Escape From The Myth of the Given

One way to think about the existential dilemma of postmodernism is that we began to realize that our perception of reality is a hopeless tangle of sensation and interpretation. What we assume to be reality as we look out at the world is not objectively real. It is a perspective on reality that is constructed through a lens of ideas and attitudes that we have personally developed and culturally inherited and are largely not even aware of. To find the ‘real’ truth postmodernist realized that we must deconstruct our assumptions about what is real.

One aspect of the Myth of the Given that the philosopher Wilfred Sellers wrote about decades ago is the erroneous idea that what we perceive as real is so. We constantly assume that the way we see reality is the way that reality actually is. Generally it is only after the fact, when we realize that we have made a mistake, that we recognize that what we had thought was real was not. At those moments we apologize saying that we were not seeing clearly. And by seeing clearly what we mean is seeing objectively – in other words seeing reality the way it actually is. But do we ever see reality as it actually is? Or is our experience of reality always perceived through a lens of one type or another? The postmodern view is the later – it is never possible to see the world without any mitigating lens or persepctive.

Many have complained that this view can only lead us down a road toward total relativism. That is what the great Scottish philosopher David Hume seemed to find. He realized that in the end all we know is our experience without any way of knowing if that experience relates to any “real” at all – any guess is as good as any other.

But it seems to me that this problem exists, or is at least accentuated by, the way that reality is being defined in the first place – because reality is assumed to be whatever would continue to exist once all of our interpretations were removed from it. So to find reality all we have to do is strip our expereience of all interpretation.

There might be a better way to look at it. What would happen if we didnn’t define reality as only what exists when we are not there, but instead assert that reality includes both whatever objectively exists as well as our perception and interpretation of it? Maybe this will allow us to escape the existential dilemma of the myth of the given.

One of the things that happens if we do this is that we move from a static preexisting reality to an evolving reality. In the static model of reality that which is real is ultimately defined as that which existed first before we perceived and interpreted it. In the evolving model of reality that which was there first is real, but that which is here now – including our perceptions and interpretations – is real, and even more so that which will be here in the future – including our as yet unrealized perceptions and interpretations – is also real.

In this way of seeing reality, reality is not a thing that is then perceived – reality is a process and part of that process is the growth of perception. Our perceptions of reality are not separate from reality, they are part of reality. The fact that our current perception of reality is not as clear or accurate as our future perception will be is not a problem. After all we don’t feel that the fact that a child is not as mature now as he will be as an adult is a problem. The universe is growing, everything is currently in a form that is different from, and less than, what it will be in the future. And that is perfectly OK.