The Unknower And The Unknown


What Is Perception?

What does it mean to perceive?

All of language is metaphorical. The word "perception" is a metaphor. The meaning of its Latin root is "to take something through something else". But that doesn't capture the sense that I have of it. To me the sense of it is to be struck by something, like a catcher catching a pitch, or like Newton clunked by an apple.

Note that the idea does not include knowing that you have perceived. We often perceive things without consciously realizing it. Driving a car is a common example — we unthinkingly react to the curves of the road, cars around us, traffic lights, and so on.

But both of these ideas of the word take it for granted that there is an agent that is the recipient of the perception, that there is someone the perception happens to, someone who is doing the perceiving. Like the apple hitting Newton's head, sensory data are thought to strike the sensory apparatus — light strikes the retina, sound waves strike the ear drum, and so on. We think of perception as being like that — things become known by striking the knower, or "occurring to" the knower. What is this knower?

This is the problem of the knower and the known.

The meaning of the word "perception" metaphorically requires a perceiver, a subject, an agent, a knower. An apple can't hit Newton on the head if Newton isn't there. But let's pose a different metaphor for "perception". Suppose perception is like water freezing. If you think of perception that way, then a perceptual event is not like something striking something but more like a changing of the state of something. In this sense, no knower is required at all.

Or suppose yet another metaphor. Suppose perception is like a wave. Then a perceptual event is like a change of direction.

"But," you may think, "perception really is like something striking the sensory organ!"

This compels one to ask, What does it mean for one thing to be "like" another? How can you know whether perception is more like something striking something or more like something changing state?

What you want to know is whether A or B is more like X. But things are not like other things in any other sense than as we think. Thus, the likeness, the similarity, of one thing to another thing cannot be discovered, it can only be thought.

For example, consider this question: Is an apple more like a baseball or a banana? In shape and size it is very like a baseball. But in dietary and biological terms, it is much more like a banana. Which comparison is more "true"? Neither, of course. It all depends on the context. The context in which the comparison is made determines which characteristics of the things being compared are more relevant.

Or again, is snow more like rain that it is like powder? Is a computer more like a brain or more like a machine? Is perception more like striking or more like changing?

There is no necessary reason to say that perception is more like striking than like changing. Next you may wonder, "But what is it that is changing? That thing is the knower, isn't it?"

Consider hearing. Compression waves of air strike the eardrum causing it to vibrate. In turn, the vibration of the eardrum sets in motion a series of movements and reactions, and this results in a perception. One way to describe what has happened is that the air is striking the eardrum — thus, the eardrum defines the border of the person, the knower. But that would also entail that the air is what is being known by the knower, which is not what we're after. For what is being perceived is not the air but the state of the air — its vibration. The thing that is changing state here we call "energy". The energy of the airwaves becomes the energy of the eardrum vibrations, the energy of the bones of the middle ear moving, the energy of the fluid vibrations in the inner ear, and so on. The energy is passing through these different media. The energy keeps changing media, and these kinds of changes in these particular media are called "hearing". A perceptual event has occurred: I heard a sound.

Next, you may object "But I have heard a sound. I feel there really is a me here who is the knower."

Now this is the interesting thing: this idea that "I am here" is just a thought.

What Is Thought?

Is thinking more like perceiving or more like doing? In light of the analysis above, we don't want to say that thinking is like perceiving because we want thinking to be evidence of a knower who does the perceiving. That is, what we're after is to show that perceiving is more like striking than like changing, and we need a knower to show that, and we need a thinker to show there's a knower. So thinking must be like doing — because to do something, a doer is required.

Alas, doing falls to the same analysis as perceiving. For what is doing but energy changing media and matter changing direction?

Thus, whether you think that thinking is something you do, as "I am thinking", or something that you perceive, as in "I have a thought" or "It occurs to me", there is no need to say a thinker is required.

Thus, if we think of perception in this other way, no perceiver, no knower, is required for a perception to occur, just as there need be no fish in the water for the water to freeze.

Yet we have advanced no argument that this other way of thinking about perception is more true.

What Is True?

Which brings us back to an earlier point: whether A or B is more like X is merely a matter of thought. That is, truth is only a thought. Truth is a thought about a relation between something and an opinion about that something. Let's say the opinion is that the thing in question is an apple. Is that opinion true? This is a metaphorical question, for the answer is "yes" if the thing is more like an apple than it is like any non-apple thing. But to decide whether it's more like an apple or another thing you have to have a context of comparison.

Suppose I showed you an apple, marked Exhibit A, and asked you, "Is that an apple?"

You say, "Yes."

I say, "But it's a photograph."

You say, "Of an apple."

I say, "Actually, it's a wood carving painted red."

You say, "A carving of an apple."

Now I show you another apple, Exhibit B, and ask the same question.

You take a bite of the apple and say, "Yes, it's an apple."

I say, "B is a fruit, A is a piece of paper. Both cannot be apples."

In this new context, B is an apple, but A is a photograph.

Now I grind B into a pulp, and ask if it's still an apple.

Perhaps you say, "Yes."

Now I eat the pulp. "Is it still an apple?"

Perhaps by now you're not so sure.

Now I defecate the pulp.

Now you're sure. That is not an apple!

Now I ask whether the photograph of the apple carving or the turd in the toilet is more like an apple.

The point of all this is to show that truth is an opinion. It is an idea. It is a thought. Things are not true. They are not false. Opinions are not true or false either — they assign truth and falsehood.

What Is Real?

"But," you may object, "there is a real world, and you can be mistaken about the real world."

But the quality of being "real" is like the quality of being "true" — it is a thought. A thing is not real in any other sense than that we think, "That thing is real."

Is that nihilism? No. Nihilism is a denial that anything is real. I do not deny that there are real things, I explain what it means to be real.

"But," you may object, "there is a universe independent of my thoughts and opinions!"

Yes, there is. But beyond the barest notion that "There isn't just nothing," what can be stated? The mechanics of rational thought are unconnectable to what is.

In mystical traditions this is a commonplace. But they hold that there are ways to know that are not intellectual, not thought-based. I agree with this. You're knowing things in that way all the time. Your body knows how to grow, sleep, digest, belch, die. The sun knows how to burn. The world knows how to turn.

What Is To Be Done?

I submit to you that the only ignorance in the universe is thought. That is, every other kind of knowing is full, complete, perfect. Intellectual knowing alone is incomplete, imperfect. And intellectual knowing alone is by its very nature incomplete, imperfect; therefore, intellectual knowledge cannot be perfected. Intellectual knowing cannot be connected with what is.

Thus, there is nothing to be done. Intellectual knowing can never be perfected, and any other knowing cannot be imperfect. So what is there to do?