Navigating reality: It’s all about perspective

Learn to level up your thinking on how you perceive reality.

DANIEL SCHMACHTENBERGER: Imagine that we have a cylinder. A cylinder is a very simple, three-dimensional object but imagine that we have two-dimensional creatures trying to make sense of a cylinder. It's like the flatland conversation. So a two-dimensional creature intersects the cylinder this way and they see a circle. And in a two-dimensional world a circle is a very clear object, makes perfect sense. They can describe the mathematics of it, and they can verify that empirically they really did see a circle. Of course, a two-dimensional creature that happens to be in another plane could bisect the cylinder like this and see a rectangle. And they could be very clear on that also and they're both partially true but they're also both totally wrong in that rectangle and circle are both two-dimensional objects and the thing they're encountering is a three-dimensional object that actually can't be understood in the dimensionality that they're in.

So then we can see that a debate ensues between the two-dimensional creatures in orthogonal planes, the circlers and the rectanglers, who are both utterly sure that the thing that they're seeing is what they think it is and obviously rectangle and circle are mutually exclusive descriptions of reality. One has no corners and straight lines. One is defined exclusively by corners and straight lines. So it's easy to see how one can hold a kind of reductive fundamentalist perspective without even thinking that it is that. It's just what I'm observing. And so, then they can debate. Let's imagine that one of the two-dimensional creatures was able to switch planes and see the other one and see that there was some truth in both of them. Then they could flip-flop between perspectives at different times or they could say we just need to hold paradox; it's both and neither, which mostly means give up on making sense of reality.

Or they say it's a middle path that's somewhere between the two. And a middle path in two dimensions is like a rounded rectangle where you kind of do something that's a little bit circle-ish and a little bit rectangle-ish which isn't even any true part of what a cylinder is. And the thing is that they're just at too low of a dimensional perspective to properly understand the nature of a cylinder, which is actually a very simple thing. It doesn't require holding paradox. It doesn't require a middle path in that way. And it's because when we think of middle path, oftentimes we're thinking of extremes on left or right in a gradient. But sometimes the two different perspectives aren't on a gradient on a single axis. They're orthogonal to each other. And the reason why this is kind of actually an interesting example is because perception itself, a perspective on something defined by perception is inherently a reduction of information of the thing.

My perspective of it is going to be a lot less total information than the actual thing is. So I can look at the object from the east side or the west side or the top or the north side or the inside, microscopically, telescopically. They'll all give me different information. None will give me the entirety of the information about the situation. And so there is no all-encompassing perspective that gives me all of the information about, really, almost any situation. And so what this means is that reality itself is transperspectival. It can't be captured in any perspective. So multiple perspectives have to be taken, all of which will have some part of the reality, some signal. There may also be distortion. I may be looking at the thing through a fisheye lens or through a colored lens that creates some distortion. But then let's say I'm looking at a building and the picture, the 2D picture from the east side and from the west side and from inside a particular room and the aerial view are all obviously very different pictures and it's because the 3D complex building actually can't be seen in a 2D process.

So I could take a lot of pictures and I could seam them together into a kind of video that moves through the building. Now, by having a video I added the dimension of time and I got back to kind of the right dimensionality to be able to understand the thing. But that's not a perspective. That's a lot of perspectives that we're able to put together. So why does this matter? Well, when we're looking at political processes and we think about classically political left perspectives that have more to do with the orientation of the collective and the whole, and political right that have more to do with the individual and sovereignty. On the right, do we want people who are more self-responsible and who are more sovereign and who are more empowered, and do we want to give more power to people who are doing a better job? All of that makes perfect sense. Left perspective: Do we want to create situations that actually influence the individuals in the situation to do better — social systems, education, healthcare — does the environment affect the individual?

You can really think of it as: Does the environment affect the individual while understanding evolutionary theory that individuals are really formed by their environment? Of course. With humans that are niche creators do the individuals effect their environment? Of course. If you hold either of those as the only perspective, obviously you're just missing so much which is that the individual is affecting the whole. The whole is, in turn, affecting the individuals, and how do we create systems that have virtuous cycles between empowering individuals and creating better social systems that have the effect of creating humans that are not dependent on the social systems but that are more sovereign and can, in turn, create better social systems? And whether we're thinking about a political issue like that or we're looking at a psychologic issue like the orientation of being and enjoying reality as is and accepting ourselves and others as is, and doing and becoming, which is adding to life, adding to ourselves, seeking to improve ourselves.

How do we hold these together? They don't just have to be held as paradox or holding one or flip-flopping. There's a way that, when understanding how they relate to each other – so in that example, if I understand the nature of a person as a noun that is static then it seems like accepting them the way they are, unconditionally, removes the basis for growth. But if I understand that the person is a dynamic process, that they're actually a verb that intrinsic to what they are in the moment is desire and impulse to grow and become. And like that loving someone unconditionally involves wanting for them their own self-actualization and there's no dichotomy between accepting someone ourselves as is or the world and seeking to help it grow, advance, express. So it's a very simple process of saying the ability to take multiple perspectives, to see the partial truth in them and then to be able to seam them together into something that isn't a perspective. It's a transperspective capacity to hold the relationships between many perspectives in a way that can inform our choice-making is fundamental to navigating reality.

  • Social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger explains why the capacity to hold the relationships between many perspectives at once can inform our choice-making and help us navigate reality.
  • Transperspectival thinking is useful in the abstract—like Schmachtenberger's example of two tribes of dimensional beings—as well as in the real world.
  • Try to recall this lesson on transperspectival thinking during your next political debate or discussion and see how it may change your reactions and the way you navigate political realities.

You can learn more from Daniel Schmactenberger at

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