We live in boxes.
We live in bubbles: no matter how deeply we examine the world around us, our perception is restricted. This restriction takes place at both a physical, biological level as well as on a constructed socio-cultural level. These boxes will always be there, but that does not mean they cannot be expanded or broken.
It is all too easy to see restrictions as prisons. Indeed, many of them can become prisons, but perceiving them exclusively as such is not valuable. Humanity has not created its numerous restrictions upon itself in order to slowly imprison itself. These boxes function like bricks. They build a navigable world for us that appears to have a degree of solidity. Without our boxes, nothing would make sense to us.
Yet despite the solidity – the ‘reality’ — our boxes create for us, we paradoxically are not living in anything ‘real’ at all; for our boxes are interpretations, solidified by socio–cultural consensus and the brain’s incredible pattern building capabilities.
My aim in this article is to persuade you that our boxes need opening and our bubbles need bursting, but not before understanding what purpose they serve. We should pursue the knowledge restricted by our self-created bubbles, yet hold onto the structure of our former cages lest we fall into an unnavigable nihilistic existence.
The first category of boxes we must recognize are biological ones. A human’s senses are not perfect. Bats hear better than us. Cats see better than us. There is more of the world to experience than we are physically able to. This really is an astounding fact. No matter how hard we try, we are unable to experience everything there is in the universe. We will never see every colour in an image, never smell every scent present in a flower. It is all to easy to assume we experience the world in its fulness, yet our experience is but a fraction of the world.
On a neurological level, the restrictions continue. The brain is tasked with a momentous role: to control its body and react correctly to its surroundings. A big part of this job is determining what is important to register and perceive.
Imagine for a moment if you placed the same value of importance on absolutely everything you experience. That dripping tap in the background is as clear as the sound of birds in the garden and both are suddenly as important as the conversation you are having with your partner. Things you used to completely ignore are now given the same weight as the matters you really care about.
This would be too much to handle. You would go mad. Instead, the brain is highly selective. We perceive only a tiny fraction of the world around us. Though this is clearly for our own good – to stop us being overwhelmed with input – it also means our ‘reality’ is a mere shadow of what it could be.
The Boxes of Culture and Society
A large chunk of our structural boxes are a sociocultural phenomenon. These boxes build up from the very beginning of our lives and build up as we travel through it. We are all born in a specific place and most of us remain exposed only to the microcosm of that place for many years.
In that time, cultural boxes form. What language will I speak? What nationality will I have? Which god(s) will I follow? A brand-new human baby doesn’t get to answer these questions for itself – they don’t get to choose their first sociocultural boxes.
Instead our surroundings form our first restrictions for us. In my case, I write in English today because I was born in the UK. I was brought up by atheists, and so was not immediately exposed to religion. I had a Dutch name and was born to New Zealander parents, so I built a very fluid national identity. These are among my first boxes.
Our Options: Break, or Ignore?
Considering our boxes, both inherited and constructed, a question arises: Is it right to ignore our boxes, or do something about them?
Let’s consider first the easy option – ignorance. The clear advantage is stability. Ignoring the borders of perception keeps us grounded and lets us believe we understand our surroundings. It is, at least on an individual level, safe.
Such a state of existence is arguably fine. That is, until something goes wrong or changes. If we believe in a solid world, we are not equipped for when it changes or collapses. Does this happen? All the time. Political developments, divides in religion, social conflict: these are all boxes under pressure. All it takes is a brief look into the history books to know that these boxes regularly fall to pieces.
Another option is to identify our boxes and take a long, hard look at them. There is an expansive history of doing so in philosophy. Buddhism teaches of the illusory nature of our existence and encourages the systematic breaking of illusions with the intention of discovering truth and freeing oneself from the prison of existence. Nietzsche attacked numerous social constructs, even bravely challenging the existence of morality, in order to pursue the true potential of the individual.
The path of breaking boxes is a path of discovery and life affirmation, but is no doubt also dangerous. For every broken box, the former stability of one’s personal illusion shakes a little more. Indeed, Nietzsche was eventually driven mad by his own philosophising (plus opiates). Is it really worth pursuing a life of deeper understanding if it eventually leads to total nihilism and madness?
The answer is to reject our identified boxes, but continue to inhabit them. What does this mean in practice?
To challenge perception itself requires extreme scepticism. Amongst the strongest role models for this kind of thinking is Robert Anton Wilson, a man who can perhaps be described as a radical agnostic. In his book, ‘The Cosmic Trigger’, Wilson attempts intentionally to change his perception of reality by exploring as many modes of understanding existence as possible. On the course of his journey he meets God, the devil, communicates telepathically with extra-terrestrials in the Sirius star system and chases the Illuminati. Despite experiencing very real encounters with such figures, he neither accepts nor rejects their existence.
By doing this, Wilson inhabited realities he didn’t believe in. Instead, he committed to what he calls ‘reality tunnels’; the perception we solidify around us to match our sociocultural understanding. Wilson’s reality tunnels are our boxes, and his experiments in their subjectivity show how fluid they are.
The key point to realise here is this: If we do indeed match our perception to our understanding, then playing with perception will radically change our understanding of our existence. Breaking our boxes is the key to a new world.
Breaking Sociocultural Boxes
Society and culture are difficult to challenge because they fight back and are bigger than the individual. Culture is built from collective reality tunnels and the majority adhere to that reality tunnel. Otherwise, the culture would cease to exist. As discussed above, it is clearly valuable to challenge the reality tunnels of culture, but to do so is more than likely to be considered by society as a transgression. Moreover, you are estranging yourself from the culture.
This is precisely why it is necessary to in some sense hold onto the boxes we endeavour to dismantle. Though there is much to learn by dissecting subjective reality, each incision can be estranging and ultimately life denying.
Let’s take an example from contemporary discourse: gender.
The sexes are divided biologically, but the different characteristics of gender are predominantly socially constructed. We are still considerably restricted by the social construct of gender and as such it is worth challenging. Gender is however a deeply solidified construct that society is vehemently defending. Society would be freer without the restraints of gender, but stepping out of the gender box still attracts the ire of society.
Can someone pursuing the dissolution of their gender constraints find a balance? Can their box be blurred whilst not being ostracised from society to some degree? Let’s apply the concept of ‘remembering’ the former box. This manifests itself as a form of extreme empathy. The challenger of gender constructs will eventually, even in the most liberal of places, be confronted by the elements of society defending the construct. The challenger could fight back, but to do so risks becoming the enemy of society, and society is stronger. We are however all familiar with the reality tunnels of established culture and empathising with them serves the challenger two-fold. They keep their community and their community is more likely to listen and eventually accept the challenger’s ideas.
Challenging Biological Boxes
We can, with some creativity, also explore further our biological limitations. There is of course a major difference between challenging socio-cultural boxes and biological boxes: the former deals with the realm of thought, the latter with perception of material phenomenon.
It may not be possible to dissolve physical material with thought, but our perception of the physical world is widely subjective. Each person’s senses are different and the degree to which each person engages with the world around them varies. Because of this, though biological boxes cannot be broken in the same way as their socio-cultural counterparts, striving to understand them in a new way is very possible.
Let’s take sight as an example. Human eyes are set at a particular field of view. A camera however is not. If a photographer wishes to take a photo with a similar perspective to what we see through human eyes, they are likely to use a 50mm lens. If the photographer changes the lens, the perspective of the camera’s shots will differ from that of the human eye.
By simply changing a camera lens, we can learn that a human’s direct perspective of the physical world is not the only possible perspective. The physical world can truly be seen in ways not usually open to us. Within those hidden perspectives, whole new worlds await.
Break Your Boxes
Without holding onto the reality tunnels we reject, we lose our greatest asset in the search to find value in breaking them in the first place: acceptance and contentment with your newly created world.
Free thinking spirits are almost by definition strongly individualistic, but we remain social creatures.
As much as society and culture can seem to imprison us, most of us need society. The individual who explores existence is better off for it, but leaving society would destroy most of us.
Because of this, the adventurer of human existence has one choice – to break their boxes, but to remember them.