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A lot of the early modern period of philosophy (think around Newton, more or less) in the west had to do with how much of human knowledge and experience were the result of, on the one hand, simply absorbing data from the environment, and, on the other hand, the playing out of faculties that were pre-built into us, by whatever agency.

When we develop tools like logic and math, for instance, are we absorbing those relationships from the environment, or are we only making explicit to ourselves the norms of cognition that are innate to the way our brains are constructed? Alternately, when we look a red apple on the table, how much of things like redness or roundness are properties of things ‘out there’, versus how much are only switches in our sensory hardware that happen to get tripped by things that are, at bottom,  just more swarms of protons and neutrons?

Why does this matter to our discussion? Well, it shows the linkage between our early simple examples and the more complicated considerations we’re getting to now. The reason necker cubes and rabbitducks affect us the way they do is that we seem to have certain innate tendencies to interpret things a certain way wired into us by evolution. Prey shapes, edge detection, depth cues…it certainly makes sense that every human would not have to simply learn all those things starting from scratch. When you look at a perspective painting, you don’t generally have to figure out in the moment that it is meant to simulate the visual aspects of three-dimensional space. chances are, you just respond to it as if it were.  But how much of that do actually have any control over? We can see with some effort that the necker cube is just a flat pattern of lines, but can we ever really get to the stage where that switch is turned off? Would we even want to get to such a place?

So, when we switch focus to the particular illusions that generate tension in humans, it’s worth thinking about how far the analogy actually holds. What would it actually be like if our own internally generated images of ourselves didn’t produce any reaction from us at all?  Will it turn out that we are trying to break something that is actually hard-wired into us? Is that even possible? Is it even a logically coherent idea–why or why not? If we could do it, would it even be desirable? And, of course, is this even what we mean by enlightenment at all, or even a part of it?


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