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The Perceptual Revolution

Written By: Paul Rebhan

Posted: 7/14/2004 12:00:00 AM   Reads: 1128   Submitted By:0x6a656666   Category: Philosophy and Culture
Escaping the prison of the human senses 
July, 2004 
The world as we see it is only the world as we see it. Others may see it differently. - Albert Einstein 
Human history is filled with many examples where ideas once thought to be unquestionable were subsequently overturned. There have been times where new insights dramatically changed previously held beliefs about the world, and where authorities in various subjects have claimed to posses ultimate answers, only to see those answers crumble in light of new discoveries. 
Examples abound. Scientists dismissed the idea of meteorites in the 1700’s because "rocks cannot fall from the sky." Until the discovery of microbes, most people had no idea that millions of tiny creatures lived on, and inside, their bodies. Early claims that moving magnets could generate electricity were ridiculed. A Nobel laureate once declared that it would be impossible to ever harness the power of atomic energy. Weeks before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, a newspaper article explained how such a feat was "scientifically impossible." Einstein showed us that perceptions of time could change dramatically from the way we experience it on earth, and the discovery of quantum physics showed that the previously held "laws of physics" ceased being laws at a certain level of smallness. More recently, it was stated as an undeniable fact that adult human brains could not produce new cells, until a 1998 study found otherwise. These examples and many others show us the imprudence of assuming absolute knowledge. 
The idea that knowledge in any area can be considered complete or absolute is appealing to many people, perhaps because it is somehow comforting. Yet, it is an idea that simply has no basis. Besides the long record we possess of humanity’s overturned "certainties," virtually all evidence and all forms of logic and reason contradict the very idea of absolute knowledge. What we generally refer to as "knowledge," "truth," "facts," "certainty," or "final answers" would be much more accurately described as "That which appears to be so, based on our current perceptions." 
In my book, Bubbles of Perception, I take a look at what happens when we combine the historical evidence of overturned ideas, the well-documented limits of the human senses, our continual expansion of perceptual limits through technology, and some exciting recent findings from the field of cognitive science. Cognitive scientists are amassing impressive evidence to show that every possible thought, concept and experience we have is clearly shaped and limited by our biological equipment. One of the leaders in this field, Dr. George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley refers to this as "the embodiment of the mind." 
This adds up to what I propose is an ever-evolving perceptual prison whose "walls" are constructed from the limits of our biology and our technology, and in which we are all prisoners. Our walls have been slowly expanding for a long time. Microscopes, telescopes, radio, infrared, micro-sensors and many other technologies have allowed us to perceive things beyond the limits of our physical sense organs. Electromagnetic transmission allowed us to surpass the biological limits of human communication. Computers have allowed us to process information of greater size and at greater speed than humans could otherwise handle. 
Now with the advent of biotechnology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology we are seeing the potential for direct enhancement of human biological functioning. As these technologies continue to expand at faster rates, so will our perceptual limits. We appear to be at the brink of a new era that I refer to as the Perceptual Revolution. It has the potential to redefine virtually every aspect of this experience we call life, and transport us to entirely new ways of experiencing it. 
A good analogy for this change might be found in the Ozark Cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae). This species lives in cave pools with no light, and as a result has evolved without eyes. Imagine if we could somehow interpret the brain signals of these fish. The concept of sight would probably be unfathomable because it is a sensory realm that these fish have never been exposed to. Imagine how dramatically it would change their perception of the world if they suddenly gained the tool of sight and light. What kind of additional sensory tools could we humans add that would dramatically alter our own perceptions of the world? Like the Ozark Cavefish that has no reason to even imagine the concept of sight, we may not even be able to currently imagine what additional realms surround, intersect with, or affect us in a myriad of potential ways. 
This is not just an imaginary hypothesis. Theoretical physicists are now looking into the possibility that space is made up of many more than the three physical dimensions (and one time dimension) we currently perceive. If substantiated, these extra dimensions would mean that there could be any number of objects and activities all around us, or even passing through us, that we are completely unaware of - including objects we might refer to as life-forms or other beings.  
If our current perceptual boundaries can be expanded enough, I suspect that future generations will look back at us much in the same way that we look upon the Ozark Cavefish: as unfortunate creatures who did not have the necessary tools to perceive much of what was all around them. 
In part 2 of this series, I will discuss how Perceptualism can be useful in forming new perspectives about mysterious and highly debated subjects such as extra-sensory perception, telepathy and extra-terrestrials. 
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Paul Rebhan is the author of Bubbles of Perception: exploring the limits and the future of human perception. For more information, see www.bubblesofperception.com. 
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