The Primacy of Perception (Part 1 of 2)

by Ron Knapp
Minister Emeritus–First Unitarian Congregation of Omaha, Nebraska
and a Member of Omaha Coalition of Reason

I want to share with you some thoughts on a subject that has intrigued me almost all of my professional life. The subject that has intrigued me for so many years has to do with what could be called “the worlds of illusion and reality.” It deals with the nature of perception. “Perception” can be defined as “the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses, a mental impression.” It often seems to me that perception is everything!

There is an assertion that I want you to keep in mind, an idea I want you to keep returning to, as I continue these remarks. That sentence is this: We do not live in, or act upon, the world as it is, but upon the world as it appears to be, the world as we perceive it to be! It is an assertion I shall be repeating as I progress through my thoughts.

My assertion appears to be true in what I shall refer to as, for lack of better term, the “objective” sense. We do not live in, or act upon, the world as it is, but upon the world as it appears to be, the world as we perceive it to be!

By “objective sense” I mean a genetic or species sense. Human beings always experience the world that is, act upon the world, with the characteristics and capabilities of their biological being. It may seem almost trite to say it, but it seems very important to say it, since human beings often ignore its significance: human beings experience the world, and only experience the world, as human beings. That seems to me to be the import of the passage from William James and his Principles Of Psychology, which was read earlier.  “Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone,” James wrote. “Other minds, other worlds, from the same monotonous chaos! My world is but one in a million, alike embedded and alike real, to those who many abstract them. How different must be the world in the consciousness of ants, cuttlefish or crab.”

Human beings as human beings—or crabs as crabs, or cuttlefish as cuttlefish, or ants as ants–experience a world, live in a world, as defined by the way their species lives in, or experiences the world. Human beings are destined by their biology to live in a world as perceived by human beings. The world we know as “the” world is a human world, a world filtered through human perception, and that world may not be at all like the world as it really is.

My assertion seems also to be true in a more subjective sense. Individual human beings, as individual human beings, live in a world, or act upon a world, based upon their own perceptions of it.

Perhaps the most commonly used metaphor to describe this is that of the partially filled glass. Some people see the glass half full, we say, while others see it as half empty. Same glass of water but two different perspectives. There are those who, because of their emotional dispositions, see the world from an optimistic perspective and others see the world from a more pessimistic perspective. Same glass, same world, but two different perspectives of it. And two different ways of reacting to it, or responding to it. There are people who face obstacles and who accept those obstacles as challenges and others who see the same obstacles as defeats. We do not live in a world as it is but, even on the most basic emotional level, in a world as it appears to us to be.

Perhaps the best example I can think of to illustrate the “subjective sense” of perception is the way a group of individuals view an automobile accident. If several people see an accident, and the police ask them to describe what happened, they are very likely to get several different variations of the same event. In a sense, all of the spectators saw the same accident, and with the same type of human eyes, and yet each also saw things differently. Eye witness testimony is now often seen, in the criminal justice system, as being quite unreliable.

Perhaps the proof of my assertion on the most personal level is demonstrated in the most vivid form of extremes, that of hallucinations.

A half century ago I was the minister of a small church in central Michigan. One day while walking through that small town, I came across a man who was pounding the wall of the bank, pounding that wall until his fist was all mangled and bloody. I tried to talk to him and tried to restrain him. The FBI and the KGB were both after him, he said, in desperation. They were trying to kill him. After awhile I left, but I have always wished that I had called the police or done something different. Before that night was over he had trashed the only motel in our little town. And all because he believed, he truly believed, in his delusional and hallucinating state, that the FBI and the KGB were out to kill him. He was not responding to the world as it was but as he perceived it to be.

My assertion appears to be true in both an objective sense and in a subjective sense. It also appears to be true in a “cultural” sense. We do not live in, or act upon, the world as it is, but upon the world as it appears to be, the world as we perceive it to be! The ideas that frame the character of a culture, in many important ways, determine the shape and character of the world in which people live and move and have their being. The best example of this thought I can come up with comes, I believe, from Frances Moore Lappe and her book Diet For A Small Planet.

Quite a long time ago—I believe it was sometime early in the twentieth century—several men took a raft trip down a treacherous river, perhaps it was in Idaho. While passing through particularly rugged part of the river, a section with very steep and high canyon walls, the raft was swamped and the men were thrown overboard. The men were able to make it safely to the shore, but because of the steepness of the canyon walls they were unable to get out of the gorge itself. After many days stranded there, they starved to death. There was no available food. And yet there was, in the area in which they were stranded, an abundant supply of protein rich insects. But insects, at least to the western cultural mind, and to the American mind in particular, are not seen as food. In some other cultures of the world, however, insects are regard as culinary delicacies.

Ron and Ann Knapp—over 60 years’ of commitment and love

The fundamental question raised by this story is this: did those rafters, in that deep gorge, starve to death because there was no food, or did they starve to death because their cultural definition of food excluded that which was, in fact, available?

Think of the power of the ideas suggested by this story. The ideas that people hold about the nature of the world, as defined by their cultures, are life and death matters. In the tragedy that is the Middle East, young Muslims volunteer to participate in suicide missions because they believe—their culture holds—that their death as a martyr would enable the to immediately go to a heaven where they would have all of those things that fill the fantasies of young men everywhere, sex and pleasure and the high life. The ideas that our cultures hold about the world shape the way we act upon it.


Check back in our first newsletter in November to read the second half of Ron’s guest article!