Home > Uncategorized > What is going on?!??!

What is going on?!??!

[For the precursor to this post, please read my previous post, The Riddle of Fluid Points of Reference.]

I hate to break it to you, but you have no idea what’s going on.

I mean it. Literally. You have an impression of what’s going on; you’re interacting with what you think is going on; and you’re rapidly and continuously storing information about what you think is going on to refer to later in making decisions and judgments.

Unfortunately, you’re flying blind.

The plain truth is, nothing guarantees that the way you perceive the world is the way it actually is. [Bear with me. I can actually make a case for this.]

“But I can see it and touch it and smell it!”

No cigar.

Here’s a case study:  So the milk you’re sniff-checking smells pretty rank. If you for some godforsaken reason drank some, it would taste pretty nasty. Swirl it around, and it’s kind of chunky; so, you determine, the milk has gone bad.

The unspoken assumption in that judgment is that “the milk.”

That is, that the milk exists. Do you know that for sure? What guarantees it?

Haven’t you ever been fooled about the world before? Obvious example: mirages. We get those on the road in South Florida all the time. The asphalt reflects so much heat that it bends light waves, making it appear that there are water puddles on the road ahead; but as you draw closer, the water disappears.

Or, dreams. Ever had a really, really realistic dream that you were shocked to wake up from? (In high school, I fell asleep in class and had a dream that I fell asleep in class and was suddenly woken up by the teacher. Then I woke up from the dream unaided, relieved that I hadn’t gotten caught snoozing. Then I woke up again – for real (?) this time, realizing I’d had an infinite regress series of very, very realistic dreams – like looking in a mirror reflecting another mirror. I think I need therapy. Currently accepting donations.)

Maybe that’s just me. But fact is, despite what it seems like to you, you don’t perceive anything directly. Plop a few chunks of that milk onto your tongue. What we call “tasting disgusting milk” means that your tongue is retrieving information about the chemical reactivity properties of the molecules of the bacteria in the milk and transmitting them along a series of nerves to a piece of meat with information-processing capabilities (i.e., your brain), where that information is somehow translated into a (very unpleasant) sensation. (I’m going to do a post later on how weird it is that quantitative physical information can manifest as a rich qualitative sensation.)

The complexity and length of that chain of transmission means that your perceptions are sufficiently removed from the actuality of the world to cast doubt upon their validity – or accuracy. By validity, I mean you could imagining the milk all together; by accuracy, I mean that the milk could definitely exist but be perfectly sanitary and totally potable.

Well, some people would accept this and cast doubt upon their perceptions’ validity or accuracy; others would say that’s pretty a silly thing to even think about; and others recognize that their perceptions may be of dubious validity or accuracy, but refuse to consider the possibility of inaccuracy whatsoever because it casts doubt upon everything we do and are.  It makes us very lonely. Because if you can’t be sure that milk exists, you surely can’t be sure your boyfriend or mom or cat exists. (Why, they could even be a zombie or vampire or a very sophisticated robot.) That’s called solipsism, and it’s a much-despised but unfortunately irrefutable tenet of philosophy.

Fact is, whether it’s true or not, who really cares? We human beings instinctively live in a state of trust: that the world and beings we interact with exist and exist more or less as they seem to. Even though, as an amateur philosopher, I recognize the persistent and annoying resilience (“undisprovability”?) of solipsism, I have a whole lot of fun being in the world and talking to people. Hypocritical, possibly; so what?

You have to ignore the doctrine of solipsism, or you turn into a very suspicious, sad, and lonely person.

To heck with that. Throw the milk away, hug your mom, and rub your cat’s belly until it bites you. Have fun.

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  1. August 28, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    does that mean perception is not reality? I would disagree with you on living in a world of trust… I generally distrust until given a reason to trust, maybe it’s me, I could probably use some therapy as well… I do have a question for you that may support your theories. A very old, and wise man answered a question for me that has intrigued man for some time. He asked me “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?”, I giggled and replied that I had no answer. He said to me, “foolish boy, the real answer is who cares!!!!.

    • juliakwakefield
      September 3, 2009 at 1:30 pm

      That’s a very wise old man – I confess, I kind of agree!

      In response to your comment about distrusting until given a reason to trust, I suppose I meant “living in a world of trust” in a much broader sense – that we trust our perceptions about the world. Until, I guess, we’re given a reason to mistrust – such as the appearance of a mirage. What do you think about that?

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