Picture a banana.
Better yet, go get a banana (I’ll wait) and then look at it. Or a coffee cup, or a computer monitor, or, well, anything you like. But bananas are good. They have potassium!
So, you look at a banana, and you see a banana. Simple, right?
Well, no. Let’s unpack that a little.
You see a solid object. But physics tells us that a banana, or any other solid object, consists mostly of empty space, interspersed with molecules, made of atoms, made of protons, electrons, and neutrons, all of them very far apart from one another relative to their size but connected by strong bonds of electromagnetic force. These electromagnetic bonds, not the particles of matter themselves, give the banana its solidity.
Visible light, a form of electromagnetic radiation, emitted by the sun or by a local light source, travels through spacetime, and strikes the surface of the banana. Some light gets absorbed, some reflected, and some scattered. Some of what got reflected or scattered enters your eye. This light passes through the cornea, the pupil (controlled by the iris), and then the lens, all of which act together as a compound lens to focus packets of light (photons) onto your retina. Photoreceptor cells in the retina then react to the light by producing electrochemical signals, which activate bipolar cells, which activate ganglion cells, which transmit information to the brain through the optic nerve.
Sounds complicated? It gets worse.
Your brain has several highly complex neural networks for processing visual information: the lateral geniculate nucleus, the optic radiations, the visual cortex, and the visual association cortex.
Your body needs all of this to convert light into a visual image, and it all happens without your conscious involvement or even your conscious perception. You don’t perceive your body converting packets of photons into electrochemical signals and thereby into a visual image; you just see a banana.
And I have only discussed one sense – sight – and one activity – looking. Try perceiving the banana through other senses. Pick it up. Sniff it. Heft it to feel its weight. Hold it in front of you, behind you, above you. Lick it. Knock it against something else (gently) and listen to the sound it makes. Each of these ways of sensing involves chains of physical processes as complex as those involved in seeing.
Let me go one step further and say that we can understand all of these physical processes as relations.
By relations I mean both
- the actual concrete relationship between two or more things (e.g. seeing a banana in a certain light and from a certain angle), and
- the indeterminate cloud of potential relationships that could connect those things (e.g. the fact that you could see the banana under a different light or from different angles).
We perceive a banana — or any physical object or event — through the operation of many complex physical relations. These relations don’t just transmit an experience to our minds. They produce that experience.
In other words, our experience of a banana comes not just from the banana as a thing separate from ourselves, but from a dynamic network of physical relations.
This raises a question:
How could we possibly know anything about the banana independently of these physical relations through which we experience it?
Stay tuned …