Oct. 11th, 2015

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I subscribe to the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter which, despite its somewhat unsavory name, provides a weekly feast of interesting new ideas. In a recent issue (I’m always running a few weeks behind), I came across a fascinating discussion of the concept of reality. The part I’d like to focus on here is a quote by physicist David Bohm:

"Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality."

Although this might be splitting definitional hairs, I consider this to be the functional equivalent to a zen koan because it captures some of the same elusiveness of concept that the best koans provide: the tighter you try to grasp the concept, the more it slips from your fingers, at least initially. Like the best quotations (with which I sprinkle my Twitter feed), it gives one pause to think and often sets off that flashbulb of sudden enlightenment that the Japanese refer to as satori. The brilliance of a koan or of a humble quotation is how it conveys so much once you unpack it, all in such a wondrously concise format.

What I love about the Bohm quote is how neatly it circles back upon itself, like Ourobouros swallowing its own tail. That journey neatly captures the concept of how difficult it is to pin down the nature of reality: there appears* to be an objective reality we cannot escape (day continues to shade into night as night de-shades into day, whether or not we choose to believe in this cycle), but how we perceive and describe that reality can be so subjective as to make objectivity seem like an impossible goal. More intriguingly, we pass through a cycle in which every new thing we learn changes how we perceive reality, and that changing perception can lead to still more new insights that again change our perception. It’s a wondrous, never-ending cycle of change.

* I say “appears” to acknowledge the fact that though I fully believe in this external reality, I can provide no evidence that would persuade an extreme solipsist that it “really” exists. An old favorite quotation provides some defense for my position: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away."—Philip K. Dick

To tie Bohm’s koan to the subject of this blog, namely communication in all its forms, I return to the concept of subjectivity. Specifically, one of the things I’ve learned from science -- possibly our best tool for approaching a “true”* description of objective reality -- is that all “truth” is provisional. As our metaphysical tools (ways of thinking) and physical tools (measurement instruments) improve, we gradually discard old beliefs that provided only a blurry image of the truth and replace them with sharper images that provide a more accurate and holistic image of the truth. As in the case of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, we sometimes seem to never quite to get there, but if we continue long enough, we may some day do as the bodhisattvas do and achieve that final truth. Or not. The universe is a complex place, and the deeper we dig, the more we find.

* To avoid a long and messy argument about the nature of truth, I retreat to a paraphrase of Dick’s quotation: truth is what doesn’t change when you stop believing in it. If you want to delve into the great and murky depths of this subject, check out Wikipedia’s handy summary

When we try to communicate with someone else, particularly over issues that are freighted with emotional overtones, it can be very difficult to take a step back and remind ourselves of the subjectivity of what we see as truth. One of the subtle problems that disrupts communication is that how we perceive a truth affects how we perceive what our communication partner is saying about that truth. They’re going through the same process. To communicate successfully, it’s necessary for both partners to understand where they and the other partner are coming from and how this might constrain our ability to hear what the other is actually saying. One of my favorite quotes captures this concept neatly. Psychologist George Miller (in a January 1980 interview in Psychology Today, notes: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” It’s perhaps helpful to remind our communication partners of this important concept so they can make an effort to understand what our statements might be true of.

Communication, at its finest, allows us to recapitulate the journey of discovery embodied in Bohm’s koan, with which I began this essay: our beliefs and perceptions change iteratively and dynamically as they clash with the beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts of others. In that clash of beliefs, we collaboratively establish a newer, clearer, richer shared image of the reality we share.

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