Facts and Perception


There is, of course, a whole world that exists in time and space independently of our minds and perceptions. Things that have extension through space we call objects. Alterations in those objects we call events. These objects and events together are what we typically call facts. The world of facts has real existence whether we perceive it or not, and in that sense it can rightly be called objective.

In principle every event and object is accessible, either immediately to our senses or else through the extension of our senses through instrumentation and other media. We can observe distant galaxies through telescopes, minuscule amoebae through microscopes, speeding electrons in cloud chambers, and so forth. The sheer number of facts that we could observe in any instant is so incalculable that, for our purposes, it might as well be infinite.

Most of these facts, however, escape our notice entirely. Even now you are sensing facts of which you are unaware. Perhaps you have failed to notice the sound of the air moving through the ductwork around you. Perhaps you have overlooked the texture of the ceiling or the intricacies of the pattern in the carpet. Almost certainly you are unaware of the weight of your clothing upon your body. The moment I mention such things, you notice them instantly, but until I did they were completely outside your consciousness. At any given time, we are taking account only of the tiniest proportion of the facts that are available to us, even when those facts are actually stimulating our senses.

The facts that we do sense often turn out to be different than their appearances. You are now reading what you perceive to be words on a computer screen, and you perceive the individual letters of which those words are composed. If you were to examine the characters more closely, however, you would discover individual pixels being lit with different colors. At a sufficient degree of magnification the letters would disappear and you would perceive only the pixels.

When you watch a movie, you perceive the appearance of objects in motion. No motion is actually occurring, however. You are really observing a succession of still photographs being presented in rapid sequence. Because each image registers slightly longer on your retina than it actually appears on the screen, your brain is able to meld this succession of stationary objects into an illusion of motion.

John Locke famously proposed an experiment in which you keep one hand in very hot water and the other in ice water for several minutes. Then you plunge both hands into tepid water. One hand will perceive the tepid water as cool or even cold, while the other will perceive it as quite warm. Your brain will register both of these sensations simultaneously.

Even Scripture employs the language of appearance. According to Ecclesiastes 1:5, the sun rises and goes down. This statement is true as a description of our perception, but it does not obligate us to adopt a geocentric cosmology. When Psalm 104:5 speaks of the immobility of the earth, it is speaking of our perception of the earth and not denying either its rotation or its revolution around the sun. In the same way, God is able to invest the rainbow with meaning (Gen. 9:12-17), not because a rainbow somehow exists as a rainbow in an objective reality exterior to our perceptions, but because our perception presents it to us as an appearance in the cloud.

Are the appearances real? The answer to that question depends entirely on what we mean by “real.” They are real as appearances, but they are not ultimate. They are real in the sense that God has constituted our minds to shape information in such a way as to perceive them. They are not real in the sense that they are “out there” independently of our perception. Something, however, is “out there.” A genuine appearance (as opposed to a mere hallucination) has some external reality behind it.

Appearances or phenomena differ from objective, external reality at least some of the time. If they differ some of the time, then we cannot preclude the possibility that they differ most or perhaps all of the time. Evidently, God has made our minds to approach reality through some kind of a filter. This filter allows some facts to enter our consciousness while blocking others. The world that we actually know is not immediately the world of external reality, but rather the gridwork that our mind constructs in its encounter with the facts that make it through the filter.

Indeed, the situation is even more complicated, because facts do not exist in isolation from one another. In the world of external reality, every fact (i.e., every event and object) is somehow connected to every other fact in a massive web of cause and effect. Somehow every fact touches every other fact in a multiplex of relationships. This great order or system in which all facts are related is what we call the universe, and it is a universe rather than a multiverse because of these connections.

Since we live in a universe in which all facts are connected, no fact can be understood in isolation. To grasp what the fact really is we must understand its relationships to all other facts. Every fact points beyond itself to other facts and to the connections between them. In other words, facts do not simply exist. Facts also mean. They have significance.

Understanding the connection between facts is the work of interpretation. Because facts are connected to other facts in a universe of meaning, we do not know a fact until we have interpreted it. Any right knowledge of a fact requires a right interpretation of that fact. Those facts that register in our consciousness are always and already interpreted.

In view of the foregoing, we need to realize that we use the term world in two senses. We may use it to refer to the order that exists outside of and independently of our perception, i.e., the external world of facts in all their relationships. Alternatively, we may (and thinkers since Heidegger typically do) use the word world to refer to the inner interpreted reality that our minds create, i.e., the inner map of objects, events, and connections that forms our mental image of reality and that guides us as we interpret and navigate through the external world. This inner grid is what Heidegger called Welt, and our use of it to interpret and traverse the process of life is what he called Weltanschauung, or world-view.

Our world-view constitutes much of our subjectivity (though Heidegger insists that even the subject-object distinction is already part of our Weltanschauung). An order (a grid) exists outside of us in the external world. An order (a grid) also exists within our own minds and constitutes our awareness of the world. In our finite, human existence, these two grids never perfectly coincide. One reason is that our minds simply cannot absorb the immense number of events, objects, and connections that exist in the exterior world. The other reason is that, for reasons we will examine later, our internal grid is typically skewed away from the order of the external grid. Our minds not only ignore connections that really do exist, they also create connections that do not.

To anticipate part of that discussion, I will simply note that this is where sin produces noetic effects. If our knowledge of the world is mediated through an inner grid, then whatever reshapes the grid reshapes what we think and what we know (or think we know). According to Romans 1, this is precisely what sin has done. That discussion deserves a separate and fuller exposition.

The aim of modernity was to find a way to approach the external world (the outer grid) that would circumvent or at least greatly reduce the effect of the inner grid. Indeed, certain forms of modernism (e.g., Common Sense Realism) even denied the existence of an inner grid. The inner world was still there, however, and attempts to ignore it amounted to devastating hubris.

We are now receiving retribution in the form of postmodernism. To overstate the case slightly, postmoderns do not necessarily deny that events occur and objects exist outside of our minds. They insist, however, that there is no grid “out there.” The order that we perceive is purely an order that we impose upon the facts, though we are not aware of doing so. Postmoderns argue about how, when, and for whom this order is created, but they agree that a variety of such orders (or perceptions of order) exist side-by-side among human beings, and that no one order can rightly claim hegemony over all others.

We cannot defend ourselves against postmodernism by retreating into modernity. The bad turn that led to postmodernity was taken, not when modernism was abandoned, but when it was embraced. The only escape is to work our way back up the road to the point at which we took the wrong fork.

That promises to be an arduous task. Sluggards will find it too demanding and the myopic will find it too daunting. Those who walk up this road should realize that it will change everything. Most of all, it will change our approach to God and to His revelation. To explain why that is so, however, requires more space than I can devote in this single essay.

George Herbert (1593-1633)

BLEST be the God of love,
Who gave me eyes, and light, and power this day,
Both to be busie, and to play.
But much more blest be God above,

Who gave me sight alone,
Which to himself he did denie:
For when he sees my waies, I dy:
But I have got his sonne, and he hath none.

What have I brought thee home
For this thy love? have I discharg’d the debt,
Which this dayes favour did beget?
I ranne; but all I brought, was some.

Thy diet, care, and cost
Do end in bubbles, balls of winde;
Of winde to thee whom I have crost,
But balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.

Yet still thou goest on,
And now with darknesse closest wearie eyes,
Saying to man, It doth suffice:
Henceforth repose; your work is done.

Thus in thy Ebony box
Thou dost inclose us, till the day
Put our amendment in our way,
And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.

I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night; that is the gale, this th’ harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that the garden, this the grove.

My God, thou art all love.
Not one poore minute ‘scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 4 Comments

John Harper's picture

Smile This is quite unbelievable. One hundred and thirty reads, and no smart comments. Such fathomless beauty, complexity, and power is put on our plate and no one criticizes the chef? Smile Maybe thankfulness is in order!

Thanks Bauder!

rrobinson's picture

This article made a lot of sense to me as the "inner grid" is something I find in common experience, and definitely comes up when thinking about or talking about worldviews. Happens a lot... I take in something new and it naturally comes up against my internal framework; my mind wants to mesh it with what is already there; sometimes something doesn't sit easily and I make the best of it, wishing I had a better grasp of it. Sometimes, just a prayer for insight, a word from someone else, reading something that sheds some light on it, an epiphany in the middle of the night, whatever... one of these makes a few things tumble into position and parts of my grid get re-aligned for the better -- parts of my grid become better aligned with the grid "out there".

So, I can readily accept the idea of a filter through which we perceive things. Paul Henebury seems to be arguing that everyone can perceive all facts and truths and things truly and in the same way as others, because we are all equally capable of "direct access" to the mind of God in a univocal manner. I think this is somewhat idealistic, since even the best of Christians disagree and debate on numerous nuances and interpretations and translations. I would like to hear a bit more about how this works out in practice for him, because it sure does not seem to be a common experience in the lives of even the most devoted Christians -- true insights are all too infrequent for my liking; they take a lot of prayer and a lot of sharpening. Partly, this is why the list of fundamentals is fairly short.

The above doesn't particularly worry me in terms of God imparting to his finite creatures what we need to know in order to know Him and respond to Him. And when God is spoken of as "wholly other" I don't think of there being no attainable meaning whatsoever in the universe, as Paul Henebury seems to be insisting; rather, just that God is outside His universe, and we simply do not know how our perception of things does or does not correspond to God and heaven. We cannot put God "in a box"; we cannot put Him, as Creator, inside His own universe. We respond in faith despite our not having complete understanding nor a firm grasp on reality from every angle. I can appreciate analogies of us spiraling in on the truth as it is often illustrated. I also appreciate C.S. Lewis' sense of mystery and awe about our Creator God, so I like the reference to C.S. Lewis in one of the other articles. We will be making discoveries about our inexhaustible God and His love (and even the universe) for eternity to come.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I appreciate where this has gone, but I'm not sure why it didn't just start out there. Smile

It seems like we're saying nothing more than:
1- What we sense is real but we don't sense all of the reality of it, and sometimes we sense incorrectly as well as incompletely
2- We understand/apprehend "truth" by relating it to other truths, though the reality behind the truth exists independently of our understanding or belief

I can't see anything I'd want to argue with in that. But saying "truth is subjective" and "there are no brute facts" doesn't really communicate the same thing without a whole lot of explaining. So rather than put it that way and have to explain for thousands of words, why not just start out with less-confusing terms?
(Of course, the confusion may all be mine... but I doubt it)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

B Toothman's picture

While I enjoy a challenging read, I must agree with Aaron's comment. I hope this does not make a sluggard.

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