Monday, February 11, 2013

Toward a Global Perspective—seeing through illusion

It is difficult to see through the illusion that what we see is all there is, but humans have been making some progress.

When a small group of white, well-to-do, middle aged men met in Philadelphia in 1776 and declared “All men are created equal” who did they have in mind? Perhaps only people like those they could see in the room at the time. It was not until 1865 that slaves were free under the law, 1870 that blacks gained the right to vote, and 1964 for civil rights to be legally declared.  In 1920 women finally got the right to vote throughout the United States. The Equal Rights Amendment, requiring only “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” never passed. Equality based on sexual orientation continues to be debated.
The Sun Appears to Rise Each Morning

Overcoming obvious conclusions based on local perspective has required centuries of work, and is still ongoing. Ever since humans first saw the sun rise in the morning, move across the sky, and set in the evening, the direct evidence has been clear and obvious: the sun circles the earth each day. The earth is the center of the universe, because the Earth is here for me. These ideas were challenged when Nicolaus Copernicus carefully described a model which placed the Sun at the center of the universe. His major theory was widely ignored or discredited after it was published in 1543. Continued work by Galileo, and Isaac Newton slowly overcame the objections of the Pope, and our perspective on the universe expanded.

Continued improvements and careful use of the telescope have helped to expand our perspective. Prior to 1920 our own Milky Way galaxy was thought to be the full extent of the universe. Billions of galaxies have been observed since then, and now it is apparent that the universe has no center. Many illusions had to be overcome in shifting from the perspective of the earth as the center of the universe to understanding the universe is so vast it has no center. 

While the telescope was providing us an expanding perspective on the extent of the universe, the microscope was helping discover and explore the tiniest structures of the universe. In 1676, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek reported the discovery of micro-organisms. Eventually the germ theory of disease displaced the four humors model and physicians became less likely to prescribe bloodletting

The search for elements making up the universe expands our perspective as we overcome more illusions. The Greek system of four classical elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether) dates from approximately 450 BC and persisted throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. This simplistic yet obvious model was eventually superseded as the chemical elements were explored. The word atom, derived from the ancient Greek word ἄτομος—meaning indivisible, cannot be cut—turned out to be a misnomer. The inner structure of atoms was revealed as electrons, protons, and neutrons were discovered. Even these subatomic particles are now known to consist of various combinations of quarks. It seems that seeing is no longer a reliable basis for believing.

Even our ancient religions are adopting a broader perspective as they learn and adapt at their own deliberate pace.

Evidence of religious belief and practice began when humans first intentionally marked burial sites perhaps as long as 250,000 years ago. It is likely these prehistoric religions encompassed only a very narrow perspective. The initial form of Stonehenge was completed around 3100 BCE, and the oldest surviving Egyptian Pyramid is commissioned around 2620 BCE but we still don’t know what religious beliefs people might have had at that time. Did they think small as they built big? The citizens of the Minoan Civilization in Crete worshiped a variety of goddesses in 2200 BCE. In retrospect the beliefs of ancient religions strike us as quaint, naïve, and perhaps a bit silly. How will today’s religious beliefs endure the test of time and the scrutiny of a truly global perspective
What was Atlas Standing on?

According to the Ussher chronology, Noah's Ark and the Great Flood wiped out all previous civilizations in 2348 BCE, however, Asian cultures seem to know nothing of this catastrophe, despite claims it was global. Reporting the flood as a global event is an example of not seeing through the illusion that my world is the entire world. As pagan myths yielded to more modern religions, the scope of each belief system expanded from village, to empire, to today’s world-wide patchwork of sacred doctrine, each making exclusive claims on revealed truth. However, this variety of religious dogma is obviously inconsistent, and is slowly yielding to more universal beliefs. Belief systems such as Unitarian Universalism, Humanism, various forms of irreligion, and nontheism, and the charter for compassion all work to transcend dogma as they seek understanding from a global perspective. Only when our basis for moral virtue transcends religious dogma are we ready to see past our tribal illusions and adopt a global perspective.

This process of expanding our perspective as we learn more about the universe continues. What are the illusions we don’t yet see through? Where are we failing to adopt a global perspective?

Our own ego involvement creates perhaps the most pervasive illusion. The constant perception that what I see, think, feel, and want is special—and perhaps all that matters—leads to inherently selfish behaviors. Our own minds distort what we see and how we see it to maintain the illusion that we are special. If we can attain humility we can begin to see through this illusion. Despite what we see every day, we need to know the sun shines with equal brightness on each of us. It shines no more brightly on you, and just as importantly, it shines on you as brightly as others. Humility is the realization that although we are each very special, we are nobody special. Learn to detach from your ego and see through the many illusions it is creating.

Other illusions cause us to misattribute causes to effects. These include false pattern recognition, which cause to see patterns in random data and the fundamental attribution error where we assign intent when none exists. 

Our brains are excellent at recognizing patterns. This is an essential skill for recognizing faces, reading, recalling melodies, and other important daily tasks. A consequence of this ability is the frequent illusion that a pattern is present when it is not. The common experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data is called apophenia.  A belief that events occur in groups of three is one example. While favoring trios is harmless, people consume tremendous energy chasing ghost sightings, conspiracy theories, mysticism, superstitions, and gambling because they fail to see through the illusion and recognize that no meaningful pattern exists.

We are prone to make attribution errors that we soon regard as factual explanations. We often attribute an action to the deliberate intent of some agent, often the ill will of some distrusted outsider. This is called the fundamental attribution error, or more recently correspondence bias. One example is when we blame the bus driver for deliberately frustrating us as it seems the bus is always late when we are early and the bus is early when we are late. Actually, it is most likely that this is not about you, the driver has not been thinking about you all morning, and the arrival times simply reflect the random variations of the bus operations. It is a fallacy to believe you can correctly guess a person's intent for behaving as they do. Their actions may or may not be deliberate. Their actions may or may not be directed at you. Their actions may have unintended consequences or may result from an accident or chance. Learn to see through this illusion; it’s not about you.

Illusions that cause us to mistake what we cannot change for something we can are a common source of frustration. We spend too much time and waste too much energy in futile attempts to change what we cannot change. It is a major cause of frustration and other forms of anger. The rational evidence for determining what we can change and what we cannot is overwhelming, but our behavior often tries to defy this reason and logic. The disappointment of trying so hard to change something that is immune to our efforts is wasteful, as are the opportunities we miss when we are resigned to being unable to change those things we can change.  Understand the true scope of the choices you can make. Abandon the illusion that you can change those things you cannot change as you shatter the illusion that you cannot change so many other things.

Many believe we can change another person. In fact you cannot change another person; they will change only if they decide to do so. We can be helpful and influential to other people and this may result in their deciding to change. Strive to see through the illusion that we can change other people who don’t yet want to change.

Although we often confuse the two mental sensations, wanting and liking are separate. This explains why longtime smokers often want, indeed feel they need, a cigarette yet gain no pleasure from smoking it. We are prone to want, seek, acquire, and consume without getting the level of long-term satisfaction we expected. Overcome your addictions. Work to increase your impulse control; earn that second marshmallow. Don’t become consumed; abandon opulence and strive to see through the illusion that to flourish you must instantly get whatever you feel you want.

Work to see through the illusions created by slot machines, WrestleMania, infomercials, advertising, fear mongering, terrorism, gossip, conspiracy theories, advocacy groups,  charlatans, confidence tricks, Ponzi schemes, monkey traps, emotional upset, impaired judgment,  logical fallacies and mental distortions, short-term focus, narrow focus, urban legends, superstitions, archaic traditions, folklore, myths, obsolete and unfounded beliefs, fairy tales, and compelling but false narratives of all kinds and sophistication. Think about how you think, know how you know. Develop your own robust theory of knowledge and think for yourself.  Become open to experience. Whenever the facts outgrow our worldview “The task then becomes to set once-treasured worldviews into larger more integrative worldviews.”[1] Align and realign your worldview with all that is. Strive to attain a global perspective

No doubt we are often misled by even larger and more subtle illusions. Based on his understanding of interconnections and energy flows throughout the universe, Richard Trowbridge cautions: “To perceive the world in terms of separate objects, or of anything that can be named or conceived is illusionary.”[2] Similarly Alan Rayner tells us: “...all form is flow-form, a mutual inclusion of tangible and intangible presence, not one and/or the other alone. Whatever may appear to be solid from a distance and in the short term is always revealed on closer and longer acquaintance to be full of dynamically lined space”[3] as he strives to convey the concept of natural inclusion as a way of seeing through the pervasive illusion of abstract rationality.
It can be uncomfortable to abandon an Illusion

With everything and everyone circulating within her tiny reach our two-year-old granddaughter is certain she is the center of the universe. We hope she learns to see through this illusion as she matures and overcomes her ego involvement. Some people never do. Many—perhaps most—get stuck somewhere short of attaining a comprehensive awareness by egotistically sealing themselves or their club off from their natural neighborhood. What illusions are you failing to see? How are they limiting your understanding? How broad is your perspective? How accurate and complete is your worldview? “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child” the sage tells us “but when I became a man I put away childish things.”[4] It is time to abandon kid logic, and see past the many illusions that continue to mislead us as adults. Strive to attain a global perspective; then see through that too.

[1] The Flourishing Earth, A Vision of Humans Who Are Wise, Richard Hawley Trowbridge, January 13, 2013, Page 44.
[2] The Flourishing Earth, A Vision of Humans Who Are Wise, Richard Hawley Trowbridge, January 13, 2013, Prolog.
[3] His ideas on Natural Inclusion are shared at and in his recent book NaturesScope – Unlocking Our Natural Empathy and Creativity.
[4] Christian Bible, Corinthians 13. Translations vary.

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