Whenever I read a book about Buddhism or mindfulness, I've got my highlighter poised to make a skeptical marginal question mark when (usually not if) I come across mention of perceiving reality "as it is."
With so many interesting ideas to choose from, I'll take the easy way out in this post and share some of what I read this morning about how humans attribute what actually is within to without -- the world outside our craniums.
Frequently I take issue with those who claim it is possible to know reality "as it is."
First, we Homo sapiens' know reality as it is possible to be known by the unique capabilities of the human brain/body. Second, every person experiences reality in his or her own unique fashion.
My "first" is evident to anyone who goes on a walk with a dog, which posseses a vastly different sense of smell. My "second" is evident to anyone who is married or otherwise knows another person intimately.
Vive la différence, as they say.
It isn't possible to view something without the brain doing a lot of unconscious processing before the perception pops into awareness. Just because a person isn't consciously thinking doesn't mean that his or her brain isn't chugging away on an unconscious level, bringing in personal past experiences and such.
Even though mindfulness advocates claim to bring a scientific perspective to this trendy meditation approach, rarely do I find them addressing the neuroscientific facts that undermine the notion of it being possible to perceive the world "as it is."
The best we can do, seemingly, is reduce obvious distractions and prejudices that prevent us from accurately perceiving what is happening in the present moment.
For example, if I'm daydreaming while driving, or rocking along to a song I like on the radio, I'm going to be less aware of what is happening on and along the road I'm on. I may not notice a bicyclist on a side street or a ball rolling onto the pavement.
Likewise, if I detest the politics of an elected official, my emotional distaste for them may make it impossible for me to understand their policy positions in a speech they're making. My mental screaming at the television screen drowns out the coherence of their message.
So there is a continuum of "as it is." It is possible to be more, or less, in touch with the reality of what is happening in the world.
However, there is no absolutely objective reality, no perspective from above, no God's eye view. No as-it-is.
What's interesting is that traditional religious perspectives have switched philosophical places with the view of modern science in this regard. Usually we think of religions and spiritual practices as championing subjectivity, while scientists are hooked on objectivity.
To some extent this is true. But not when it comes to "as it is." Observer-dependent reality is a central concept in modern physics, as blogged about here and here. It also is a core tenet of a systems view of life, as discussed by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi in a book with that title.
To quote Heisenberg once more, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." Thus systems thinking involves a shift from objective to "epistemic" science, to a framework in which epistemology -- "the method of questioning" -- becomes a central part of scientific theories.
The realization that the subjective dimension is always implicit in the practice of science does not mean that we have to give up scientific rigor. When we speak of an "objective" description in science, we mean first and foremost a body of knowledge that is shaped, constrained, and regulated by the collective scientific enterprise, rather than being merely a collection of individual accounts. Such intersubjective validation is standard practice in science and need not be abandoned.
In the epistemic approach to science, nature is seen as an interconnected web of relationships, in which the identification of specific patterns as "objects" depends on the human observer and the process of knowing.
...What makes it possible to turn the systems approach into a proper science is the discovery that there is approximate knowledge. This insight is crucial to all of contemporary science. The mechanistic paradigm is based on the Cartesian belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge.
In the systems paradigm it is recognized that all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate. Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding. In science, to put it bluntly, we never deal with truth, in the sense of a precise correspondence between our description and the described phenomenon. We always deal with limited and approximate knowledge.
Religious believers often talk about the arrogance of science, of scientists supposedly considering they have all the answers.
Not at all.
As Capra says, modern science recognizes that knowledge of reality always is from a certain point of view. There is no such thing as an exact match between a description of something, and the nature of that thing.
So it is those who hold to the possibility of an "as it is" understanding of reality -- via enlightenment, elevated consciousness, high level of mindfulness, whatever -- who are being arrogant.
Humility is the hallmark of science, not of religions and other practices which claim to possess a special knowledge of the true nature of reality.