Did Modernism Isolate Us from the World?

The world doesn’t just exist, it shows up for us. It appears as the pure experience of the present moment. And one of the most amazing things about the world is that it changes – from age to age, generation to generation, over the course of a human lifetime, and through the duration of a day – the world keeps changing. Or at least how the world shows up for us does.

Think about a day when you started out in a good mood and then something happened to put you in a bad mood. Didn’t the world change? Didn’t your experience of the present moment shift? The effect of moods on our perception of reality was something that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a great deal of attention to. Why? Because it is amazing how a mood, a pervasive feeling, literally changes our perception of reality. If our perception of reality can be so significantly altered by a mood, what does that mean about our perception of reality right now, in this moment? Is the reality that I am experiencing right now really real? And what would that mean anyway?

The Enlightenment of the 17th century was a time of intellectual brilliance. With the triumph of science over the superstitions of the Middle Ages came the advent of the modern age. The modern age is characterized by a preference for objectivity. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to separate things from the context in which they appeared in order to see them more clearly. They developed a love for ‘facts’ and a fact can be defined as something that is true independent of context.

Underlying this quest for objectivity is a belief that the world is an object, that the universe is a collection of separate things that interact. By examining these things ever-more closely we can separate them out, atomize them, and discover the ultimate individual facts from which all the rest of reality is constructed. The belief that the world is reducible to a finite number of component parts that interact to create the world as it shows up for us is referred to as reductionism.

Most of us by now are familiar with the criticisms levied against this way of thinking. The term ‘scientific reductionism’ has become a synonym for bad. Let’s not be too hasty though. This way of thinking was an enormously successful strategy for understanding the world that has lead to the greatest and most rapid advancement of human life in recorded history. Would you want to go back to the Middle Ages? If I have to go back, make me part of the nobility please.

At the same time this strategy, while it is useful for many things, is not useful all the time. And it doesn’t completely match our experience of reality which means our experience of the present moment. William James in his book The Principles of Psychology wrote about the specious present which he defined as “the short duration (of time) of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible”. And our experience of the present moment is the subject of Alva Noe’s new book Varieties of Presence.

This specious present is a whole experience – not a collection of parts. It includes the seeming objects that confront us, the individual thoughts, objects, and feelings that arise out of circumstance. It also includes the background influences like moods, intentions, desires, fears, beliefs, assumptions, etc. These background influences do not have to show up as objects in consciousness although evidence of them often does. They are in the background, invisibly influencing our perception of reality. They are lenses through which we see the world and we are often not aware that we are wearing them. That is why we use the expression ‘wearing rose colored glasses’ to describe a person who is seeing the world through a good mood without realizing it.

The modernist tendency was to objectify the world. The world was seen as something that existed independent of our experience of it. And that which existed independent of us was considered real and our experience of it was a more or less distorted view of reality. The goal was to get ourselves out of the way so that we could see reality clearly as it existed independent of us. This strategy created a sense of isolation from reality that was later recognized by the romantic and existentialist thinkers. Modernism, for all of its great gifts, had also separated us from the world.

So which world is real, the objective world or the one that shows up for us as our experience of the specious present?