Doors of Perception
What do William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Bertolt Brecht and the rock and roll group “The Doors” have in common? Well, for starters, they all used the word Door as a metaphor. This connection has intrigued me from my college days through to today.
William Blake was a writer, poet and artist who, in 1773, published a VERY long poem called the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In it he wrote:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Almost 200 years later Aldous Huxley (best known for his book Brave New World) read Blake’s poem and was inspired to write an essay entitled: “The Doors of Perception”. It was published in 1954. In the years leading up to that time, the East German playwright and composer Bertolt Brecht was able to thrive not only in East Germany but also in the west. He is best known for the song Mack the Knife from his play “Three Penny Opera”, which he co-wrote with Kurt Weill. From his lesser known play “Life of Galileo” where he explores the conflict between science and religion he has Galileo saying:
“The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”
Ten years after the publication of the “Doors of Perception”, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek founded the rock band “The Doors”, inspired by Blake, Huxley and Brecht and based directly on the title of Huxley’s book. When asked what the name of the band meant they famously replied:
“There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors”.
Their song lyrics borrowed heavily from Blake and Brecht. For example, they covered all of the Alabama Whisky song composed by Brecht and Kurt Weill and included parts of Blake’s poetry in their songs most notably in the lyrics for “End of the Night”.
In many ways, these connected figures opened new doors for me and actually played a role in my successful courtship of Marcia Mahood. On our first date I took her to a Blake exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario where I introduced her to this connection that so intrigued me. My brilliant plan worked because who else but a 3rd generation Unitarian would have appreciated such an unusual first date.
So there you have it. The eclectic connections between artists who all used the metaphor of a door trough which one must pass to gain a more encompassing perception of self and the world around us.
This relationship between the self and the outside world also intrigued the Catholic Theologian, Teilhard De Chardin, who wrote on the subject around the same time as Huxley. He put it this way. “The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed.” So, here the observer is the self and the observed is everything outside the self. In De Chardin’s view, the two are entangled and cannot be separated.
This reciprocal relationship between the self and everything outside the self is not just a philosophical observation it is also true in science. In quantum mechanics, for example, the act of measurement perturbs the state the object was in before being observed. In other words, the observer and the observed influence each other. In human terms there is the famous riddle: “If a tree falls in a forest where no one can hear it, does it make a sound?” Or, putting it another way, “If I stand alone in a forest and speak where Marcia can’t hear me, am I still wrong?” In both cases, according to De Chardin, the answer is no because the event in question is a joint product of the observer and the observed. And if there is no observer the joint product is zero. This conclusion would be supported by science because sound does not exist in and of itself. Sound is the sensation excited in the ear when air is set in motion. No ear, no sound. Now, the philosophical answer depends on whether you believe that reality exists independently of our ability to perceive it (as most of us do). If you believe in an absolute reality, the answer is yes, the event in question did happen but there would be no way to prove it.
Philosophy aside, what we can generally agree on is that there is reciprocity between how we perceive the world and how it defines us in turn. We are defined by what we choose to see and what we see and experience shapes us. There is free will here, we can choose what existing doors we want to open and even use them to seek out new unknown doors, through a process of exploration and discovery. Blake took a dim view of people who did not avail themselves of these opportunities and who were content to look though the small chinks of their caverns.
Given the immense spiritual benefit from opening Blake’s doors of perception, it is worthwhile to ask: Why do some of us retreat to the narrow chinks of our caverns? This really bothered Blake. What is it that constrains us? One possible reason is that we humans are risk averse.
According to evolutionary biologists, we are programmed by millions of years of evolution to see risk everywhere because this ability was so critical to our survival. They refer to this programming as the “The tiger in the forest” effect. It’s a risky world so we are programmed to look for danger everywhere. Which would be better for survival? To occasionally perceive a non-existent tiger in the forest or to not see one that is actually there?
This notion of exaggerated risk is deeply encoded in our psyche, even today, and it affects us at a societal level: It impacts much of our political discourse: One example that comes to mind is the war on terror. In justifying the proposed travel ban from some Muslim countries, the former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly famously said during a televised press conference. "I will not gamble with American lives." The statement, in and of itself, is a reasonable one. Obviously, the desire is to reduce the risk of violence to us, but what is the perceived risk versus the actual risk? Using results from actuarial science, Dave Mosher and Skye Gould, wrote an intriguing article on this subject in the periodical “Business Insider”. In the hierarchy of lifetime risk, there is a 1 in 3 chance that an American will die from heart disease or cancer and a 2 in 3 chance of dying from a variety of other less common causes. Some specific examples include the following. There is a 1 in 250 chance that an American will be murdered by another American. There is a 1 in a 45,000 chance that you will die from any kind of foreign terrorist act and a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that you will die from terrorists from the countries that were named in the travel ban. To put that in perspective, being killed by a terrorist from those countries, is 10 times less likely than dying from a bee sting. So, it seems that we get used to relatively frequent risks (like car accidents and shootings) but unusual events like an airplane crash or a highly visible terrorist act unduly influences our perception of risk. We can thank evolutionary biology for that.
However, we can also thank evolutionary biology for a force that resists this innate risk aversion. While exaggeration of risk was a key evolutionary survival trait, the thing that really gave us a competitive advantage was brain development. We were able to outsmart the competition and to eventually understand and objectify risk and overcome at least some of our fear of opening new doors. Science and the arts are not needed for biological survival but they expand our world and help us overcome our risk aversion and the fear of the unknown. The role of science is to open the doors to our universe. As Galileo said in Bertolt Brecht’s play: “The aim of science is to set a limit to infinite error.” I believe what Brecht was trying to say is that science expands our world by reducing but never quite eliminating our ignorance of it. And there is no better way to demonstrate this than to see how humankind’s perceptions of the universe have evolved over time.
The first example I would like to use is how we perceived the Earth itself. While we take it for granted that the Earth is more or less a spherical body, this wasn’t always the case. At first glance, a flat Earth makes perfect intuitive sense because it appears that way in our everyday experience (which builds intuition). But upon closer observation, we see small discrepancies that challenge our intuition and lead to upheavals in our understanding. For example, as a ship sails away from the shore, why does its mast remain visible well after its hull has disappeared? On a flat Earth, the entire ship should gradually shrink to a dot. Even Aristotle in 350 BC doubted that the Earth was flat and suspected it was round, citing as evidence the observation that during a lunar eclipse, the shadow cast by the Earth onto the Moon was curved, not straight. Another door of perception was opened. With the acceptance of a round geometry, our perception of the Earth changed enormously, facilitating the development of global navigation and greatly stimulating commerce and the exploration of distant lands, culminating in the circumnavigation of the world by Magellan (which in itself was final proof that the world was round).
Despite the knowledge of a round Earth, every day observations of the sun and stars rising and setting like clockwork suggested that they were obviously moving around the Earth. These observations led to the earth-centered model of the universe. The model was first formulated by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in about 150 AD. This theory held sway for an incredible 1500 years with refinements made along the way to accommodate the need for better sea bound navigation to support ever growing commerce. Eventually the adjustments to the earth-centered model grew so cumbersome and complex that astronomers began to doubt its validity. The ultimate observation that led to its demise was the retrograde motion of the planets. Retrograde motion is the apparent backward motion of an object as it being overtaken by an observer. Passing a car on the highway represents a good analogy, where the car being passed appears to move backwards as it is overtaken even though you are both moving in the same direction. Thus, seeing a planet undergo backward motion implies that we are moving.
In 1514 AD, almost 1400 years after Ptolemy, Copernicus realized that this effect could only be explained by a moving Earth which led him to create a model in which the Earth and all the planets revolved around the Sun. This sun-centered universe was a radical idea that not only challenged current accepted thinking but also upset the religious order of the time. Some 50 years later, the idea was lent credence by Galileo when he used his telescope to track the phases of Venus and showed that they could not be accounted for by an Earth- centered model. With Johannes Kepler’s introduction of elliptical orbits, the universe was now much bigger than just the Earth because Kepler’s laws allowed us to estimate the size of the solar system. Another door opened and our concept of the universe just grew in size by a factor of a million.
With the apocryphal apple falling on his head, Newton developed the laws of motion that made it possible to study and interpret objects beyond the solar system leading to the notion that stars were external to our solar system and that they filled the space that we now call the Milky Way galaxy. By 1900, an even bigger door opened and our universe grew another billion fold. By the early 1900’s Edwin Hubble surmised that other galaxies existed and that the universe was expanding in such a way that it was possible to estimate its size. The universe just grew by another million-fold. So, in the past 400 years our universe grew by a billion billion. Each time science opened a new door, the universe grew larger.
Today, our observations and understanding of the cosmos have grown to unimaginable levels, revealing a universe that is rich with a vast menagerie of planets, stars and galaxies. 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, each with its own multiple planets. If we divide it all up, that represents 10 trillion planets for every man, woman and child living today. That’s a big playground for each of us to play in.
But why?!!!! Why so big and to what purpose?
It’s numbers like these that lead to the inevitable question of whether we are alone in this universe: The concept of other civilizations has been with us for some time. Is this really our playground reserved just for our pleasure? Are we the sole tenants of the universe? It would make so much more sense to fill this playground with others so it is NOT wasted! So surely there are other civilizations out there and surely we should look for them. Of course, scientists being scientists, we are looking for them with dedicated SETI projects listening for artificial radio waves from space.
We continue to listen but hear nothing. The silence is deafening! Are we going about this the right way? The Earth has existed for almost 5 billion years, and should continue to exist for another 5 (with or without us). Out of this 10 billion year span we have developed the ability to use radio waves in the past 100 years, a very tiny sliver of time. So, if other civilizations exist, each following their own evolutionary path, some will be ahead and some will be behind. But, very few are likely to be at the exact same stage as us. Their communication could use vastly different methods. Moreover, their perception of the universe could be totally different than ours. Maybe the universe is filled with intelligent life but we just don’t recognize it. They may be using doors of perception that our different from ours!
But maybe there is another way to look at it? And this is where we get really metaphysical, so buckle your seatbelts. What if, instead of the universe being a collection of wasted disconnected real estate, it was part of a larger organized and hierarchical entity perhaps even a conscious one? Are we part of a living organism that thinks no more about our existence then we do about the cells in our own bodies? The theologian Teilhard De Chardin, whom we introduced earlier, was a Jesuit priest who studied evolution and was instrumental in getting the Catholic Church to accept evolution. He was intrigued by this concept of a conscious universe because it conveniently allowed him to reconcile evolution with the theological concept of God. In his book, The Phenomenon of Man, published in 1955, he attempted to combine religion, spirituality and science into a single concept that led him back to God. What if the ultimate apex of evolution is to rid us of our physical bodies and create pure consciousness? When combined with the consciousness from other parts of the universe we create a universal collective consciousness which we call God. Let’s dig a little deeper by reading some excerpts from his book’s Wiki page.
“De Chardin views evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity. From the cell to the thinking animal, a process that leads to greater consciousness. Borrowing Huxley’s expression, De Chardin describes humankind as evolution becoming conscious of itself.
In his conception of the evolution of the species, a collective identity begins to develop as trade and the transmission of ideas increases. Knowledge accumulates and is transmitted in increasing levels of depth and complexity. This leads to a further augmentation of consciousness and the emergence of a thinking layer that envelops the earth. De Chardin calls the new
membrane the “noosphere” (from the Greek “nous”, meaning mind). The noosphere is the collective consciousness of humanity, the networks of thought and emotion in which all are immersed. The development of science and technology causes an expansion of the human sphere of influence, allowing a person to be simultaneously present in every corner of the world." (Was this a prediction of the internet?).
In De Chardin’s view, evolution will culminate in the Omega Point, a sort of supreme consciousness. Layers of consciousness will converge in Omega, fusing and consuming them in itself. The concentration of a conscious universe will reassemble in itself all consciousnesses as well as all that we are conscious of. “
Heavy stuff, don’t you think?
Science has expanded our perception of the universe by a constant cleansing of the doors of perception. By inspiring us to look beyond the chinks of our caverns we have created an ever- growing playground in which to frolic. Its boundless beauty will continue to delight us and to fuel our individual and collective spiritual journeys. Many doors have been opened. Many remain to be opened. So, in closing, let’s remember to quote Jim Morrison once again:
“There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors”.
Remembering That the Universe is Larger
By Marjorie Newlin Leaming
Remembering that the universe is so much larger than our ability to comprehend, let us go forth from this time together with the resolve to stop trying to reduce the incomprehensible to our own petty expectations, so that wonder—that sense of what is
sacred—can find space to open up our minds and illuminate our lives. Amen.