The Illusion of Materiality – John Levy


1. Materiality. Our notion of materiality coincides with the twin illusions that objects exist independently of their being perceived; and that these objects, whether solid, liquid or gaseous, consist of three dimensions. In order to understand how the notion of a three-dimensional object arises, it will be necessary first to understand how we form the notion of extension in length and breadth.

2. Length and Breadth. Extension, in length, in breadth, or in both together, is an idea formed by our memory of discontinuous though successive sensations which, from the commonsense standpoint, may appear either as physical or mental. These sensations give us the impression that we have perceived a surface. But there has been no immediate perception of a surface. As an example, let the reader behold this printed page, held at reading distance.1 He will notice that the eyes or the page must be moved if more than a very limited portion is to be seen: and that while he observes one portion, he cannot observe the others. Thus the impression of having seen a page is not the product of a single, comprehensive glance. It derives from the memory of several distinct glances. At this stage, we may usefully recall that if the percipient is repeatedly and similarly affected by a more or less constant group of sensations, he forms the notion of a specific object.

3. Depth. Having found extension in length and breadth to be a notion, let us now consider extension in depth, or from a surface inwards. Our knowledge of this dimension likewise cannot be the result of direct perception, for sensations are of surfaces. Nevertheless, the idea of depth is inherent in the notion we have of surfaces, a surface without substance being quite inconceivable , whatever abstraction-mongers may tell us.

4. The Physiological Aspect of Tridimensionality. The notion of depth has its physiological basis in two parallel factors: the conventions of the sense of touch and binocular vision, the second being impossible without the first. Binocular vision ‘provides the stereoscopic effect, the appreciation of depth and distance ; this depends on the fact that the images of an object formed by each eye are slightly different and that these two images are presented simultaneously to the brain without appearing double’. So that we may understand in what way two distinct images, that is to say, two distinct perceptions, come to appear in consciousness as one, let us examine a similar process performed in the brain with respect to tactile sensations, since it can easily be verified. ‘The skin offers a good instance of how our conventional reading of sensations “the words of a sensory language”, depends merely upon habituation. A pencil slid between the tips of the middle and index finger is felt as one stimulus because these surfaces are normally adjacent and we have learnt to fuse their sensations ; but, if the fingers are crossed, surfaces which are never normally in contact are brought together and a pencil placed between them is now felt as double. In this case, association does not occur automatically, as is normal; instead the two sensations appearing as one, two separate sensations are experienced. If we did not have the testimony of our eyes or the knowledge of the experiment we were making, the two sensations would remain, and in fact they are, quite discrete. This should now be applied to the faculty of grasping, in which the physic logical basis of tridimensionality certainly lies. But it must be clear from these considerations that the physiological aspect of perception cannot be separate from the psychological. This will be dealt with in due course.

5 . Continuity. The response to sensory stimuli that exceed a certain minimum threshold continues for a brief period after the event. Ultimately this response is cerebral and belongs to the domain of biochemistry. In normal circumstances, distinct groups of sensations and their prolongation, succeed one another with sufficient rapidity to make them appear as though they formed an unbroken line. There will, however, be no difficulty in understanding that objective continuity is an illusion, if what was said regarding the interval between two thoughts be borne in mind. We do not normally take note of this interval because we wrongly assume that when nothing objective is present to consciousness, what subsists is nothingness and no consciousness. The sense of continuity cannot therefore be derived from the objective, physiological side of perception ; it is derived from the single, immutable and non-temporal consciousness in which all perceptions occur, as we shall see in a later chapter.

6. The Psychological Origin of Tridimensionality. When our attention goes outward, we become conscious of sensations and instinctively perform the mental process described in the second article of this chapter, completing it with another, which is to imagine what we cannot possibly perceive, namely, the other side or the inside of the surface we perceive notionally.2 We then gain the impression of having perceived a three-dimensional object. Our habit of combining tactile with visual and other sensations is due partly, if not wholly, to the fact that we are able to have the feeling of, or touch, those parts of our body we cannot see : analogy does the rest. As an illustration of how we create the appearance of the world, we need only look at a painting and ask ourselves where the recognition of nonexistent objects in a non-existent space comes from. It does not come from the coloured canvas : it comes from our habit of associating physically experienced and imaginary sensations to form ideas. The solid world of the five senses is created by us in the same way.3

7. The Aim of This Analysis. I have given a very simplified account of a complex process, for this work, as already stated, is written from a point of view and with a purpose differing essentially from the standpoint of empirical science. My aim here is to separate from the objective side of human experience the conscious principle that informs it. The meaning of sensory perception and of memory will be discussed at a later stage when we come to analyse the nature of desire.

8. Summary. From all these considerations, it is evident that materiality is an illusion created by the combination through memory of visual and tactile sensations, whether these are experienced as physical or mental, relative to actual and imaginary movements of the perceiver’s body and senses.

1 I say ‘at a reading distance’, because it often happens that what afterwards is called a surface falls within the field of a single visual or tactile focus of attention. In such cases, we either look or feel more minutely, or else, and this is the most usual, we unwittingly call on past experience to supply imaginitively the sensations that combine to form the notion of a surface or an object.

2In practice we do not always actually see or feel in imagination the other side or the inside of a surface, the idea of materiality being so much a part of our mental habit that we do not need to. In sensory perception, as in ratiocination, even those who are least developed among us often arrive at conclusions by an elliptical process which is probably the best measure of good and bad brains. While this method is being practiced, it may be necessary to disentagle ourselves at first from this pragmatically useful unreliable short cut.

3As a further illustration and towards completing what was said about the attribution of life and consciousness to others (Ch. VIII), let me cite the sound- film. Out of the mechanical play of light on a screen and the vacuous sound- waves that fill the hall during its projection, we create for ourselves, as in a dream, a living world in which we participate entirely, by running up and down the whole vast gamut of thought and feeling.

-John Levy

From The Nature of Man According to the Vedanta. Sentient Press

The entire book can be downloaded here.

%d bloggers like this: