Syrah wine from Santa Barbara taste like? Here is an sample description for a 2011 Thompson Vineyard Syrah:
Bright notes of berries, red plums and cassis are complemented by minerals, pepper, and earth in this pure, full-bodied wine. The finish is long and offers hints of tobacco and spice.
To understand what the description of wine above communicates, we have to have tasted all the individual tastes mentioned above before and recall it in memory.  However, the act of recalling a taste from memory adds another degree of separation:

Taste of (pepper+berries+red plums...) + human pallet = 

Taste 2.0 of (Pepper+berries+red plum...)

 Taste 2.0 of (Pepper+berries+red plums) + state of mind/mental processing = 

Taste 3.0 (Pepper+berries+red plum)

In order to understand the description we have to recall the tastes of all the fruits and spices above from memory
Taste 3.0 of (pepper + berries + red plums...) + Memory Recall = 

Taste 4.0 of (pepper+berries+red plum...)

Every time we symbolize one reality by referring to another symbol or representation we get another degree of separation called the Referencing factor:
Taste of wine = 

Taste 4.0 of (pepper+berries+red plums...) + Language + Referencing factor =

 6 degrees of separation

This example then suggests that attempting to comprehend what this wine tastes like from its description we get at least six degrees away from the true taste of this wine. 

The reality separation phenomenon is often inevitable since it's hard to have a first hand experience of everything.  However, the more we get away from 'Reality', we must understand that more distorted the versions of 'Reality' become that we consume and less reliable.  For example, we receive most of our news and form our understanding of the world from mainstream media outlets and often trust these outlets to tell us the 'truth'.  However, it's easy to imagine how disconnected and separated we are from the actual 'truth' of a story or an event being so removed from it and relying on various entities and processes to get the news to us.  Even if the experience is first hand, we have our own internal biases and emotional anxieties and ideologies that influence our mental processing of an event and distort the reality of it.  

The truth might indeed be forever hidden from us but we can decide how removed we want to be from it.  We have to decide if life is an infinite search for the ultimate truths or rather a journey through symbolic stories and delusions that though sometimes are comforting or beautiful, they get us far far from reality.  Information is liberating but only if it is the truth and not a distorted representation. 

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