Escape From The Myth of the Given

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 14 Comments

One way to think about the existential dilemma of postmodernism is that we began to realize that our perception of reality is a hopeless tangle of sensation and interpretation. What we assume to be reality as we look out at the world is not objectively real. It is a perspective on reality that is constructed through a lens of ideas and attitudes that we have personally developed and culturally inherited and are largely not even aware of. To find the ‘real' truth postmodernist realized that we must deconstruct our assumptions about what is real.

One aspect of the Myth of the Given that the philosopher Wilfred Sellers wrote about decades ago is the erroneous idea that what we perceive as real is so. We constantly assume that the way we see reality is the way that reality actually is. Generally it is only after the fact, when we realize that we have made a mistake, that we recognize that what we had thought was real was not. At those moments we apologize saying that we were not seeing clearly. And by seeing clearly what we mean is seeing objectively – in other words seeing reality the way it actually is. But do we ever see reality as it actually is? Or is our experience of reality always perceived through a lens of one type or another? The postmodern view is the later – it is never possible to see the world without any mitigating lens or persepctive.

Many have complained that this view can only lead us down a road toward total relativism. That is what the great Scottish philosopher David Hume seemed to find. He realized that in the end all we know is our experience without any way of knowing if that experience relates to any “real” at all – any guess is as good as any other.

But it seems to me that this problem exists, or is at least accentuated by, the way that reality is being defined in the first place – because reality is assumed to be whatever would continue to exist once all of our interpretations were removed from it. So to find reality all we have to do is strip our expereience of all interpretation.

There might be a better way to look at it. What would happen if we didnn't define reality as only what exists when we are not there, but instead assert that reality includes both whatever objectively exists as well as our perception and interpretation of it? Maybe this will allow us to escape the existential dilemma of the myth of the given.

One of the things that happens if we do this is that we move from a static preexisting reality to an evolving reality. In the static model of reality that which is real is ultimately defined as that which existed first before we perceived and interpreted it. In the evolving model of reality that which was there first is real, but that which is here now – including our perceptions and interpretations – is real, and even more so that which will be here in the future – including our as yet unrealized perceptions and interpretations – is also real.

In this way of seeing reality, reality is not a thing that is then perceived – reality is a process and part of that process is the growth of perception. Our perceptions of reality are not separate from reality, they are part of reality. The fact that our current perception of reality is not as clear or accurate as our future perception will be is not a problem. After all we don't feel that the fact that a child is not as mature now as he will be as an adult is a problem. The universe is growing, everything is currently in a form that is different from, and less than, what it will be in the future. And that is perfectly OK.

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Blake Anderson
Blake Anderson
9 years ago

Hi Jeff, I like this! It is difficult though as you say, because postmodern thought and scientific thought has us searching for an objective world ‘out there’. The former would have us remove our interpretations and the later would have us study objective reality as it is. But what you seem to be discussing, is that interpretation is connected intimately with the ‘so called’ objective world – that they are both the same, that they cannot be separated. You also add most importantly that our concept of reality evolves. I wonder then how to distinguish more right interpretations of reality.… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

The American Pragmatists didn’t come to any workable definitive answers to your question – but what they were united in is that ideas had to be distinguished based on what they resulted in when acted upon. That itself is challenging territory, but I do think they were on to something. Just like our interpretations are part of reality – our actions are also part of reality.

Todd McCloskey
Todd McCloskey
9 years ago

It seems like you’re giving the internal weight and importance in addition to the external. Makes sense to me!

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

It is something that I have been thinking about for the last few months – and I am trying to take a Pragmatic approach. In a non-pragmatic approach you would ask “what is really true?” But when you ask that question all kinds of unseen assumptions about reality and truth get activated unconsciously. So a Pragmatist would ask “what happens if I believe this to be true vs. that to be true?” Then you look at what happens to the way you see and respond to the world from those two lenses. In this case the question is “Is reality… Read more »

Todd McCloskey
Todd McCloskey
9 years ago

Can you say more about what is meant when by saying “when I am removed from the picture?” Only because it’s obvious that the world is different when I am in my office than when I am not. But I believe that you mean something a little different.

Anna Kelly
9 years ago

My experience in a 12 step program fits right into the pragmatists’ approach of “what happens if I believe this and then act from it?” Really that is how the steps work, and everyone I know who has seriously and humbly approached them has been successful in overcoming the ego, the need to be right, or have things “just so.” Our lens through which we experience the world widens as we submit to and surrender to a higher power and act from that position with the cultivation of virtue as a goal. The awakening process continues, with the goal being… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

I guess the similarities between 12 steps and Pragmatism makes sense for 2 reasons. One is because Pragmatism is a philosophy that is deeply ingrained in the American mind anyway and secondly because William James who was one of the main founders of Pragamtism was a big inspiration to the founders of AA. Anna, I look forward to pursuing this connection more with you.

Anna Kelly
9 years ago

http://silkworth.net/religion_clergy/01061.html

I just read here about the influence of James’ Varieties of Religious Experience on Bill Wilson. I’m sure you have read it….but this is the first I am hearin’ of it!
Anna

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

Thanks Anna…I had found this just a few weeks ago actually.

Dave
Dave
9 years ago

Jeff, as always great discussions. I don’t get here often but am surprised most of the time. I have not come across much discussion latley of the Myth of the Given, seemingly because so many believe in the myth, and so nobody talks about it in “normal” circles. That being said it reminded me of, and got me to reread a book called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, by Jorge N. Ferrer(2002). As a pragmatist you may find this beyond your interest, but I think he has some excellent views/advice for how to deal with not only the Myth of the Given,… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

Dave this sounds fascinating. I havent read constructal theory, but I will now and also look at Revisioning Transpersonal Theory. Thanks for this! Jeff

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9 years ago

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Dave
Dave
9 years ago

Jeff, The really interesting thing is how Constructal theory can be applied to society and human behavior. It applied to a posting I commented on over a year ago… something about social actions and I mentioned the theory then. Anyway enjoy!

Nanna
Nanna
9 years ago

Thanks again, its always great to read.