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Shayne Looper: Human perception and the nature of reality

Shayne Looper: Human perception and the nature of reality

Humans interact with the world through the five senses, which Aristotle listed as sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. But our “reality interface” also includes senses that Aristotle knew nothing about in his day. To date, researchers have identified between seven and 14 senses, depending upon how one defines a “sense.”

There is proprioception, the body’s awareness of where it is in space. Equilibrioception gives the body balance. It depends on the vestibular system, which also gives us an awareness of velocity. There is mechanosensation, which communicates neuronal sensations to the brain, and others.

Some animals have senses we do not possess or do not use. In their hunt for prey, sharks use electroception, the ability to sense electrical fields. Bats navigate by magnetoreception, the ability to detect magnetic fields.

Whether human or some other species, the experience of reality is mediated to all animals through the senses. Yet, the ability to effectively use these senses does not come ready-made. It develops gradually, especially in humans.

Research suggests that children under the age of 8 are unable to fully integrate information simultaneously received by the various senses. They can hear a bird’s call and see a cardinal perched on a telephone line, but their brains may not be able to combine the information from both senses into one experience.

A recent study comparing how children and adults process visual information, conducted by University College of London and Birkbeck University, found that adults can integrate multiple visual cues in a way that children under the age of 12 cannot. Vision is not a unified experience but is constructed from multiple cues that are consolidated by the brain. Children’s brains do not consolidate the information the way an adult’s brain does.

One example: Depth perception is based on more than one visual cue. The brain uses stereopsis, the visual signals received by two eyes rather than just one, to perceive depth. It also uses texture, convergence (the narrowing of the perceived separation of objects as they grow more distant), and other cues as well. Children see these various cues, just as adults do, but their brains do not consolidate them as effectively as adults. They remain distinct.

If animals perceive reality differently than humans — think of sharks using electromagnetic fields to find their supper — and if adults perceive reality differently than children, what makes us think that adulthood brings with it an accurate and comprehensive perception of reality? Is this conceit warranted? We readily admit that a child’s or animal’s perception is limited. Why do we assume that ours is not?

If there are higher order beings in the universe — think of science fiction’s familiar super aliens — might they not receive sense data that we cannot experience and process such enhanced data in ways that surpass our abilities? But higher order beings are not just in science fiction; they are also in the Bible. Various species of beings are mentioned in Scripture, the most familiar of which we call angels. We know what they are called, but we hardly know what they are, or of what they are capable. Do angels perceive reality differently, and perhaps more fully, than we do?

Recent research into quantum anomalies has led some scientists to claim that there is no independent reality apart from observation and measurement. Physics World went so far as to claim, “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.” But this idea assumes that human perception is what matters — an assumption which is dubious, at best.

Still, the physicists may be onto something when they say that reality is not independent of observation. Where they err is in thinking that it is human observation that gives reality its shape. Not even adult humans are developed enough to make full use of the data their senses receive — and what of the data they don’t receive?

It is not humans nor even angels who give reality objective existence. They are both creatures, whose existence is contingent on another. The one who observes all reality, and in so doing gives it an objective reality, is the creator: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes.”

— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.

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