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Perception and the Natural World

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Natural Order: Contrived or Inherent?

As my three year old son sits on the driveway pavement, giddy from the excitement of having found a handful of assorted, individually-wrapped hard candies in daddy’s car, I watch with curiosity as he begins to arrange the pieces in a semi-circle according to some perception of shape and color. As I sit here watching intently, I ponder whether my son is arranging the pieces according to some contrived pattern that he perceives in his mind or whether there exists some predetermined rule or pattern of order into which the individual pieces inherently fit. Or, to pose it as a question, is there some universal, epistemological truth whereby the mind seeks to discover the very “inherent” nature of order in the natural world or is there instead a wide range of ontological categories which the mind artificially attributes to an object, thereby making sense of the object by imposing its own subjective order to that which “inherently” possesses no universal, objective pattern?

In scientific terms, the development of spectroscopy in the 19th century enabled astronomers to categorize stars according to temperature and luminosity (
The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram). Certain stars which defied easy classification into the main sequence were categorized as either giants or white dwarfs. Although one could very easily accept the idea that this means of classification is natural because the objects being observed contain inherent traits which lend themselves readily to classification, does the fact that we as humans have found a means to impose order upon the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe lead to the assumption that this order is inherent? There are indeed other equally valid means of describing and classifying the stars of the universe, including distance and speed (Doppler Effect) and magnitude (Star Magnitude), and these methods have been integrated with the science of stellar spectrometry. Yet who is to say what technologies will appear in the future that will make the current means of star classification obsolete, or at least archaic? Can we infer that since we have found a means of making order out of the natural world (in this case, stars) that therefore this order is an inherent property of the objects themselves? Or, is it possible that the very act of searching for order in the natural world is, rather, indicative of the mind’s need to place the objects in its environment into a lattice of categorization in an attempt to make sense of the world where sense does otherwise not exist?

Part of the answer may lie in understanding how we as humans perceive the natural world versus the way in which other animals perceive it. Let’s take flowers, for instance. When we look at flower garden, we see blooms of all different shapes, sizes and colors. We may choose to create a flower garden based upon some subjective aesthetic appeal, such as choosing only those plants with blue blossoms, and then arranging those plants in the ground according to the season they bloom. The gardener, completing his/her task, may pride him/herself on the excellence with which they chose the plants and set them into proper order. It could be debated whether the biological - or phenotropic – traits of each and every variety of flower planted was inherent to the plant itself or whether it was the perception of petal shape, texture, color, etc that compelled the gardener to impose an order among the garden where none existed.

Yet crucial to this example may be the “eye of the beholder,” for humans are not alone in perceiving their world – insects do, too! To a pollinating insect, what ontological traits would it attribute to the flowers that we may have overlooked? Many insects such as bees perceive objects in their world in the ultraviolet spectrum, so to them, each plant possesses different characteristics of which we may not have been aware. A. Brooker Klugh’s journal review entitled “Flower-Visiting Insects and the Reflection of Ultraviolet by Flowers” (
JSTOR: Flower-Visiting Insects and the Reflection of Ultraviolet ...) eloquently sums up the dilemma in perceiving the natural world:

“The literature concerning the relations between flowers and insects is extensive…But this subject has been discussed, almost exclusively, with the spectral sensitivity of the human eye as a criterion, and…the matter will have to be entirely re-investigated from the standpoint of how floral colors affect insect vision.”

Just how much, then, does perception influence the mind’s ability at perceiving order in the natural world whether or not a natural, inherent order can even be said to exist? Obviously, our brains do indeed seek to order the objects in our environment into some framework of cognitive understanding, yet how much of this process of assigning or seeking order in the natural world is objective and how much is subjective is difficult to assess. And does the fact that a being has limitations on perception necessarily mean that a natural, inherent order does not exist? To assume that because our minds perceive order in our world that therefore order must naturally exist concretely beyond our perception is no more valid than the assumption by a person with autosomal abnormality that the world in which they live is less orderly simply because they often lack the cognitive ability to perceive that order. Because we perceive that more categories for arranging objects into some order – contrived or otherwise – exist than what someone with severe Down syndrome may perceive does not necessarily insinuate that we indeed perceive an inherent, underlying natural order. In other words, perception is not necessarily ontological reality, no more than lack of perception means that inherent order does not exist. Perception is wholly independent of epistemological truth.

Thus, whether contrived or inherent, natural order is something the mind does its best to seek and understand. In the meantime, I watch as my son begins the next stage of understanding his world, ordering the pieces by taste as he begins to open and sample each and every one. He consumes them one-by-one until only those he doesn’t like remain, having ordered them by his subjective preference of taste. So, I ponder rhetorically, do those pieces inherently taste bad, or is that a contrivance of the mind, too?

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