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I Am Perceived, Therefore I Am

(May 22, 2006)

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Rene Descartes 1596-1650

Everyone is familiar with the maxim coined by the French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, "I think, therefore I am," which gave rise to the more pragmatic, I stink, therefore I am, and the more contemporary (and my personal favourite), I think, therefore I don't watch Survivor. But seriously folks, as profound as Rene's concept was, he knew it was only the beginning. Because once you have determined that "I am," the next logical question becomes, "Well then, just what exactly am I?" The answer to that question is so important that it should be introduced at an early age, and become a life long mantra: I am what I perceive.

Every human being is a snowflake, no two are exactly alike. And just as their physical properties will differ to varying degrees, so will their perceptions. Perceptions are ideas, from the Greek for pictures. Pictures formed in our minds. Where do these pictures come from? Most come originally from our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. These rough images are then shaped and modified by our individual indoctrination and/or imagination. These three forces work together to form our personal perceptions of the world we live in. Our perceptions become our world. And just as nobody shares the exact same fingerprints, nobody shares the exact same perceptions. Hence nobody shares the exact same world.

The scientific community is gradually coming to the same conclusion, after studying the actions of subatomic particles (quarks, and pieces of quarks). These tiniest of particles defy the standard laws of physics. They will suddenly disappear, and then reappear in a completely different time and place. In order to explain this and other aberrant behavior, scientists have suggested the mind boggling concept of multiple worlds(universes), a concept that gains support every day.

At first, it can be disconcerting, to think that the person sitting beside you is not actually living in the same universe that you are. But think about it. Have you ever had trouble communicating with someone? Especially someone of a different gender, or a different generation, or a different culture? Have you ever received the exact opposite response from what you'd been expecting? No matter how hard you try, you just can't seem to get your idea across. You become irritated, and impatient, and think, what's wrong with this person... are they stupid or something? Sometimes you get so frustrated you just throw your hands in the air, and thinking you're being metaphorical, exclaim, "It's like they're living in a completely different world!" Bingo.

Fortunately, most worlds overlap, at least a little, so we are not trapped in isolation. And worlds are dynamic (some more than others). They shift, and change, as our perceptions change. In 1886, Aldous Huxley wrote The Doors Of Perception, explaining how mescalin, the active ingredient of the peyote cactus, could be used to open "doors" into other worlds, and other perceptions, thereby increasing our knowledge and expanding our minds, enhancing our understanding of others, and our ability to communicate with them. Timothy Leary opened his perceptual doors with LSD. Others tried the same thing and either died or went crazy. To many others, so called mind expanding drugs were no more enlightening than a six pack of Budweiser. Different worlds.

If you have no perception of something, then it doesn't exist. It is not part of your world. If you have never experienced it, been told about it, or imagined it, then for you - it literally does not exist. It may exist in other worlds, and some day it may come into yours. But until you perceive it in some way, it doesn't exist. In order for something to exist, it must be perceived by someone, somewhere. In order for you to exist, you must be perceived. If there is no entity anywhere that is aware of you, and you are not part of anyone's world, how can you be said to exist?

But what about your own perception of yourself? Would that qualify? If you were completely alone, floating in a vacuum, and the only entity that was aware of you was yourself, would that be enough? If the only picture of you was in your own mind, would you exist? Do you not need a second opinion? At least one other living organism to confirm your existence? Or is your own self perception good enough?

And what about that proverbial tree falling in the forest? The one that makes no sound because there's no-one to hear it. What if no-one is even aware of the tree at all? No squirrels, no birds, no insects, no nothing. And if there's nothing to witness its existence, how can it be said to even exist? Unless, of course, the tree is capable of being aware of itself. Now there's a concept...

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