Are We On the Outside of the Universe Looking In?

It might be that the representational model of mind is the source of the existential feelings of separation, isolation and alienation that are so common in our world. Let me explain, most of us would readily admit that what we perceive as reality is not exactly accurate. Our perception is made up partly of things which are objectively real and partly of interpretations that we add to the picture. But doesn’t this view disconnect us from the real world?
When we talk about objective reality what we commonly mean is that which is real even if we are not around. Objective reality – or the real world – has a reality independent of us. That means that if something is objectively real I will see it the same way that everyone else does. If two or more people see things differently they can’t all be seeing what is objectively real. To get to what is truly real we would have to strip away any errors in perception or biases that anyone of us might be holding.

And that is the way we tend to think about reality. Reality, we imagine, is what is left when we are not adding anything to the picture. It already exists and we just need to see it clearly. To get from our interpreted picture of reality to an accurate picture of reality all we need to do is strip away all of the interpretation and then we move closer and closer to the real world. We find out what is real by stripping away what is false. In a sense we are stripping ourselves out of the picture to find reality. But that seems to place us outside of reality. Hmmmm… is reality really something that exists independent of us? Are we outside of reality looking in at it?

This is how we most commonly think about it, but it is not how the American Pragmatists did. In the conception of reality that I just explained reality is what is there first and our thoughts and ideas are just representations –often erroneous – about reality. We are outside of reality looking at it. To the Pragmatists our ideas are as much a part of reality as are the objective things that we think about. We are not separate from reality thinking about it – we are part of it. This means that our ideas about reality are also a part of reality and so as our ideas grow so does reality. Reality grows! The growth of consciousness and awareness is part of the growth of the universe.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose influence on the Pragmatists of the next generation was significant, talked about “a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.”

We do not find reality only by stripping away our ideas from it; we actually add more to reality by thinking about it. We start with a bare object and it grows as ideas attach to it and add more meaning and significance. If you think about this you can find metaphorical examples of it in your own experience. Imagine that you see something in the distance – maybe it is just a gleam of reflected light. At first it looks like nothing significant, but it catches your eye. You approach it and you begin to see that it looks like some metal object – hmmm maybe it is more significant than you at first thought. Coming closer you see that it is a coin. You pick it up and find that it is rare silver two dollar piece. Which is more real the initial gleam at the edge of sight or the rare 2 dollar silver piece? Both are equally real, but in the second case reality has grown in richness and in texture and in meaning. Reality has become ‘thicker’ as William James would say. Rudolf Steiner spoke about the growth of reality as the growth of thought.  In Steiner’s own words…

“The task fell to the human spirit to bring the world process itself to a conclusion, so to speak. What existed there without the human spirit was only half of reality, was unfinished, was everywhere patchwork.”

William James would make a similar statement when he wrote…

“The world is in so far forth a pluralism of which the unity is not fully experienced as yet. But… The universe continually grows in quantity by new experiences that graft themselves upon the older mass; but these very new experiences often help the mass to a more consolidated form.”

Our ideas are not ideas about reality – they are a part of reality. We are not separate from reality looking at it, we are part of it. We are part of this universe and our ideas are part of this universe. In effect they are not truly our ideas, they are the universe’s ideas and we just happen to be the thinking organ of the universe.