Oct 15, 2023
“What You See Is What You Get! Right…or wrong?”
We live in a crazy world. There’s no doubt about that! Mythology, theology, philosophy, and science are some of the different ways we model this world. The result? Libraries full of conflicting theories…and no indisputable answers.
Perhaps we’re overthinking things. Let’s simplify matters: What you see is what you get! Right…or wrong? WYSIWYG has champions across all intellectual disciplines. All we ‘know’ is what we ‘see’ (or sense) so why not build our models based on that data alone?
Realism, naïve or otherwise; Materialism, Marxist or otherwise; Positivism, Logical or otherwise, plus Pragmatism and Empiricism – all assume that what you see is what you get. On the other side of the question, we also have some serious contenders: Homeric mythology, Judeo-Christian theology, Eastern spirituality, and Existentialist philosophy, to name a few.
If it is true, that what you see is what you get, then we live in a self-contained, ontologically democratic universe, a flat world in which everything (‘what you get’) can be explained in terms of everything else (‘what you see’). Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy! Proponents of this view believe that human experience, aided by the tools of reason (e.g. logic and mathematics), provides sufficient information for us to account, fully or approximately, for the world we live in. So, mission accomplished, right?
Let’s call these folks our ‘WYSIWYGs’. Of course, they’ll admit, we do not have all the answers yet, but we are close enough that we are entitled to have confidence that our project can, at least in theory, be completed.
Most WYSIWYGs believe that it is ultimately possible to construct models of reality that account for our world within a tolerable range of accuracy based solely on the data of human experience. But is that true? Can a model that relies solely on the data of experience ever give a complete account of that experience, or of experience per se, or of the world that supports such experience?
Alternatively, do we need to resort to something outside the realm of direct experience to complete our model? Once we have understood the world to the best of our ability, may we not still ask: “Is this all there is?”
“Hold on,” you say. “Nothing is nothing without experience.” And you are correct! (Thank you for reading Aletheia Today.) But based on that direct experience, we can infer that something outside the realm of direct experience is influencing the data we glean from that experience. We can’t directly describe what we can’t experience (it’s ‘ineffable’) but we can describe its contours, the way it templates experience.
Crazy? Well, when was the last time you saw the singularity at the heart of a Black Hole? Have you ever heard a ‘Big Bang’? And don’t get me started about strings, dark matter, and the multiverse! We reason from what we know to what we don’t know, every day.
Reality is like a jigsaw puzzle…with one piece missing. After several days of painstaking work, the puzzle is complete, and beautiful, but with a hole in it. From the hole, we can deduce virtually everything that can be known about our missing piece, but we still don’t have the piece itself.
It is generally accepted today that all models, languages, symbolic systems have limitations, boundaries if you will. The question is whether there is anything beyond those boundaries that really matters. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Faith indeed tells us what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them…not contrary to them.” For Pascal, faith was necessary to complete the picture that the senses paint; for Pascal, faith was the missing piece.
How do the differences between these competing views manifest in real life situations? Consider three practical examples:
Neurobiologists have made great strides toward understanding the human brain and how it works. But many people feel that we are no closer than we ever were to explaining the phenomenon of consciousness. Certainly, we have theories about the physiological conditions necessary for conscious experience to occur, but have we accounted for the experience per se? And if not, will we ever be able to do so?
Similarly, astrophysicists have made great strides toward understanding the evolution of the universe. Indeed, we seem to have pushed the fog of ignorance all the way back to the first few seconds of time…and perhaps even beyond that, all the way to Big Bang itself. But is this enough? Have we accounted for the phenomenon of being itself? Have we truly answered the age-old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Finally, quantum field theory has been called the most successful scientific theory of all time. It predicts phenomena with approximately perfect accuracy; it has never been convincingly falsified by any experiment. That said, do we really understand what is happening at the quantum level of reality? All quantum physicists are capable of making the same astoundingly accurate predictions; yet they use a myriad of different models to account for their results.
The positivist’s answer to this dilemma is simply to deny the meaningfulness of the questions themselves: (1) Consciousness is physiology; (2) Cosmos is Being; (3) QFT is its predictions. This last point is what’s called the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’. According to Copenhagen, the accuracy of the predictions is all that matters. Models are meaningless. And yet, 90 years after Copenhagen, we’re still obsessed with our models!
In Copenhagen, the scientific community shouted in unison, “Grow up!” And we did, for a while, but pretty soon we went back to building our models.
The positivists’ solution is simple: meta-questions have no meaning. We have gone as far as we can go because there is nowhere else to go (Nietzsche). If you are still asking questions about consciousness or Being or the reality underlying quantum measurements, it is simply because you don’t understand those phenomena; if you did, you would understand that such questions are meaningless (Wittgenstein).
But does saying make it so? Is our proclivity for formulating meta-questions evidence of our mental laziness…or testimony to our human spirit? According to French philosopher Albert Camus, the patron saint of the Absurd, it is human nature to seek unifying principles, even if such principles do not exist or are unavailable to us. Then we are Sisyphus, forever condemned to ask questions that have no answers or whose answers are beyond the grasp of gnosis.
But are ‘not-knowing’ and ‘not-being’ one and the same thing? Is ‘absence of evidence’ ‘evidence of absence’? There are indeterminacies inherent in all conceptual systems (Gödel’s Incompleteness) and in all physical systems (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty). These limitations guarantee at least some separation between what can be and what we can know.
At their best, anti-WYSIWYGs ground their position on what they ‘see’. For them, experience is a vector pointing toward a reality beyond perception and logic. For example, we ‘see’ things that we recognize as ‘beautiful’. We know they’re beautiful, but Aristotle notwithstanding, we can’t define Beauty, and we certainly can’t account for the presence of Beauty in our world.
The same argument can be applied to Justice, Truth, and even Good itself. In a flat, self-contained, and ontologically democratic universe, there is no objective basis for valuing any one entity over any other.
Existentialists might say that we are free to assign our own values to things…and they’d be right. But if those values are not rooted in something outside us, what difference do they make? Aren’t they just arbitrary projections of ‘taste’? I refrain from killing you, not because it is objectively wrong (Torah) but because the idea of killing any human being is distasteful to me. Any argument against arbitrariness must refer to something beyond the plane of ontological democracy. (Nietzsche)
A world with values cannot be flat; it must be hierarchical, and hierarchy cannot function in a plane (unless you’re talking first class seating on an airplane). In a flat world, how could the phenomenon of value claim aesthetic or ethical priority over anything else?
Ludwig Wittgenstein: “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.” How often do we find Wittgenstein agreeing with Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas advanced 5 ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, but only one, the 4th, still interests philosophers:
“The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings, there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But more and less are predicated of different things according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum…so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest…and this we call God.”
Thomas may not have proven the existence of God, but he may have proven that what you get cannot be reduced to what you see. The existence of Value, if you believe in Value, challenges the underlying premise of WYSIWYG, namely that we live in a universe bereft of ontological gradations.
The Latin hymn, Veni Sancte Spiritus sums it up: “Sine tuo numine, nihil est in homine, nihil est innoxium”, which roughly translates “without you (God) human beings are empty and everything is noxious”.
So, are you WYSIWYG…or anti-WYSIWYG? Admit it, you’d love to be WYSIWYG…and so would I. We could be tenured professors together at an Ivy League university! If only we could convince ourselves…
Going solely on what we see, we must accept a world that came to be accidentally, that evolves purposelessly, and that self-destructs inevitably. Suffering overwhelms joy (The Buddha). Islands of order, virtue, truth, and beauty are eroded by entropy, and everything is ultimately erased by time. The world comes from nothing and returns to nothing. All of cosmic history amounts to nothing more than the life span of a self-annihilating virtual particle pair. All the things we do in life amount to nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Ugh!
But on the other hand, abandoning WYSIWYG comes at a price. We must accept that we cannot adequately model the world based solely on experience. We must add elements to our model that we cannot ‘prove’, logically, mathematically, or scientifically. We are necessarily now with Pascal (above) in the realm of ‘faith’.
So what might an anti-WYSIWYG model look like? Amazingly, the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, often called both the ‘father of western philosophy’ and the ‘father of western science’, provided us with just such a model.
Qua scientist, Parmenides was a keen observer and used those observations to construct remarkably accurate models of myriad physical and astronomical phenomena. But, qua philosopher, he understood that the world itself could not be fully explained solely on the basis of such observations.
For Parmenides, a world must have two faces or aspects, one seen, one unseeable. He called the former the Way of Appearance (Doxa) and the later the Way of Truth (Aletheia).
Now the Way of Appearance is just what you’d expect: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color.”
This is a world we recognize: discrete objects and events, coming to be, then passing away, moving through space, interacting with others, and exchanging qualities in the process. But the Way of Truth is something else again:
“What is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete…Nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…Nor is it divisible, since it all alike is…it is full of what is…”
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.