version of: May 30, 2004
Chapter 9: Isotropy
Experimentation moves from part to whole, from analysis to synthesis, from particularity to unification. Or stating it more completely, from nothing to part to whole. The first step is to investigate the laboratory, thoroughly, familiarizing yourself with what is there when there is no experiment being done. The second step is to test and analyze specific details of various simple setups. The third step is to combine the insights thus gained, to arrive at a more integrated way of seeing a situation.
Experiment 1.3: From All Directions
Once again, do the subject-object reversal experiment 1.1, starting with a single object. After gaining some familiarity, add another object, and try to see whether you can simultaneously reverse the subject and objects poles with respect to you seeing the two objects. When you succeed to some extent, add more objects.
After a while, you can shift to a reversal of you as the subject pole with respect to everything that appears in your field of vision. Anything that you are watching, clearly or dimly, is now watching you. Stay with this reversal for a while, ideally for at least a few sessions.
When you have gathered extensive experience, and lab notes, of this approach, extend it to letting everything around you watch you. You can start with the wall behind you, or the sky behind you, if you are outdoors. Most likely this will yield a rather different experience than the other phases in this experiment, so far. Be very careful to notice the difference, and to include those in your reports.
Eventually, after several sessions, you can complete the process of incorporation of different objects and different directions, when you let everything watch you from any direction, without any preference to whether things are in front of you or behind you, near or far. You can let your attention go out isotropically, equally in all directions, and then you simply reverse the subject-object polarization, letting everything watch you from all directions.
Degrees of Freedom
The description above is in fact a whole package of experiments, each of which can be the topic of investigation in a number of different settings, indoors, outdoors, in a quiet surrounding or in a bustling situation. It may be best to start in a relatively simple and quiet space, but it is important to explore at least some of the various degrees of freedom that make up your environment.
It will surely feel different to let everything in your whole field of vision look at you, when you are out in the country side, compared to when you are standing at a busy city intersection. Similarly, letting the objects behind you watch you will depend quite a bit on where you are, as well as on your own mental make up at that time and place.
If you want to be systematic about your exploration, and good experimentation is always systematic, you can make a matrix of possibilities, and explore each combination a few times. You can make a two-dimensional table, where you label the rows with the different types of experiment described above, and you label the columns with the different situations you will test: indoors, outdoors nature, outdoors city, etc.
In fact, it is even better to make the table more multidimensional, and to do the experiments under all combinations of a number of degrees of freedom, pertaining both to you and the external situation. In that case, for each session you make a particular choice for the following questions: indoors/outdoors; quiet/busy; day/night; tired/refreshed; and so on.
The descriptions of the various stages in experiment 1.3 become increasingly more general and less precise. With two or three objects, you know whether or not you are paying attention to them all, and where after the reversal you can sense all of them watching you. By the time you include all objects from your fields of vision, it will be hard to keep track of them all. In addition, there will be many objects at the periphery which you hardly recognize.
The important thing is not to worry about these details, at least for now, and just to carry the experiment lightly. The essential point is to get an intimate familiarity with the way the experiment shakes loose your habitual identification with the subject pole of your experience, in frozen patterns that you may never have questioned. Each of the experiments offered here do the shaking in different ways.
Also, don't worry about not including all objects in the universe, as you are asked to do in the last stage of the experiment. Clearly, that is an impossible task. But do make sure that you don't give up too easily, either. Do try to extend your attention further and further, and ultimately indefinitely far, in whatever picture you have of the universe as a whole.
So far we have used the word `object' in a rather loose sense. It is good to start the subject-object reversal by working with concrete objects such as a chair or a tree. But after a while, it would be good to try to work with more distributed and less circumscribed objects, such as the sky as a whole. It will be fun to work with something even more diffuse, like rain or fog, next time you get a chance.
Ordinary consciousness, under normal circumstances, is typically a consciousness of something by someone: each act of consciousness has a subject pole and an object pole. So anything you can be aware of can play the role of object in a subject/object reversal. Even something that is not there: a pothole is the absence of a piece of pavement. Try it, and let a pothole look at you, or a keyhole, or a window.
So far we have only worked with objects that are presented to you in your visual consciousness. In later chapters we will explore other modalities, but I suggest you don't jump ahead: it is important to explore a particular area well before you move on to another one. Otherwise your impressions will quickly form one big jumble, and it won't be easy to make sense of your lab notes either, afterward.
Most people feel a degree of uneasiness when they first let objects behind them look at them. This is altogether normal, and nothing to be apprehensive of. It is a fascinating phenomenon, though. Normally, we take up a position of control, in the ego fortification in the very center of our field of consciousness, from which we shoot our arrows of perception in all directions. Really reversing the direction of the arrows can come as quite a surprise.
We may think that perception is a purely passive engagement with the world, in contrast to active manipulation. In our body, our nervous systems maintains contact with the outside world through sensory and motor neurons. The latter trigger muscles and glands to operate, while the former carry information back into the brain and spinal cord. However, this simple picture is too crude to describe what is really going on.
With a visual scene in front of you, it is easy to notice the relaxation in the muscles around your eyes that occurs quickly after you do a subject/object switch. Somehow a certain amount of tension had been used to grasp objects with our attention, as long as we identified with our role of subject; and this tension may become noticeable only when switching to the object role -- noticeable through its sudden absence, when the tension is released.
Like someone growing up and living his or her whole life in a village near a waterfall, it may be a strange and unsettling experience to move to a different village. Suddenly there is no sound of water anymore, and the absence may be hard to deal with at first. But after some adjustment, it may become clear that, surprisingly, it is now possible to hear things more clearly, even many small sounds that you didn't know existed.
The Other Side
The main purpose of all this experimentation, at this point, is to open up new terrain, at the edge of what is known. And although a lot is known in science, the edge of scientific knowledge is surprisingly near. In its study of objects, science has constructed this boomtown, full of buildings and structures with remarkably detailed knowledge, far, far more than anybody could ever master or even just survey, in a single lifetime. Yet when it comes to the interaction between subject and object, there is this almost totally unexplored wilderness, lying there right next to the terrain of the object, with not a single fence separating them!
How come hardly anyone ever ventures from this boomtown to the open land that is immediately adjacent? They couldn't be closer: each time you open your eyes, voilą, both subject and object are there, immediately. In its given-together-ness, as corresponding poles of an act of consciousness, the subject and object of a single act of seeing are closer to each other than any two objects can ever be.
The answer lies in the way that science got started. Great emphasis was put on verifiability of the results of experiments, by repeating them in different places, with different researchers doing the experiments. Scientists went at great length to step out of the picture, so to speak, in order to measure the properties of the objects of their study, without introducing any bias.
In itself this was a brilliant move, and an essential part of the methodology of science during its first few centuries. However, the time has come to rethink this methodology, and to replace it by a wider and less restrictive one.
To make the rules of the game less restrictive, when called for, has been an essential strategy in both science and mathematics. But it never happened without a struggle. In mathematics, the names of successively less restrictive number systems still point to the scars of the battles. The Greeks studied what we now call natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, and so on, as well as fractions such as 3/5, called rational numbers: reasonable names for useful numbers.
However, later came the negative numbers, like -1, the irrational numbers such as the square root of 2, and even the imaginary numbers, multiples of i, the square root of -1. The latter term is still friendly compared to their original name, of impossible numbers! What had these poor numbers done to deserve such pejorative names, apart from being later immigrants in the historical landscape of numbers? Well, like immigrants always are, they were different. And they sprung the bounds of what was deemed reasonable at the time of immigration.
Similarly, the rules of what was deemed reasonable to study in physics were much more restrictive in the seventeenth and eighteenth century than they are now. Can you imagine telling a physicist during the enlightenment that a couple hundred years later his colleagues would study the way space and time are curved by gravity, and that even empty space would be considered to be full of virtual particles that have no real existence yet have actual consequences that can be measured?
What we are waiting for now is a natural way to relax the strictures that are put upon the subject, requiring it to stay in hiding. How this will be done, in the various fields of science, is still a completely open question. That it will be done, is clear. It is an unavoidable development. The study of objects has been pushed so far as it can go, and is now bursting at the seems.
Molecular biology has led to great strides in our understanding of all aspects of how the human body is build up. It has given us fantastic descriptions of the extraordinary complexity that is present in each living cell, with its many complex structures, its myriads of chemical pathways, and the intricate dynamics of how it changes state over time.
As a result of this remarkable refinement of the study of objects that form the building blocks of our body, we are now rapidly unraveling the wiring diagram of our nervous system, including that of our brains. And since it is undeniable that there is a close correlation between thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and patterns of neuronal firing, on the other, thoughts and feelings are being dragged into the feel of neuroscience, no matter what the founding fathers of science decreed as being admissible or not.
Undoubtedly, resistance against admission of a role for the subject will continue, but at the same time, there will be more pressure for change. By the time we can build up some sort of dictionary between what the subject experiences and the behavior of objects in his or her brain, it will be impossible to ignore the subject completely. And once the subject is introduced, there is no way of predicting how science will evolve, as a result.
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