Modes of Seeing Reality

The sun that arose yesterday and the sun that rises tomorrow are considered the same because the idea referred to by “sun” has not changed. The atoms of its surface may have changed entirely, the configuration of its energy, the pattern of its magnetic fields; but in terms of the attributes we mean by “sun”, nothing has changed.

The word, then, does not refer to a present reality, but to an idea whose purpose is to abstract the basic principle of the individual suns presented over time. If “sun” meant any one sun, it would cease to be true even before it was spoken. This same holds for individuals, all of whose atoms will have changed to a different configuration by the time one conceives the thought.

Time permits minute transformations so constant that the physical bodies we give names to have little to do with reality. The distance of electrons from the parent nucleus is such that, if time were entirely stopped, all we could see in place of Earth would be dark space. But since electrons whirl at tremendous speeds, and because changing energy states allow photons to be absorbed and retransmitted, time permits a visual perception of “things” whose reality is otherwise imperceptible.1

These “things”, then, like the “sun”, do not refer to real compositions of elements, but to more abstract conceptions inferred from the consistencies among the transformations of those elements. These successive temporal impressions impinge on the memory, and owing to a lack of fundamental differentiation from earlier counterparts, an imago is formed in the mind to which we can apply a word like “sun”.

This demonstrates that the “sun” is not the sun. Nor can the real sun ever be known in the same way as ideas, since it changes before consciousness has an opportunity to conceive of its prior state. This leaves us with two modes of apprehending reality: Cognitively, by the process of ideation that abstract ideas and principles from constantly changing particulars; and directly, by the mere fact that our own existence is part of the reality of which we are aware.

If direct experience could not take place, it would mean one can only live in the ideational landscape presented by the mind – in the summarized projection of actual reality. However, since this process of summary is indeed taking place – as evidenced by the imagos resulting from it – then at some level we must be aware of the contents to which these summaries refer. That is, for an awareness of “sun” to exist, there must at some level be an awareness of the actual sun, even if pre-consciously we transcend those infinitesimal experiences to arrive at the truncated abstraction, “sun”.

Some religious philosophies propose that we turn fully to the direct experience of reality by forgoing cognitive apperception. By emptying the mind, by meditation, the avoidance of words, resisting processes of identification, we can experience what is real by refusing to reduce it in terms of human understanding.

This approach, while it appreciates the value of the realities founding our experience of life, neglects the nobility of the mind in its ability to perceive underlying principles. If direct experience is being aware of the infinite variety of life, then apperception is the discovery of the fundamental unities underlying this variety.

Were human happiness found only in a direct perception of reality, there would be little reason to argue in favor of apperception. But can one be happy who denies their nature? If use of the mind is a natural inclination – and pursuing knowledge causes enough joy to suggest this is so – then ideation must take its place among the higher pursuits.

What does ideation offer? There are some who scorn science because it removes people from life, while others – the physicists – find so much joy in the idea of ultimate theories of life that they dedicate their lives to it. They obviously enjoy something that fully engages their attention. Perhaps both kinds of awareness offer something to the soul.

Returning to the analogy of the sun, we cognize the abstract term “sun” by transcending2 the sequence of individual suns that present themselves over a course of time. One could say we glean a principle from the variegation of phenomena; that reality offers us a set of impressions, which are consistent in some regard, and our intellect is capable of identifying the nature of this consistency. In the case of the sun, it is light, warmth, location, etc., in contrast to its ever-varying quantity of atoms.

Yet the longer we spend in our study of the sun, the more we discover that even in the flux of atomic configurations there are general principles to be discovered. This perception of principle from phenomena seems capable of as much profundity as the degree of our attention, with the result that physicists continue to grow hopeful of finding a single set of laws that will describe the exceedingly complex interactions of the universe.

The motive underlying this search for a general description of reality is perhaps more than mere intellectual curiosity. Whenever principles are discovered there is a feeling of release from the vagaries of time, coupled with a deep appreciation of how ably time plays out the consequences of such principles. We detach ourselves from the inexplicable character of phenomena – with the danger of separating ourselves from life; while those who pursue direct experience unify themselves with phenomena at the risk of becoming incurious.

Direct experience appears to exercise the extroverted nature in man: our ability to sympathize and sacrifice the coherence of our identity in order to know more intimately what is external to the self; while apperception exercises our introverted nature by abstracting from the many toward an inner experience of the one. The fewer the laws, principles, and ideas, which are needed to describe life, the more harmonious and unified our relationship to it. For whereas objects are constantly different, they are also always the same. These two modes of reality are coexistent, so it makes sense that human beings pursue two modes of comprehending that reality.

The ideal of direct experience is that nothing is ever the same: each moment is always new, unexplored, mysterious. The ideal of apperception is that everything is familiar and well-known; that even between people who have never met, there is a deeper bond uniting them as though instances of a single entity. Consider a universe full of mirrors, with a single light shining into all of them. On the one hand, since the angles of the mirror are different – and the effect is compounded by reflected reflections – one sees a rich universe filled with variety and complexity; on the other hand, since there is only light, all that is ever seen is that light – and to know the light well enough is to know the potential for its variation in the mirrors.

If we call these two experiences of life immanence and transcendence, then the fullest development of man would consist in an appreciation of both: the unity of life and the diversity of life. So the magnifying feeling that comes through the discovery of general principles is as potent as the feeling of knowing that every morn and evening is different from those that came before.

Without denying or demeaning the richness of every drop filling the sea, yet it is also true that each drop conveys all the ocean’s secrets, and that even in an atom one may discern the signature of the laws governing the whole expanse of the universe. All things proceed revolve around a single principle, while no matter how much we may experience, one is astonished at the infinite forms this purpose has called into being.


  1. Since even electrons exist through the whirling interactions of subatomic particles, is there even a “reality” when time is stopped?

  2. Such transcendence of phenomena is discussed at length by the phenomenologist schools of thought.