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Reach Out And Touch The World (Far Out and Loose Reflections On How Perception Works)
December 18, 2008, 9:36 pm
Filed under: Epistemology, Philosophical Anthropology

When you see things like trees, you actually reach out and make contact with them by seeing them.  


Almost no educated modern western person believes that this happens, but it does.  As proof that it can’t happen, educated modern western people tell the standard scientific story of how sight works.  But, if you stop and think about it, you’ll see that the standard scientific story of how sight works actually supports my view.


Consider the standard scientific story of how you see a tree:

Light bounces off the tree and enters your eyes.  This causes a series of changes in your body: rods and cones and all the rest.  This process continues to unfold deep into your brain, with its neuronal firings and such. 


With this standard scientific story in view, you can see that each of your perceptions is at once a perception of changes in your body—a perception of the world’s interaction with your body.  


So there are two kinds of perception involved in the perception of a tree: (1) your perception of your body, and (2) your perception of the tree.


These two kinds of perception are very different, but they are inseparably related.  You attend from your body to the tree.  You don’t perceive the changes in your body in themselves, but only in terms of their joint meaning outside of you.  You don’t see the changes in your body, you see the tree by means of them.


Consider what it’s like to pick up a stick and feel around with it.  There is an obvious sense in which the ‘feeling’ takes place in your fingertips.  But notice that, in another sense, the feeling is actually felt out on the end of the stick.  In a sense, it is right to say that you feel the rockiness of the pavement, not the vibrations of the stick against your fingertips.  You feel the vibrations of the stick in your fingers in terms of their joint meaning which is projected outside of you to the end of the stick.  (If you don’t believe me, go try it out.  That’s what happens.  Try it.)  In this sense, you indwell the stick.  The stick becomes an extention of your body.  


What makes your body, your body, is that you indwell it in this way.  There is only one way to un-indwell your hand: chop it off.  But you can un-indwell a stick in at least two kinds of ways:

(1) drop the stick (the equivalent of chopping it off), or

(2) focus on the stick.  

Did you ever notice that touching a stick is different from probing the world with it?  You don’t enter into the stick until you begin to probe the world with it.  Actually, you enter into the stick by probing the world with it.  


In the same way, you enter into your body by attending to the world from it.  (Which, to a large degree, you can’t help but do.  We are just the kind of beings that do this with our bodies—bodies we didn’t choose in the normal sense of choose.  I can’t help but attend to the world from my body.  And no matter how hard I try, I can’t attend to the world from your body.)


Anyway, just as you enter into a stick and feel the world with it when you probe the world with it, so also you enter into the medium of sight (as described in the standard scientific story) when you see a tree by means of it.  


Touching the ground with your fingers is no more direct (or unmediated) than touching the ground with a stick.  (The only difference is that you can probably enter into your fingers more fully than you can enter into a stick.  Obviously, the feel of the ground is richer when you stoop down and touch it with your fingers.)  The key thing to notice is that even when you touch the ground with your fingers you don’t touch it directly—you touch it only in the sense in which you indwell the fingers that touch the ground.  You touch the ground by means of the fingers.


Yes, in a sense, you do not come into contact with the tree when you see it.  But this is true only in the sense in which you do not make contact with the ground when your fingers do.  The fingers touch, and you touch in the sense that you indwell the fingers.  When you see a tree you don’t make contact with the tree, but the light does.  And the light comes into contact with your body.  But you indwell your body—and the light—in same way that you indwell the stick.  


Just as it’s right to say that you come into contact with the ground when you reach down and touch it, so also it’s right to say that you come into contact with the tree when you see it.


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