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.