The world as we imagine it to be is more well-ordered than reality. The order of the imagined world is the order of our concepts, the order of what ought to be, the order of the functionality as we intended it. Our concepts and functional systems, however, are implemented in terms of real physical systems that have more properties than what our concepts require. And often the implementations are only just good enough to work, more or less.
If we look into the side-streets and backyards and if we look consciously, with open eyes, we will discover the real complexity, the emerging and lurking chaos beneath the thin layer of technology and functionality. Rusty sheets of corrugated iron are nailed together with pieces of tar paper to implement the idea of a house. Cracks in blotchy plastering implement the surface of a wall. Buildings begin to be covered in a cocoon of cables that in some places starts to resemble the mycelium of a fungus.
What is really there is a mass of sand and cement, metal sheets and copper cables, plastic tubes and bricks, panes and dirt and paint and other things, arranged in a way that the whole structure can serve a certain function, at least for some time. As long as it does not deviate from its intended function too much, we can pretend it is actually a house, a window, a wall, a door knob, a light switch, a passage, a staircase.
If we look at it with the eyes of a stone age man, a small child, an alien, or somebody who has suffered amnesia, without all our knowledge and all our concepts, we would see it as what it is, a pile of minerals and metals and plastic. Just as we only perceive “bar bar” if we listen to a foreign language whose grammar and words we do not know, we would see the structures of our civilization only as some dingbats. The “grammar” of our everyday knowledge enables, even forces, us to see meaningful structure instead. Many of us will then either stop seeing the cracks and blotches and only see walls and houses and staircases, or will perceive those “imperfections” and “deviations” as disorder and dirt, as something that has to be cleaned and refurbished away. They will perceive the house in terms of its use and usefulness. When we hear a language we know, we separate noise from language, we hear the sounds of the language as instances of a sound system, we hear words and clauses and sentences according to a grammar and we understand them. In a similar way, we perceive not a cracky plaster surface but a wall, a wall of a house, maybe of our house or workplace.
The real physical system does not know anything about being a wall or a staircase. There are grains of sand and little stones, glued together by cement crystallites, there are rods of steel, particles of rust, cracks filled with water, algae and bacteria.
These piles of things are houses just in our imagination. They are houses also because we use them as such, but the actions of this usage, our bodies performing those actions and our brains planning and observing them, are in turn, systems of molecules that become human beings and their actions only by us perceiving and conceptualizing ourselves that way. All of these things are implemented in terms of the material things on one hand and of our perceptions and thoughts on the other. I am not saying they are not real, but the houses and tables and chairs and staircases are an emulated reality.
And if we look into the backyards, if we look at the patina of our world and at the structures behind that patina, we can see that below that emulated world, there is an incredibly rich world of unnamed and undescribed things. That patina is a message bubbling up from the depth of that underlying reality. By looking at those undescribed details and by describing them, we can lift some of them into our emulated everyday world, or lower ourselves into that fascinating world of undescribed and often functionless detail. This is a meditation-like exercise that is worth the effort.
Inside our shiny world, where doors function perfectly and walls are smooth and even and monochrome and the world consists of ideal implementations of platonic forms, this underlying level of reality seems to be ugly and imperfect. But if we stop viewing these real things as noise and dirt, if we try to perceive them as what they are, stepping out of the world of functions and concepts we normally unconsciously inhabit, we can suddenly discover a hidden beauty, a glimpse of the true richness of reality as it really is.
(All pictures courtesy of Jacqueline M. Hadel. On her fascinating blog Tokidoki, you can find countless more examples of what I mean, showing how incredibly complex the underlying layer of reality is, and how “thin” and “rattly” the layer of conceptualization that we put on top of it by means of our imagination. The examples chosen here are from her recent stay in Japan, from the following posts: