“It seems that whatever we perceive is organized into patterns for which we, the perceivers, are largely responsible. Perceiving is not a matter of passively allowing an organ–say of sight or hearing–to receive a ready-made impression from without, like a palette receiving a spot of paint…It is generally agreed that all our impressions are schematically determined from the start. As perceivers we select from all the stimuli falling on our senses only those which interest us, and our interests are governed by a pattern-making tendency, sometimes called a schema. In a chaos of shifting impressions, each of us constructs a stable world in which objects have recognizable shapes, are located in depth, and have permanence…Uncomfortable facts which refuse to be fitted in, we find ourselves ignoring or distorting so that they do not disturb these established assumptions. By and large anything we take note of is preselected and organized in the very act of perceiving. We share with other animals a kind of filtering mechanism which at first only lets in sensations we know how to use.”
-Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, emphasis added
Okay…I scratch my head…Where to start?
The depth psychologist in me wants to talk about archetypes–Douglas’s “schema,” the “ready-made impressions” that, in part, structure consciousness. Archetypes are, by definition, “primordial, structural elements of the human psyche…systems of readiness for action” inherent in the brain structure (Sharp). But there is more to this, I think, than just discussing the similarities to Jung’s theory of the archetypes.
First off, our perception, Douglas says, is determined by such schema. Does this then imply some sort of a wrench in the whole “free-will” issue? How much free will and freedom of choice do we really have if our very perception of the world (that which we, fundamentally, base our actions on) is always already determined?
Then there is the bit about constructing a stable world based on stimuli that interest us. Okay, a couple of things here. To say we construct our stable worlds based on what interests us is to say we do not perceive reality objectively. Such is nothing new–the Buddha said as much over 2500 years ago and scientists themselves have said as much–that there is no such thing as “true” objectivity since the observer is always influence that which is observed. Our minds, in other words, create our realities, meaning there are over 6 billion realities (human, that is), the greatest engineering project humanity has ever conceived…
And what determines such perceptions/realities? That which interests us, primarily and that which does not fit comfortably–those square pegs in a round-hole world–are distorted and/or ignored.
In other words, the reality we each create is a distorted reality, distorted by what we “like” and “dislike,” or, in Buddhist terms as put forth by the theory of the 3 Poisons, our attachments (symbolized by the lustful rooster) and our aversions (symbolized by the angry and hateful snake). Said attachments and aversions are “preselected and organized” according to Douglas, and herein lies the rub: that such applies not only to our minds and the reality we create for ourselves, but to the very act of perceiving. This means to say that my attachments and aversions create, as it were, what I see, what I hear, what I smell, touch, and taste.
And I consider myself intelligent?
According to this theory, I don’t really know squat.
Though Douglas puts it in her own way, such is not much new to me.
And I’m fine with that.
But what about our “knowledge” of the world, the universe?
In today’s modern technological society, scientists are supposed to be our newest purveyors of Truth and even though postmodernism has relativized Truth claims, many look to science as very much that (even though many scientists themselves might not call themselves such).
But back to the point. Scientific “truths” and “facts” are derived from observations, everyone knows that. But what happens to such truths when we apply Douglas’s claim? Observation, of course, is based on perception. Perception, by Douglas’s definition, is essentially distorted by our “likes” and “dislikes,” or that which confirms or distorts our schema, our stable world, our stable world based on “established assumptions.”
Sure, science can teach us a lot about the world…as least as far as we perceive it, at least as far as those running the experiments are perceiving it.
So fine is the veil that covers our eyes that we don’t even see it. A veil woven from the warp of our attachments and the woof of our aversions.
As “smart” as we are, we really don’t know jack s#@t.
And to end, there is a remainder, for as Douglas says, our perception is based only on the sensations “we know how to use,” suggesting, perhaps, there are others we haven’t even the slightest inkling about.