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What You See Is What You Get! Or is it?

Albert Einstein famously said that the fundamental question of philosophy is whether the universe is on the whole a benevolent place. For me, Einstein’s question comes second; the fundamental question is whether ‘what you see’ really is ‘what you get’. (A  little later on we’ll discover that these two questions are actually related…and perhaps even inseparable.)

‘What you see’ consists of all human experience (not just vision); ‘what you get’ is the universe as a whole, the totality of things. Is there a one-to-one relationship between that experience (extended by reason) and that totality? Or is there something about the totality that cannot be adequately explained in terms of our experience?

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’). 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 for the world we live in.

Let’s call these folks “WYSIWYGs”. Of course, they’ll admit, we do not have all the answers yet; but we are close enough that we may have confidence that our project can, at least in theory, be completed. We can say…

  • We know a great deal about the world but there’s always one more question to ask and answer. That said, we can now say that we know the world completely, at least in outline form, and we are confident that we will eventually be able to answer remaining questions using just the tools of observation and reason.

WYSIWYG comes in another flavor as well. Call it Nihilism or Absurdism: either there is no totality at all or there is a totality but it cannot be understood by human intelligence. French philosopher, Albert Camus framed the problem this way. Human beings are by nature unifiers, modelers, etc… but reality is completely resistant to such efforts. Therefore, the relationship between humanity and the world is incurably absurd.

Still, most WYSIWYGs believe that it is ultimately possible to construct models of reality that account for our world within a tolerable range of adequacy based solely on the data of human experience. But is that really true? Can a model that relies solely on the data of experience ever give a complete account of experience per se or a complete account of the world that supports such experience? Or do we need to resort to something outside the realm of direct experience to complete our model?

At first glance, this sounds like the sort of question that might divide different schools of philosophy from one another: realists from empiricists, materialists from idealists, and positivists from, well, everyone else. But actually, this question cuts across all those schools of thought…and others as well. It divides members within each school from one another.

The point is this: once we have understood the world to the best of our ability from any consistent philosophical standpoint, we may still ask: “Is this all there is? Have we adequately accounted for our experience and, if we have, are we satisfied that that is sufficient to account for the world that supports that experience?”

You can be an empiricist or a realist, an idealist or a materialist, and still wonder whether there could be ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. Even a logical positivist, who denies the possibility of meaning beyond the realms of perception and reason, may wonder whether there might be something important lurking beyond those realms.

The great Wittgenstein recognized that things beyond perception and reason could still matter. Strictly speaking, such things would have no ‘meaning’ but they could nonetheless play a role in our overall experience of the world. He called such things “important nonsense”.

At one point in time, people truly believed that it was possible to know everything. Today, it is generally accepted that all models, languages, and symbolic systems have limitations, boundaries if you will. The question is whether there is anything beyond those boundaries that really matters.

Such questioning should never lead to a rejection or devaluation of either philosophy or science. On the contrary, those who deny that what you see is what you get,  call them ‘anti-WYSIWYGs’, often seek to master philosophical and scientific disciplines as jumping off points for their further speculations.

Blaise Pascal, a famous anti-WYSIWYG, wrote, “Faith indeed tells us what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.” For Pascal, faith is what completes the picture senses paint.

How do the differences between these competing views manifest in real life situations? Consider three practical examples:

  • Neuro-biologists have made great strides toward understanding the human brain and how it works. But many people feel that we are no closer than ever to explaining the phenomenon of consciousness. Certainly, we have theories about the physiological conditions required 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? To put it another way, can consciousness ever be reduced to physiology?
  • 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 even beyond that to Big Bang. 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 almost perfect accuracy and 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 formulate quantum theory in terms of myriad different models.

One way out of this dilemma, the positivist way, is simply to deny the meaningfulness of the questions themselves:

  • There is no more to consciousness than physiology;
  • There is no more to being than cosmos;
  • There is no more to quantum mechanics than 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 are still obsessed with those models!

Each philosophical school and each scientific discipline has its own way of probing reality to make it yield its truths. Each asks its own unique questions and expresses the answers in its own unique language. But a meta-question hangs over all of them: is this enough? Have we gone far enough?

The positivist answer is simple: meta-questions have no meaning so yes, we have gone far enough…because there is nowhere else to go. If you are still asking questions about consciousness or being per se or about the reality underlying quantum measurements, it is simply because you don’t understand that such questions are meaningless.

But does saying make it so? Is our proclivity for formulating meta-questions evidence of our mental laziness…or testimony to the 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.

Perhaps we can never know more about consciousness than its physiology or more about being than cosmos or more about quanta than their observed behaviors. But is that the fault of reality itself (‘there’s nothing else there’) or of our own limited mental apparatus and processes? Are not knowing and not being one and the same thing?

So, you can be a realist, an empiricist, a materialist or an idealist and believe that your philosophy has accounted for…or can ultimately account for…the world; or not.

Anti-WYSIWYGs reach their common conclusion via many very different paths; for example:

(1) There are those who base their argument on the limitations inherent in rational (Gödel’s Incompleteness) and/or physical (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty) systems.

(2) Others believe that certain meta-questions are impervious by their very nature to observation based analysis: we can explain cosmos…but not being; we can explain the brain…but not the experience of consciousness; we can explain quantum mechanics…but not the underlying physical process that makes the results what they are.

(3) Still others take a reductio ad absurdum approach. Give me any observation based model of the world and I’ll show you that it does not satisfactorily account for that world. One version of this argument focuses on the distinction between parts and the whole. When you add up all that philosophy and science have told us about the world, it makes perfect sense ‘locally’ but no sense ‘globally’. It brilliantly explains phenomena within any specified universe of discourse but it does not explain the entirety.

Consider a jig-saw puzzle. Imagine an algorithm that accounts for the shape and pattern of each piece but makes no reference to the overall image, the gestalt that is after all the puzzle itself. Philosophy and science provide such algorithms…but is something absolutely huge still missing?

(4) Yet other anti-WYSIWYGs base their position on what they do ‘see’. For them, experiences are vectors pointing toward a reality outside the realms of perception and logic. For example, we ‘see’ things that we recognize as ‘beautiful’ but, Aristotle notwithstanding, we can’t really define beauty and we certainly can’t account for it. According to accepted ontological theory, beauty is either entirely subjective or it is real only in so far as it can be reduced to physical, biological and/or sociological processes. Yet sometimes beauty seems to transcend any possible nexus of material processes. Sometimes beauty is “all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Keats).

(5) Finally, the existence of evil is often advanced as an argument against the benevolence of the universe (Einstein) or against the existence of a benevolent God. That argument, however, can be turned on its head. A single confirmed instance of Good may be all it takes to overthrow that argument and falsify the WYSISYG hypothesis. How so?

The actual entities that would populate a flat, self-contained and ontologically democratic universe just are. Within that universe, there is no basis for valuing any one entity over any other. Existentialists might say that we are free to create and 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? Any argument against arbitrariness must refer to something absolute outside of plane of ontological democracy.

We use value(s) to ‘e-valu-ate’ everything that happens on the plane we call ‘the world’. We cannot use something found on that plane to evaluate anything else on that plane. What then would we use to evaluate it? We could use everything to evaluate everything else but then we’d be caught up in meaningless circularity.

A world with values cannot be a flat world; it must be hierarchical and the hierarchical principle cannot be an entity on the ontological plane. In a flat world, how could the phenomenon of value claim any aesthetic or ethical priority over anything else? And wouldn’t our evaluations be subject the same limitations as all our other mental activity?

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. 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.”

I would not argue that Thomas proved the existence of God. But I would argue that he may have proven that what you see is NOT what you get. The existence of value, if you indeed do believe in value, challenges the underlying premise of WISYWIG, namely that we live in a flat universe bereft of any 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”.

Are you WYSIWYG…or anti-WYSIWYG? Or are you still unsure? Two French philosophers, Pascal and Camus, both argued that it is impossible to know whether what you see is what you get…or not, whether there are objective values…or not, whether the world has transcendent meaning…or not. But this professed agnosticism did not prevent them from coming down on opposite sides of the issue.

Pascal proposed his famous wager. In a nut shell, we don’t know if God exists or not. If he doesn’t, it makes no difference what we do, everything is lost; but if does, what we do is critically important. Therefore, since there is nothing to be gained by atheism, Pascal opted for theism, where the potential return could be infinite, albeit uncertain.

Imagine a game of roulette, all in, one spin of the wheel. You must place all your chips on red or black. If you chose red and it comes up red, you win nothing; if it comes up black, you lose everything. On the other hand, if you choose black and it comes up red, you lose nothing. But if you choose black and it comes up black, you win the deed to the casino. What would you do?

Not Camus! He rejects the concept of a wager, but since he has to place his chips somewhere, he chooses red as an act of rebellion against the unfairness of the casino’s rules. He asserts “courage” and “honor” as his motives…but he does not explain how those ‘values’ suddenly acquire objective status. Of course, I am being entirely unfair to Camus. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. I just disagree with him on this pivotal point.

Here is where our investigation reconnects with Einstein’s. Einstein favored the view that the world is on the whole a benevolent place. But from “what you see” it is nearly impossible to argue that benevolence is “what you get”.

Based on what we see, we get a world that came to be accidentally, evolves purposelessly, and self-destructs inevitably. Suffering overwhelms joy. Islands of order, virtue, truth and beauty are eroded by entropy; and everything is ultimately erased by time.

According to accepted models, 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 of the things we do in life amount to nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Such a world is necessarily a world without values and a world without values is a world of no value. This view of the world has been embraced by certain schools of 19th (Nihilism) and 20th (L’absurde) century philosophy.

To others though, living in a world without value would simply be unbearable. Such a world is literally Hell. Folks who adopt this viewpoint cannot accept that Nihilism is possible. So, if not not-A, then A.

Many (e.g. Camus) claim this argument (and Pascal’s) amounts to intellectual cowardice rooted in bad faith; I disagree. The argument against nihilism is no different than arguments against skepticism and solipsism. We can’t really disprove these notions, but if they are true then the questions we pose are meaningless in the first place; and if the questions are meaningless, then so are the so-called ‘answers’. The fact that we pose these questions at all assumes something other than the null answer.

Once again, imagine life is like a game of roulette…but this time with some adjustments to the rules. As long as you bet on black, the normal rules apply. When the ball lands on black, you win; when it doesn’t, you lose. However, if you bet on red, you neither win nor lose; you just get your money back every time…until it’s time to go home (death). Then the house confiscates your chips. In this scenario, who would ever bet on red? In fact, to the extent that players bet on red at all, they are simply not playing the game. Nihilism, skepticism and solipsism all amount to betting on red.

But abandoning WYSIWYG comes at a price. We must accept that we cannot adequately model the world based solely on experience and reason. 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 actually 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.

As the father of western science, Parmenides was a keen observer and used those observations to construct remarkably accurate models of myriad physical and astronomical behaviors. But as the father of western philosophy, he understood that the world itself could not be fully explained based solely on such observations and models.

For Parmenides, the 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:

“It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: 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 well recognize: discrete objects and events, coming to be, then passing away, moving through space, interacting and exchanging qualities.

But the Way of Truth is something else again:

“What is 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…”

As I interpret Parmenides, both Doxa and Aletheia are real. But the phenomena of Doxa cannot be accounted for in terms of Doxa alone. The universe must have a complimentary aspect, Aletheia, to make Doxa possible. The Way of Truth is an imperceptible but necessary foundation for what we experience in the Way of Appearance.

Simply put, in order for actual entities to come to be and then perish, they must also be eternal. In order for things to change, they must also endure. In order for things to move, they must also be fixed. The phenomena of Doxa are possible only if they are rooted in the noumenon of Aletheia.

Another, more complex, example comes from the New Testament. Here the world of experience is embedded in the life of the Trinity. As Father, God ‘creates’ the world, imbuing it with values; as Son, God ‘redeems’ the world, instantiating those values universally and eternally; and through Spirit, God is ‘incarnate’ in the world, participating as one event among innumerable others.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘the one who is and who was and who is to come…’“ Revelation

“In the beginning (or at the foundation) was the Word (Son) and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be…And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us…” Gospel of John

“…Then comes the end, when he (Son) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” Corinthians

The tangible world is as real as real can be. After all, it is created by God, it is redeemed by God and God enters into that world as one unique tangible event among all other tangible events. How then could it be anything but real? But as an independent, standalone phenomenon, the perceptible world just doesn’t make sense. The hypothesis of Trinity is necessary to account for the reality of experience.

Important questions remain: Are we satisfied that one of these anti-WYSIWYG models, or some other such model, actually accounts for the world we experience? If so, how do we know that our model is more correct than some other model? After all, by definition we cannot ‘test’ it. Or do all anti-WYSIWYG models boil down to one single model? If not, how many structurally distinct models can there be? How do we distinguish fundamental (structural) differences from superficial (e.g. linguistic) differences?  Finally, how do we go about evaluating competing models?

Perhaps we will address these questions in a later essay on this site.