Realism and Perception

In 1927 Werner Heisenberg shocked the world of classical physics by claiming that when we measure the world, we change it. He called this the uncertainty principle. This concept gave the scientific community credibility with what philosophers had gradually come to understand over the preceding hundred years: Human beings cannot ever know what is “really real”. We participate more deeply than we imagine in shaping the world that we perceive.

Philosophers have coined the term “naïve realism” as the world view that defines reality as a given entity outside our perception and see language as the tool through which we describe this external reality. But Heisenberg suggests that whenever we articulate what we see, our language interacts with our direct experiences. Therefore, the “reality” we bring forth arises from this interaction.

In a sense, we tend to confuse the maps for the territory. We develop a sense of certainty about our perceived reality that robs us of the capacity to wonder and develop new interpretations and new possibilities for action. Who we are becomes our beliefs and our views. This is why some people will defend an attack on their beliefs as if it were an attack on them. When I’m confronted with multiple interpretations of “reality” I seek those that are most useful to a particular purpose, understanding that there’s no ultimately “correct” interpretation and value can be derived from a multiplicity of views.


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