Did Modernism Isolate Us from the World?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 14 Comments

The world doesn’t just exist, it shows up for us. It appears as the pure experience of the present moment. And one of the most amazing things about the world is that it changes – from age to age, generation to generation, over the course of a human lifetime, and through the duration of a day – the world keeps changing. Or at least how the world shows up for us does.

Think about a day when you started out in a good mood and then something happened to put you in a bad mood. Didn’t the world change? Didn’t your experience of the present moment shift? The effect of moods on our perception of reality was something that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a great deal of attention to. Why? Because it is amazing how a mood, a pervasive feeling, literally changes our perception of reality. If our perception of reality can be so significantly altered by a mood, what does that mean about our perception of reality right now, in this moment? Is the reality that I am experiencing right now really real? And what would that mean anyway?

The Enlightenment of the 17th century was a time of intellectual brilliance. With the triumph of science over the superstitions of the Middle Ages came the advent of the modern age. The modern age is characterized by a preference for objectivity. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to separate things from the context in which they appeared in order to see them more clearly. They developed a love for ‘facts’ and a fact can be defined as something that is true independent of context.

Underlying this quest for objectivity is a belief that the world is an object, that the universe is a collection of separate things that interact. By examining these things ever-more closely we can separate them out, atomize them, and discover the ultimate individual facts from which all the rest of reality is constructed. The belief that the world is reducible to a finite number of component parts that interact to create the world as it shows up for us is referred to as reductionism.

Most of us by now are familiar with the criticisms levied against this way of thinking. The term ‘scientific reductionism’ has become a synonym for bad. Let’s not be too hasty though. This way of thinking was an enormously successful strategy for understanding the world that has lead to the greatest and most rapid advancement of human life in recorded history. Would you want to go back to the Middle Ages? If I have to go back, make me part of the nobility please.

At the same time this strategy, while it is useful for many things, is not useful all the time. And it doesn’t completely match our experience of reality which means our experience of the present moment. William James in his book The Principles of Psychology wrote about the specious present which he defined as “the short duration (of time) of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible”. And our experience of the present moment is the subject of Alva Noe’s new book Varieties of Presence.

This specious present is a whole experience – not a collection of parts. It includes the seeming objects that confront us, the individual thoughts, objects, and feelings that arise out of circumstance. It also includes the background influences like moods, intentions, desires, fears, beliefs, assumptions, etc. These background influences do not have to show up as objects in consciousness although evidence of them often does. They are in the background, invisibly influencing our perception of reality. They are lenses through which we see the world and we are often not aware that we are wearing them. That is why we use the expression ‘wearing rose colored glasses’ to describe a person who is seeing the world through a good mood without realizing it.

The modernist tendency was to objectify the world. The world was seen as something that existed independent of our experience of it. And that which existed independent of us was considered real and our experience of it was a more or less distorted view of reality. The goal was to get ourselves out of the way so that we could see reality clearly as it existed independent of us. This strategy created a sense of isolation from reality that was later recognized by the romantic and existentialist thinkers. Modernism, for all of its great gifts, had also separated us from the world.

So which world is real, the objective world or the one that shows up for us as our experience of the specious present?

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portailevolutif
8 years ago

Hi Jeff, I ‘ll give you my view on this. It is all a question of the Interior and the Exterior and the frontier between the two. The frontier we could describe as our Awareness of moment to moment. I believe, to “objectify” things, namely to look at things outside of their context and then to put the context back, is what a clear mind does. Can the mind do anything else , anything better than this ? maybe not, maybe it is where its function stops. Now what is an object ? before I started meditation I thought that… Read more »

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

Yesterday someone said: ‘one can only act on what one sees, but in acting we start to see more’. This came back to my mind reading your post. Recently I read a book from brain investigators who where materialists when they started to investigate meditators, but during investigating they found that materialism is not all there is..so where does science end? They also investigate the influence a scientist has on the results of a test (quantum physics) and what about a scientist as Whitehead? Hypotheses are made to define what is expected, that is just what we are able to… Read more »

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

What I was actually questioning is ‘what is the difference between the ‘positive mood’ and the ‘scientific knowing that life is positive’, it seems almost connected to ‘state and stage’ the first one is the subjective individual experience, the second the objective impersonal experience, this seems to connect to what Catherine is saying in her first lines. Even though this seems more about individual vertical evolution, subject becomes the object of the next moment..reading on it seems that the ‘I am-ness’ is the individual choice to evolve, which means objectifying, yes and then the reverse. It is very true what… Read more »

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

Jeff, another great post and wonderful comments from your readers. Beyond what has already been said, I think we might consider the very desire for one realm to be independent of the other realm and for the second realm, therefore to be contingent and less real. While Modern tendency was to consider the Material (or External) World to be independent of the Ideal (or Non-Material World), there have been many ages and civilizations that thought the opposite. And they also contributed mightily to humanity’s progress. The German Romantic Idealists of the 19th century are just one example. And what drove… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago
Reply to  Kurt Roeloffs

Kurt as far as I know there is a bit less in the Heisenberg principle than what you say. It s not that the observer affects what is observed but rather that you have to define what an observation is. You have to interpret what it means to observe. Once this interpretation is agreed upon then there is no indeterminacy anymore : QM is then the most predictable of all sciences. It is true that scientists still fight on The true interpretation of QM but even this question debatable. I am personally fine with having many interpretations. Having he choice… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago
Reply to  Kurt Roeloffs

Dear Kurt I am getting confused : is the observer inside or outside ? I would have said it is always outside if not there is no observation. You seem to equate it with consciousness which is inside to me. Heisenberg uncertainties indeed are fascinating and mind blowing. They don’t directly relate to the theory of measurement though. I take your point that they do upset completely the classical worldview love

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

That is my very point whixh the HUP metaphorically suggests There is no separate observer and observed. Observer and observed are a unity in certain respects.

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

That is my very point which the HUP metaphorically suggests There is no radically separate observer and observed. Observer and observed are a unity in certain respects.

Sumadi Bambang Oetomo
8 years ago

Interesting this discussion on QM. I am wandering about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle if it could mean, that using an instrument which is designed to spot differences like our mind, will it not be able to see onness? The interpretation portailevolutif offers seems to support this. The fact that there are interpretations of QM shows to me we can not cope properly with its results. To me it has a lot to do with the opnening centence of Jeff’s Blog. “The world doesn’t just exist, it shows up for us. It appears as the pure experience of the present moment.”… Read more »

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

portailevolutif, yes, QM is very precise! However, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle defines the limit of what can be measured accurately within the QM theoretic framework. My use of it as an analogue related to its peculiar insight into the interdependent relationship between an observer’s presence and intention (Consciousness) and observable behavior of the quantum phenomena (Matter, External World etc). My hypothesis is that this interdependency (and observational limits) occurs at all larger scales of Conscious observation and intention such a worldview (I.e. Modern or Romantic). Holding that hypothesis can be a helpful way of not holding world views too tightly.… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

It is interesting that in Philosophical discussion about the nature of our experience QM is one of the first theories which comes up. This could have to do with the fact that we are really on the edge of what we know. Are we grabbing now to a theory we know, to establish that we are still on known territory? But are we really? Are we maybe in the middle of a process finding out about ourselves and the nature of our experience that is so unfamiliar that we almost fall of the edge? Book Description on the Amazon.com page:… Read more »

Sumadi
8 years ago

It is interesting that in Philosophical discussion about the nature of our experience QM is one of the first theories which comes up. This could have to do with the fact that we are really on the edge of what we know. Are we grabbing now to a theory we know, to establish that we are still on known territory? But are we really? Are we maybe in the middle of a process finding out about ourselves and the nature of our experience that is so unfamiliar that we almost fall of the edge? Book Description on the Amazon.com page:… Read more »

ftkl1234
8 years ago

Hello portailevolutif! I like the comment you made to say you’re OK with many interpretations of ideas. I would affirm that cautious thinkers do that and I try to follow that practice. Holistic thinking is necessary to attain a more accurate view of matters. Different points of view will counteract partial views and promote deeper understanding, if time and ability allows.

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