Today I read a thought-provoking post on the subject of enlightenment. Quite a lot the article seemed to speak to me and I recognise that in some small way, perhaps I have been enlightened. When I say that, I mean, at least with regard to internet marketing, I have certainly been through a process that ended with my understanding shifting a gear (see Escaping the Matrix) so that, I believe is a kind of enlightenment.
However, in this post I wanted to pick up on one of the ideas that the post provoked. It is something that any philosophy student will be very familiar with, of course; and it is the subject of how we know that we exist. Even those not that well versed in philosophical matters will remember Decartes’, “I think, therefore I am” proposition. And, of course, every student of philosophy will also know the flaw in the argument too i.e. that this thinking does not prove that we exist at all; it simply proves that we think, and that is a different proposition.
My own reaction to the question is that the deliberation seems pretty pointless. Philosophers have debated the question for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years and apparently, nobody is sure that we exist at all. Personally, I am more than prepared to accept the results of the duck test on the whole matter. As James Whitcomb Riley so eloquently put it, “when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck”. I guess that I have always been an exponent of inductive reasoning – even when I didn’t know what it was called (lol).
So, how do we know that we exist? Here is my own argument:
1. We know that a thinker exists because we think (after Descartes)
2. We accept that this does not prove that anything else exists physically
3. We understand something about the mind that thinks and reasons
4. We know that the thinker perceives a version of reality
5. We accept that this perceived reality may be an illusion
6. We understand much of perceived reality within this chimera
7. We know that the chimera is convincing
8. We accept that, within the chimera, perceived reality is consistent
9. We understand that, within the chimera, universal law is predictable
10. When I see a chimera that looks like a reality, responds like a reality and behaves like a reality, I call that chimera a reality
Of course, the above is not an absolute proof, that’s true. Even if we invoke Occam’s Razor, a great temptation in such a discussion, we must accept that the principle of parsimony stating that simple solutions are preferred to more complex ones, might just apply to the chimera and not to reality itself. But the above reasoning is good enough for me. At least I understand that what we perceive as reality is not actually reality itself.
For me, it is practical enough to simply accept that our perceptions are very likely to be faulty to some extent. There is no question that our senses, upon which we are inclined to base many judgements, can be fooled very easily indeed. Even without any intended trickery of the kind that stage magicians practice, we know that we do actually see things that are not really there. There are many optical illusions that perfectly well illustrate the fragility of our perceptions (see Perception).
It is always useful to recognise that perception and reality are different things. It is useful in so many practical ways. For example, in the process of communicating with others, it is often useful to recognise that what we have understood by a particular communication may not be its intended meaning. If we were to exercise more energy in the direction of properly understanding others, I think there would be a lot less conflict in the world.
Given the limitations of our ability to perceive, I believe that intuitively we know that we are experiencing reality right now. To be enlightened is perhaps to come to this essential understanding. It seems perfectly reasonable to me. If we never understand that our experience of reality is reality, then perhaps we will never engage with life in the way we might – we will never really live. This is your life – right now – it is not a dress rehearsal so make sure you are doing the right thing with it and living the life you really want to live.
Now, I understand that there will be many who would wish to disagree with the foregoing, but that’s just fine. There is plenty of room for alternative views to be expressed, championed and defended within my reality. But as with many things in my experience, I have found that it is sometimes necessary to trust your intuition rather than your logical mind in order to move forward. We may yet turn out to be just brains in jars, that’s undoubtedly true; it’s just unlikely.