18. De-realizing the World

     Though experience is always a function of two variables-- the world and the self, the objective and the subjective-- the mind's tendency is to ignore or discount the subjective aspects and origins of cognition. Whether knowledge is perceptual, scientific, ideological or religious, one likes to think that the world simply is as one believes or experiences it to be. It is tempting to disown epistemic participation by claiming that one's experience is driven by reality, a direct access to the objective variable. Naturally, one doesn't then dwell on perception or belief, but rather eschews language smacking of subjectivity, pointing instead "directly" to a supposedly objective realm. Pointing to the world effectively directs our own and others' attention away from the mind's subjective input to experience. Focussing on someone else's behavior, for instance, may mask one's own intentions and present one's actions simply as appropriate responses to the other or to the situation. The pretence to objectivity may yield a short-term gain in control of the other, but forfeits the power we have as subjective beings to shape our own experience and behaviour.

     Since it is the seeming independence of the world from mind that defines it as real, we tend to objectify everything about which we need to feel certain. We create a world of values, perceived to be independent of us, in which to discriminate as we do among physical objects. If knowledge, attitudes and beliefs are to be held as meaningful, they must refer to the possibilities of action within domains of vital concern to the organism. Knowledge or belief about imaginary realms, on which no action could be taken, is but fantasy. And action, if it is be justified, must seem driven by objective necessity. We want to feel compelled to do what we do by forces or reasons outside us, beyond our control, more substantial than mere whim or subjective and arbitrary intention. If the perceptual world is to be experienced as real, if cognition is to have meaning, if belief is to be valid, and if behavior is to be justified, the dependence of experience, knowledge, belief and action on subjective mind must be denied. And the denial itself must be denied. Reality must have no antecedent, no cause in the mind, but must spring immaculately into existence unhampered by awareness or acknowledgement of mental procreation.

     This virgin birth of reality manifests in various forms and levels of realism. We are born realists, and realism as a philosophy recapitulates the fundamental outward orientation of the brain. The brain automatically factors out subjective aspects of its input precisely in order to leave an objectified picture of the world. For instance, changes on the retina due to movements of the eyes or head are not credited to objects, which continue to appear as stable entities. This is because of the need to represent the environment in a way that facilitates choice and action within it. As the brain is an organ of survival, its focus is toward an unambiguous assessment of the options upon which survival depends. It therefore leans naturally toward absolutes.

     Choice is more difficult in a relativized universe. And yet there is a point at which programmed behaviour breaks down, despite its unambiguity, no longer adequate to the complexity of the situation. The mind may long for the security and certainty of reality or truth. But embracing the mere experience of realness, however comfortable, may be illusory and far from secure.

     While the world has a real look to it, the subjectively conscious mind suspects that this appearance is somehow a product of its own looking, and that seeing with real-colored glasses on can be less than reliable as a guide to what is-- not only in the details, but in the large. The question of the status of experience is problematic in both Eastern and Western philosophy. Sages of both hemispheres have always told us that the apparent reality of the world is illusory.

     Many biologists today feel uncomfortable with the idea that evolution has a direction. Some scientists in contrast, in the new fields of complexity and self-organizing adaptive systems, perceive that there is an inherent direction of evolution in such systems toward increasing complexity. I would add that an increase in complexity in a cognitive system implies an increase in objectivity as well. Mind represents the world to itself, initially for its limited and parochial purposes. Its primary responsibility is to map the world in whatever ways have selective value in survival. Its cognitive programs are designed for advantage, not for truth. The mind therefore treats its cognitive beliefs as true and real, in order to be the better bound by them. As the representation becomes increasingly competent as a tool of survival, it also becomes increasingly comprehensive, global, abstract, and free floating-- that is, disengaged from particular mechanisms. At this secondary level, the mind's responsibility is to be flexible enough to change its programs, allowing the organism to adapt to changes in the environment.

     Subjective consciousness is a power of the mind to transcend and change its own programming. At the cutting edge of this development, the human mind has abstracted and idealized the drift toward objectivity. One dimension of that idealization is science, another is the quest for spiritual freedom from the contingency of experience. In both cases, mind seeks to free itself from illusion, and to transcend the identified self-interest which is the axiom of cognition in an organism that is a product of natural selection. Truth begins as a strategy in the game of survival. The game itself, of natural selection, continues to disturb life and cause it to adjust, complicate and expand its capabilities of representation, responding with ever greater subtlety to the world. The movement toward objectivity is paid for with an overhead of complexity, separate selfhood, and self-consciousness. Once its picture of the world is complete enough to include itself, mind is able to model its situation and to grasp that it lives in a context of illusion. This awareness is the price to be paid for the privilege of self-conscious existence. Mind becomes capable of touching truth, even though it was designed merely for advantage.

     In de-realizing the world, as in splitting the atom, an energy, or potential, is released and at the disposal of the subject. This energy was formerly locked within the bond between experience and behavior, in an atom of compulsive response. As experience is subjectified, the power given to the world to determine the flow of one's mental-emotional processes is taken back within the psyche and experienced as conscious choice. All experience then takes place "in quotes", with the proviso that it can be considered a subjective artifact rather than a reality "out there". The little man takes himself off automatic pilot and resumes personal responsibility for interpreting his instrument panel and choosing a course of action. It is only the belief in the external significance of events that compels particular response. In questioning such beliefs, we find the freedom to act rather than merely react.