In my last post I floated the idea that even if we were able to somehow travel back in time and communicate freely with people from a bygone age, there would only – at best – be certain aspects of shared experience. This, I argued, is because ‘truth’ or what we term ‘reality’ is a subjective interplay between a person’s mind, brain and the objects and events that form to produce each person’s perceived world.
‘Aha,’ you may say, “If that were the case, how would you and I share a common view of a scene before us? Even a short discussion would prove that our vision of what lay around us was identical. We could even take photographs to demonstrate it!’
Well certainly we citizens of the 21st century share a common perception of the objects and events around us. Perceptive reality has strong links to social cohesion and the ‘training’ we were given in infancy.
Our culture has a slightly strange take on sharing our World View with new arrivals. A rich mythic tradition is passed on to our children – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, giants, goblins, elves and trolls appear in huge numbers of their storybooks and the bedtime tales we share with them. Talking animals and fabulous beasts abound. Then, as the children mature, these wonders are, one by one, consigned to a scrapheap of untruths. Those stories, they are told, were ‘just pretend’. Now they are expected to cast away such childish delights and focus on a world that can be seen, prodded and proved to be ‘real’.
“So are dinosaurs real?” asks the confused child. “What about dragons? What about Father Christmas…? Why did you lie to me?”
Parents and carers struggle to justify their actions. They are doing as their parents did. They are rearing their young in the way our society dictates. Once they reach the age of 7 or 8, even the child who knows she once saw fairies in the garden or glimpsed a fiery dragon from her window has put such things aside and conformed to the accepted and shared idea of how reality looks and feels. Mostly.
Of course there are still different perceptions within our common perceptual framework. If we imagine a hypothetical twenty people standing and regarding Stonehenge in the 2020s, all would probably be in agreement as to the size and bulk of the stones, the green of the grass, the colour of the sky, strength of the wind and sound of the passing traffic on the A303.
One observer, though, might be hugely excited at the sight of a military aircraft flying over the scene – an aspect of the experience missed totally by others.
Another of the people might be high on a hallucinogenic drug or have what is currently called a ‘mental illness’. That person might be seeing quite different colours strobing and wheeling around the stones and hearing sounds or voices the rest of the observers would not be aware of.
A third might be a synesthete. He or she might be tasting or smelling the colours and textures in a manner quite alien to the rest.
Perhaps two or three members of the group might have psychic sensitivities which allowed them to see spots of bright light or hazy halos surrounding certain stones or perhaps glowing crystals buried deep beneath the ground. They might even perceive shadowy figures from other times.
As is the custom in our age, more or less all these visitors would take out their phones and photograph the scene before them. If they then compared the results, all the images would show the grass, the stones, the path and so forth, yet some would include mysterious orbs or thin coloured arcs of light. Depending on their personal World Views, these would be variously interpreted as aliens, angelic beings, reflections of light from mundane sources or pieces of dust on the camera lens. Each, of course, would be entirely correct, according to their World View.
I would further suggest that if the group of 20 people were standing around Stonehenge in c2500BC, their perception of what lay before them would be markedly different to that of the 21st century visitors. Their common take on ‘reality’ would link to their shared prior experience and social conditioning and their society almost certainly perceived the world around them in markedly different ways, with senses responding to stimuli in a manner that we could not grasp.
Clearly, I have no way of demonstrating this. Those ancient people standing on a wind-blasted plain in southern England left us no written record or clues as to what was going through their minds and how their world looked to them. They simply, for their own reasons, created a massive structure that survived into our age.
Fortunately for the curious among us, not all World Views are as poorly recorded. Next time I’d like to take you to a culture that has been meticulously documented by its people, in a language we can read and understand. In certain ways it is markedly similar to our own, but in others quite, quite incomprehensible.