Contexts of perception

After thinking, here is another analogy to explain the functional, relative nature of concepts: If I look at a tree in a meadow, I can point to it and say, “That is a tree, while the rest is not.” The concept of “tree” isolates one part of what I’m seeing from the rest. But if I say, “There are just atoms over there,” or, “There is only energy in front of me,” I no longer have any reason to distinguish “tree” from the whole. “Tree” does not exist in terms of pure energy, but only in the macro scale of plants and vegetation.

Which is more accurate, to say there is a tree composed of “energy”, like everything else; or there is energy, part of which I label “tree”? Is tree the reality, and “energy” a supporting identity? Or is energy the reality and “tree” merely supplemental? There are many ways to classify what I see – infinitely many – in some of which “tree” has meaning, but in most of which it does not. “Tree”, then, is applicable as a term only when it is understood that I am using a particular framework of description: a context of perception: a paradigm.

In other contexts, “tree” disappears, though we might overlay contexts so that “tree” is perceived while talking about atoms and energy. Unless one context can be said to have priority over others in terms of what is really there, we have no more reason to believe that “tree” exists than we do to believe it does not. In everyday life we rank our perceptual contexts, or paradigms, according to a hierarchy of values which are directly related to the goals we want to achieve; but these priorities are not inherent in the contexts themselves.

To ask the famous question of a tree falling in the forest, there is no objective reason to differentiate between the “tree”, “forest” and “sound” it makes after hitting the ground, unless we have a purpose for doing so. Without a perceiver these terms do not exist. It would be equally valid to say that “energy was” before the tree fell, and “energy was” after the event. In terms of energy, nothing happened. Even to say it was reconfigured depends upon context, since infinite ways exist to visualize the original and subsequent configurations. Since energy was neither added nor removed by the event, in terms of energy its state did not change. Thus change itself is found only within our paradigms; it cannot be said to apply to the underlying reality, or what all the paradigms refer to in common.

This implies that no reason exists to think that what we see is “there”, in the sense of saying, “There is a tree over there in the meadow.” The sentence remains useful for many purposes, but to say that a tree is really there, independent of the paradigms in which we perceive “tree”, is no more valid than to say it is not there at all. The words do not describe what we are seeing, they only identify the context used to convey the scene. We could describe the scene in other ways, even experience it in other ways – such as in memory, dreams, or under the influence of chemicals – in which neither “tree” nor “meadow” are seen. This abandonment of terminology yields a loss of words, as with any novel experience with no determined context. The later invention of context might offer a common frame of reference for describing the event, but it will never accurately portray its content.

The use of concepts to achieve purpose is inestimably valuable, and deserves all the refinements we constantly make. It is only when we confuse description (ideas, concepts, contexts, paradigms) with the inexpressible reality, as with mistaking a map for the territory it describes, that we find it difficult to see things in terms of other paradigms, or to appreciate the mystery that we have never really known what we see: a fact that should always engender a deep sense of wonder and curiosity.