The Reality We Know
By: David Othus
(The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live. - Victor Hugo.)
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. It tries to answer, philosophically, what we can and can't know. In it's purest sense it tries to distinguishes between true knowledge from false knowledge. It is usually covered under the topic of human nature as most philosophers throughout history have concluded that what separates man from animals is his ability to think and know. Originally this was going to be a treaty on human nature, and in many ways it still is. However, on reading through it I decided to have this treaty focus on what we can know about reality, as well as the realities that we can know.
My first premise is based off of some common sense that seems to be missing in much of the philosophical theory I have read dealing with human nature and the nature of knowledge. My premise is that there is a real world of objects and other intelligent / sentient beings we call people. Some philosophers state that we cannot know if there is a real world outside of our minds and that we can only know that which we perceive to know. To them, the only reality is the reality that exists within our minds. The most obvious retort to this is that if this is true then we really don’t need to eat or breathe since these are merely stimuli for our minds and these things do not necessarily really and truly exist. In this way I favor realism over idealism. Read “The Nature of the World Around Us” for a greater understanding this premise.
My next premise is that we as humans are thinking creatures and live part of our lives in the world of our minds. We can think about things, imagine things and dream about things.
This leads to my final premise: that we as humans live in a kind of dual existence: once in the world of reality and again in the world of dreams, in the realm of the mind: the private world and the public. And each of these worlds affects the other: the public world of reality affects the private world of the mind with the imagined constructs of reality while the private world of the mind effects with new ideas that can be transformed into reality through the force of action. In addition, we can use the public world to share our private worlds through the arts and literature.
Language and Tools – These are great contributors to what we can know by changing what and how we can learn about the world around us. By reading books, watching TV, and talking to others we can learn about the world beyond what we have observed. Tools like the microscope, MRI, and X-Ray help us to observe what would normally be hidden away from our view. These will be covered in greater detail later in this work.
Concepts of Reality -
Basic psychology teaches us that our senses take input from the world around us and our mind processes these input into our perceptions. Our mind then process this perception against our memory of past perceptions to come up with knowledge about what it is that we perceived. Sometimes it takes of awhile to figure out what it is we are perceiving if we are perceiving something for the first time or if what we are perceiving is out of context, perhaps in a different location than where we normally perceive it.
While we physically live in the world, our minds can only perceive it from our senses. While most people consider that we only have 5 senses, I believe that there is a 6th sense, emotion. Emotion can be as painful as putting your hand over a hot fire, as pleasurable as a warm, soft bubble bath, and as damaging as any physical trauma can be. While it is not a primary sense in the ordinary sense, it is just as real and present with as much depth and detail as any of the other senses.
Sense we can only perceive the world through our senses, and this is extrapolated by our minds, we can deduce four basic things:
1. There are things about reality that we can perceive and know.
2. There are things about reality that we cannot perceive and know because we cannot sense it or don’t know how to properly sense it.
3. Our senses fool us so that we do not accurately perceive our reality.
4. Our mind fools us so that we do not accurately perceive our reality.
With odds like that it’s amazing that we can know anything about reality at all. Fortunately reality is stable enough for long enough that we can get a pretty good idea of what it is like. At this point I would like to take a minute and extrapolate on the points above.
What we can perceive and know: We can perceive and know quite a bit about the world around us because our senses and mind work properly most of the time. In addition, there are people and tools out there that can help us to better understand what it is that we perceive.
What we can’t sense we can’t perceive: There is a large variety of things that we can’t perceive because they are either too small or too far away for us to sense. This does not mean that these things do not exist; it just means that we cannot perceive them properly. Fortunately mankind is fairly good at making tools and we can use some of these tools to perceive those things that we normally could not. A telephone or a microscope would be good examples of these kinds of tools. With a telephone we can hear / perceive someone speaking on the other side of the world and with a microscope we can see / perceive things that would normally be too small for us to see. In addition, some things are too complex to fully perceive and understand without proper training. A doctor using his hands to feel his way around a patient’s abdomen can perceive a multitude of organs and potential problems within a patient. In addition, a watch maker can look inside the moving gears of a watch and knows what the pieces are doing and what to look for when diagnosing problems with the watch. For the untrained, either of these would be difficult if not impossible.
Fooled senses: A good magician specializes in his ability to fool the senses of his audience. With tricks, mirrors and sleight of hand he causes his audience to perceive the impossible. Nature is full of similar tricks as well from mirages in the desert to lizard that change color and insects that look like twigs on a branch our senses can be fooled to believing that we are looking at something we are not, or are not looking at something that is really there.
Mind tricks: A friend and I were traveling to go to another friend’s house several hours away. When I picked up my friend he had spent the entire day at work, but was too excited to sleep. We drove to our friend’s house where we spent another entire day. Again my traveling companion did not sleep the entire time. On the way back my friend started hallucinating and seeing things outside the car that were not there. He hadn’t slept for nearly thirty-two hours and his mind was playing tricks on him. Our minds can play tricks on us for a variety of reasons, lack of sleep, drugs, alcohol, psychological illnesses, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. As our senses send information to the brain, it processes it improperly and our mind fools us. Sometime, like in the case of my friend, we realize what’s happening, and other times we do not.
What we call an object or action does not change the nature of the object or action, but in a subtle way changes how we thing about it. The more words we have that can accurately describe an object or actions and its component parts, the deeper the knowledge we can have about it. Sometimes we perceive something that we cannot articulate properly. We generally have one of three methods for dealing with this:
Find the proper word to articulate what we perceived, if such a word exists.
Use our current and insufficient vocabulary to describe the perception.
Create new words to better convey what we perceived.
Note that without the proper force of action on our part, none of this changes the object or action in any way, just our knowledge of that object or action and our ability to communicate that knowledge to others.
Theoretically there are three levels of language that we use on a regular basis:
Transitive Language – This is language that relates to objects and actions and their relation to one another. This seems to be the language that develops first in children. It helps us to transition the world we perceive into the world of thought. “The dog is on the chair.” is a transitive sentence since it relates to what can be perceived in either the real or imaginary worlds.
Abstract Language – This is language that does not relate to objects and actions in either the real or imaginary worlds. Concepts like noun and verb that only relate to the abstract concepts of language are examples of abstract language.
Transitional Language – This is language that somehow falls in-between transitive and abstract language. Real numbers often fall into this category when they are used to group objects together. The phrase “four dogs” is transitional because, although we can see the dogs, counting them is a cognitive process and thereby contains some level of abstraction.
Language is important because it helps us to relate to the world around us, to communicate with each other, and to think abstractly. In fact most of our thinking is done linguistically, via internal dialogs in our mind. (It is interesting to note that people who are born deaf, deaf and blind, etc… create other forms of symbolism that act as linguistic elements to achieve the same effect as the language people those of us without these disabilities use and hear in our heads.)
Language is also important because, through the use of language we can learn and know things that are beyond what we can perceive. In this way, language is a tool much like a microscope or an X-Ray machine. In addition, language allows us to learn abstract concepts as well. If you have never been to Paris France , you probably know that the Eiffel tower is there because of language. In addition, you learned grammar and history, both fairly abstract concepts, through language as well.
In short Language helps us to know and think about the world around us whether it is something we have directly perceived or something that was perceived by someone else and communicated to us.
Tools are things we find all around us. We have microwave ovens, computers, hammers, screw drivers, all these things are tools. Some tools like a microscope or MRI allow us to view things that are hidden away from our normal view. They enhance our perceptive abilities so that we can know more things about the world around us. Books are similar in this respect; people can write what they know or have seen, add pictures or photos, and when we read it we gain some of the knowledge that those people have experienced without directly experiencing these things ourselves. Some tools like a camera and the pictures it produces, helps us to remember what it is we saw and perhaps many of the events that took place when the picture was taken. As future generations view these pictures they help people to see how things were, how people dressed or how a mountain might have looked, when the picture was taken. As you can see, tools help us in many ways to better know and manipulate the world around us.
What can we know about the world around us?
So, this is all nice, but what can we actually know about the world around us, this common reality? The answer is a bit obtuse: we can't know anything completely, but we can know lots of things incompletely. In addition, because of language and tools, we have the ability to know things that we have, and could never directly perceive. As we perceive the world around us as we do, our minds pick up congruencies, things that go together and work together, helping us to deepen our understanding of those things and the world around us.
Dreams and the Worlds of the Mind -
As I mentioned earlier in this work, most people live in a kind of dual reality with one foot planted in the real world of reality and the other in the realm of the mind, the world of dreams. (I say most because there are a few instances where this is not the case. Instances of this would include people who are in a serious coma who are not in touch with reality, and people who have somehow acquired lesions on their frontal cortex (usually due to stroke) that has taken away their ability to dream.)
Because the realm of the mind is private and does not necessarily follow the laws of 'reality' it is world shrouded in mystery. While we can tell others what we have experienced there, we can even draw pictures and make movies of our experiences there, but we can not truly share this realm with anyone else.
What we know about dreams:
When I started doing the research for this portion of my project I found numerous resources relating to mysticism and pseudoscience cloaked in psychobabble and philosophical ramblings. Trying to find resources that had any real information backed by tangible research was difficult to say the least. Of the research that I found, much of it dealt with people who had problems dreaming and similar issues. ( For example: people who could not dream due to lesions on their frontal cortex and the dreams of blind people.) While much of this was useful, I also wanted statistical data based on "normal" dreams. In the end I found some and am able to proceed with this treaty. Here is some of the information I found:
Dreamers dream in the senses that they possess. This means that people who were born deaf or blind dream dreams that are consistent with the lack of these senses. This means that a while a blind person might try to imagine what it would be like to see, and may even do considerable research on vision, and what it is like to see, this blind person would never be able to actually see colors and properly visualize objects as they exist in reality. (It is interesting to note, that when a person has been blind since birth and is suddenly given sight through an operation, they have a great deal of difficulty determining what it is that they are seeing, even if they have undergone the the afore mentioned visualization practice. This does not mean to take away from any genuine insights a person may gain from these types of exercises, it just means that a person can't really know what it is like to have a sense that they do not possess just because they can imagine it.)
Most of the constructs in people's dreams come from either the real world or the world of arts and literature. (In arts and literature I am primarily referring to movies and novels. While paintings and such can produce a realm for the dreamer, this is not the norm, the norm being reflective on a subconscious reflection of reality.)
While many of the characters in dreams are friends and people the dreamer knows, this only makes up 45% of the people in dreams. Interestingly enough, 55% of the people / characters in dreams are complete strangers to the dreamer.
Most dreams seem very real to the dreamer while he or she is dreaming them, but seem less real when they awaken. In a way, the dream reality is only a reality when the dreamer is dreaming. As the mind regains consciousness it perceives the dream as a dream and not reality. (Sad and frustrated is the person who cannot differentiate between the two.)
Research tells us that we are just as likely to try to lie or manipulate people in our dreams as we are in real life. (Perhaps our actions in the waking world are more true to ourselves than we would like to believe.)
We are not always in our own dreams. (Think about the dreams that Pharaoh had about the cows and the corn. We was not a character in these dreams, he just saw them happen.)
Research has shown that stress and fear have been seen to be major factors in how one perceives himself or herself and the dreamer is more likely to envision themselves as the corrupted self than the ideal self when under stress. For those of us who are married or similarly attached, it is easy to see why it is important to never go to bed in the middle of an argument with your significant other.
Some people say that our true selves are represented in our dreams. I don't believe that this is necessarily the case. While it may be true for many, there are those who seem to live in a world of dreams simply because they find it easier than living in the world of reality. Like Walter Mitty, these people muddle through their lives, not really living because they either don't know how or it takes too much energy. Instead they dedicate their lives to dreaming lives for themselves where they are the heroic, the valiant, the intelligent or the majestic. Other people seem to be slaves to their dreams, not having found the ability to take control of their dreams.
Generally speaking, dreams seem to have one or more purposes: to be used as tools, as a form of escapism, as an insight into our inner being, to help us learn and develop, and to help us psychologically adapt to the world around us. This is not to say that all dreams fall into one of these categories, because they don't. In fact, some dreams seem to have no purpose to them at all.
Dreams as a tool: If used properly dreams can be a tool to help you through life, giving you an idea that was missing, or a needed insight. Other times it can be used to help take you away from reality providing you the rest your mind requires or the venting you may need. Sometimes they may provide inspiration and creativity needed for a particular project. (For a long time this project was little more than idle day dreaming until I decided to take action on it.) Because dreams reside in the realm of the mind they may be controllable by a simple act of will. Many people don't know how to do this and therefore have trouble harnessing any power from their dreams.
Dreams as escapism: Most people spend some time using dreams as a form of escapism. From envisioning oneself on the beaches of Hawaii or Corsica, to being the hero in some great epic, dreams often serve as a world away from reality be who we really want to be.
As an insight to our true selves. While I don't believe that this is always the case, there is research that suggests that this is true at least some of the time. Since our dreams are controlled by our minds, it is hard to get away from who we really are in our dreams. Then again, sometimes our dreams have nothing to do with us.
Dreams help us to learn and develop: According to Professor Michel Jouvet, dreaming helps us to learn better and quicker. Apparently infants have roughly nine hours of REM sleep a day. As we grow older this decreases and as adults we generally only have about one and a half hours of REM sleep a day. Greenberg and Pearlman tested this with rats (yes rats do dream) and found that rats that did not dream did not learn as quickly.
Dreams help us to adapt psychologically to the world around us: According to Ernest Rossi we witness something more than mere wishes in our dreams; we experience dramas reflecting our psychological state and the process of change taking place in our minds and our lives. Dreams are a laboratory for experimenting with changes in our psychological condition and our lives in general. "This constructive or synthetic approach to dreams can be clearly stated: Dreaming is an endogenous process of psychological growth, change and transformation."
Dreams are many things to many people but seem to be no one thing to everyone other than a private realm to dream in. Suffice it to say that dreams are what they are as much as reality is what it is. Each is a realm unto itself. For some it is escapism, for others it is a tool. For most it is what happens between periods of wakefulness. It is a realm shrouded in mystery for our own private needs and desires.
Putting It Together - A Foundation For Building -
(If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it. - William Arthur Ward)
A wonderful synergy is created when the world of reality meets the realm of dreams. It is here that we find the transformative creativity that can change our common reality for the better. Through the force of action, language and tools, we can take these ideas from our private worlds and create them in the common world for all to enjoy. Be careful of what you dream, because it might come true.