Trusting the senses

I haven’t been able to forget a comment David Abram made during his keynote at a conference I attended in the spring. He said even science, devoted as it is to studying the material world, in practice acts as if the world of the senses is less real than some other, subtler world that can be perceived only through instruments of technology. Someone from the audience asked, even biology?

Even biology studies a world not immediately available to our senses. The sensuous visible world of our flesh-and-blood encounter is taken as secondary, to be explained in reference to some other dimension hidden behind the scenes.

Electron microscopes, Large Hadron Colliders, radio telescopes—the data they disclose often receives more attention than that disclosed by the human senses. As if the senses cannot quite be trusted to give us accurate information about the world.

It was Descartes, following Plato’s lead, who taught the Western world to mistrust our senses. A piece of wax, Descartes said, pressed between our fingers does not hold its shape once heat is applied. The piece of wax is not what it appeared to be. Our senses betray us; they cannot show us the true nature of wax. Only the mind can see clearly. “I think; therefore I am.”

Abram is right: Cartesian doubt of the senses percolates even through the sciences, those disciplines most deeply engaged with material reality. I came upon it recently in the opening pages of Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos. I love reading Greene; his knack for explaining contemporary physics in terms both simple and poetic is unparalleled. So I was startled to find these words:

It’s easy to be seduced by the face nature reveals directly to our senses. . . . I’ve learned that modern science tells a very different story. The overarching lesson that has emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality. Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize.

. . . Assessing life through the lens of everyday experience is like gazing at a van Gogh through an empty Coke bottle. Modern science has spearheaded one assault after another on evidence gathered from our rudimentary perceptions, showing that they often yield a clouded conception of the world we inhabit. . . . By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe.

I hadn’t thought of Greene as a Platonist, but echoes of Plato’s cave are clear: the world of the senses is not the real world; a deeper, truer, and more real world is hidden from everyday sight.

I can’t help but be reminded of what spiritual teachers and philosophers have been saying for centuries. A current in yoga and Buddhism, for instance, is that the sensory world can be distracting, and learning how to go behind or beyond it—stilling the senses through meditation—can aid in finding peace. I have benefited enormously from meditating; it yields a sense of harmony that is much harder to find or practice in the midst of noise and chaos. The problem is that, filtered through a Western—Platonic—lens, such teachings often come across as devaluing the body so that one must withdraw from the senses in order to be holy. The intent was radically different: the word yoga, for starters, is cognate with yoke—to join inner and outer worlds in a seamless experience of reality.

Western religions can be even more insistent than Eastern ones on a “world beyond.” Think of the Christian notion of heaven, which began in the ancient world as a hope for a better society on earth but in the last two centuries has morphed into a hope that the faithful will be spirited out of this world to a better one removed from material reality. Even contemporary earth-based rituals can show a subtle preference for a world beyond the senses. I have heard shamanic practitioners talk about an internal meeting with a totem animal or a discovery of a particularly beautiful inner landscape as if it is more real or more trustworthy than the evidence of fingertips, lips, eyes, breath, and skin.

Interestingly, Greene himself notices his parallel with religious folk:

Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize. Followers of the occult, devotees of astrology, and those who hold to religious principles that speak to a reality beyond experience have, from widely varying perspectives, long since arrived at a similar conclusion.

But, he says quickly, this is not what he’s talking about:

I’m referring to the work of ingenious innovators and tireless researchers—the men and women of science—who have peeled back layer after layer of the cosmic onion, enigma by enigma, and revealed a universe that is at once surprising, unfamiliar, exciting, elegant, and thoroughly unlike what anyone ever expected.

Surely Greene—as well as the mystics and meditation teachers—is right: the world we can perceive with eyes, ears, and nose is not all there is. But we need not regard it as misleading just because it’s not the whole story. From one perspective, that of contemporary physics (or, equally, Buddhism or animism), subject and object are not separate, so that electrons might behave in ways that defy ordinary perception. But from another perspective, that of flesh and blood, people cannot pass through walls—and this reality too deserves our full attention.

For it’s by fully engaging the senses—by feeling the damp of fog or the prickle of hawthorn, by dancing with a two-year-old or sniffing pungent compost—that we learn to “be here now.” It’s no accident that the purpose of meditation is to focus us more fully on THIS world. Being fully present to the sensory world takes attention, skill, and more than a dollop of doubt about Descartes’s ultimate faith in the mind. The path of the senses is the path to being fully present.

Trusting the senses might be a good way to go—for both science and religion.

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10 Responses to Trusting the senses

  1. Science is fine, but it’s not cast in stone any more than what our senses tell us is. Daily “old” science is disproven and new, wondrous discoveries are made. That they are wondrous, amazing, fascinating prove my point–these are EMOTIONS, senses if you will, that allow us to appreciate what science has revealed. I think we need BOTH–we need to questions BOTH and we need to allow ourselves the beauty in both knowledge and emotion.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 28, 2009 at 6:17 pm

      Rosemary, while I’m speaking here of senses rather than emotions, I agree with you completely that we need both reason and emotion. What’s more, I think we’ve created a dilemma for ourselves by defining knowledge as what we can know separate from feelings. While the knowledge that we gain from data that is separated from feelings (fact separated from value) has certainly allowed us to accomplish things in the world, by valuing this kind of knowing over knowing that includes feelings, we’ve made it harder for ourselves to turn back from the brink of ecological disaster. We have less access to the resources and attitudes that might have prevented us from creating this disaster in the first place.

  2. Annette says:September 26, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Just reading “Reconnecting with Nature” by Michael Cohen and he lists our 53 senses! Didn’t know I had so many!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 28, 2009 at 6:07 pm

      Annette, me neither! I will have to read that book. Thanks for mentioning.

  3. Hystery says:September 27, 2009 at 8:30 am

    I am grateful for this reading. It would not have been my first reaction to the cautions I also frequently read by scientists and other intellectuals regarding the limited trust we should place in our own embodied perspective. I have often focused on how very good such distrust of that which seems obvious through our senses has been for feminist theory and other marginalized socio/historical perspectives. For too long, the male body has been the measure of reality. From how we build houses to how we determine the mathematical rules of artistic beauty to where we hang the “master”pieces on the wall, it has been the male body’s senses that describe reality. I am happy when we are told that our senses (their senses) cannot be the final standard. When we learn that our own perspective is merely that- perspective and not reality, we are less inclined to allow our viewpoint to operate as a universal rule. But then, even as I write this I recognize that I automatically write as though I speak as a privileged knower- I have fallen back on the masculine alter-ego I developed as a young woman forgetting that while I may be quite happy to hear science say the body cannot know truth, I would like first to let my female body have a shot at it.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 28, 2009 at 6:07 pm

      Hystery, you tap into my feminist background with these comments. I first learned the critique of the body-mind split from feminist philosophers of science, and a feminist analysis remains the bedrock of my thinking. As you point out, the female body in Western history is always an aberration from the (male) norm, with women’s bodies seen as closer to earth, to “nature,” carrying the marks of sex and gender–as if men too did not arise from and return to earth. It required an enormous mind-trick to project all that onto women, and it has required an equally enormous alienation of men from their own senses and feelings.

  4. Taking the time to attend in this culture can be a challenge, but it makes all the difference.

    All good wishes!!

  5. Heather says:October 8, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    This is a very interesting post. Personally I am a very sensory-oriented person, and my enjoyment of this natural world would be greatly diminished if I lost even one of my senses. It is through my senses that I feel a deep connection to nature, and it is because of those sensory perceptions that I can sometimes, if I’m lucky, transcend the sensory feedback to feel something… “more” (bordering on spiritual, mystical, whatever you want to call it). I’m sure scientists have learned how much more there is to this universe than what we can overtly observe with our most basic senses (that which lies at the surface), but most of us are not scientists, and are thus perfectly content to observe what lies at the surface. Furthermore, after realizing that there is an alarming lack of connection between most people and the earth that they inhabit, I think that the simple observation of the objects in nature found in one’s own backyard or park – whether it be a flower, a mushroom, a bird, or noticing how the wind tosses the leaves in the trees – would go a long way toward bettering our lives. To discount the role of our senses, to presume that sensory observations are somehow inferior to those made by hard science, would be a step backward for the non-scientists (i.e. the general public), I think… a dumbing down that they do not need.

  6. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Anne, thanks for visiting. You’re all about helping people see the world, aren’t you?

  7. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Heather, I’m with you on being a sensory person. When I was a small child I’m sure my mother lived in fear of taking me into a store because I had to touch everything. I still do. As you say, exploring the world right in front of us can go a long way toward overcoming our “alarming” disconnection from the rest of nature.