Harmonizing Perception and Knowledge
Mar 26, 2021
Last weekend, two significant global events passed with little fanfare or public awareness. Both are annual events, one astronomical, the other socio-political, which point to important phenomena in our world that perhaps deserve more of our attention. In a way, both of these events are connected conceptually by the interlinked notions of balance and harmony (和與平). One shapes human perceptions of times, dates, and seasons globally; the other, a product of humanity’s own making, shapes perceptions of ourselves and others, also on a global scale.
The socio-political event is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sponsored by the United Nations to commemorate the deaths of anti-apartheid protesters in Sharpeville in 1960 (United Nations 2021). This annual observance highlights the human ideal that we are born equal. It is also a day that serves to remind us that the track record of humanity in handling differences of race and ethnicity is not perfect by any means. The mission to eliminate discrimination on the basis on perceptions of one’s parentage or skin color is global and unceasing.
The other event last weekend was the passing of the vernal or spring equinox at 5:37 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere marks the end of astronomical winter and heralds the arrival of astronomical spring. It is the day in which sunrise may be observed to be perfectly in the east, with sunset perfectly in the west. For most locations on earth, the vernal equinox marks one of two points each year in which we find that day and night are in balance.
While the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal, in astronomical terms occur at precisely the same time each year, due to imprecision in the Gregorian Calendar, the date of each equinox changes within a range (for example, the vernal equinox veries from 19 to 21 March). Interestingly, a natural phenomenon creates the perception of imbalance in day and night for human observers. From physics, we understand that the refraction of light from the sun through the atmosphere, influences the exact time of the equinox, as marked by sunrise, depending on one’s location in the world. Through refraction, the sun appears to be above the horizon, when in fact it is still slightly below the horizon. This creates the illusion that on the day of the equinox, daylight is slightly longer than night (Rao 2021).
Human perception is a remarkable thing. It allows us to interpret complex experiential data collected through our senses to make sense of our world. On the basis of perception, we act, respond, and remember; we form judgements and attitudes based on what we see, feel, hear, taste and smell. Even when we do not understand what we perceive, it is an essential human survival trait to make decisions and act on inaccurate or incomplete data at times when faced with uncertainty or paradox. So even when science tells us that day and night have the same duration at the equinox, we perceive them to be different. Similarly, when we gather perceptions of others through our senses, we also base our behaviour on our ‘best guess’ perceptions that are deeply rooted in a ‘fight, freeze, or flight’ set of responses aimed at survival. Science tells us that our DNA is shared, but perceptions of difference often prompt hostile or defensive responses. The COVID pandemic serves as only the most recent global object lesson in the shared experience, and vulnerability, of humanity. Much more accurately than human perception, our viral foe does not discriminate between race, gender, politics, religion, or ethnicity. We are equally vulnerable. Many other challenges facing humankind that are global in nature and scale come to mind: environmental, scientific, political, spiritual, ethical, and legal.
A challenge for each of us, one that lies at the core of a complete education, is the ongoing task of balancing our sensory perceptions against objective knowledge.
What we think we know through our perceptions and feelings may not be supported by what we detect, analyse, observe, and verify. This balance is not a passive or inherited state, but one that emerges gradually, painstakingly, experientially, and reflexively through our learning and which, ideally, results in the discovery of a point of harmony about who we really are, between what we feel and what we know.
Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School
Rao, J. (2021). “Spring Returns with a not-so-equal vernal equinox of 2021.” Retrieved 21 March, 2021, from here.
United Nations (2021). “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21 March.” Retrieved 21 March, 2021, from here.