People imagine that there is an objective reality. However in a debate they generally realize that they really haven’t given this notion much actual thought. Because it quickly becomes clear that as much as our imagination might want one, there simply isn’t such a thing as an Objective Reality.
In the 1600’s Rene Decartes gave reality a lot of consideration and he was left with only one certainty: “I think therefore I am.” What you are you have no idea because you have to ask yourself, and you can’t be sure there’s a difference between you thinking things, and things actually being in an world outside yourself. An eye can’t see itself, a tooth cannot bite itself. It’s a mystery you can’t solve. The world you live in is always an interpretation.
Let’s say you and another person are sitting at a table looking at a very good orange-coloured storybook you loved as a child. Would you say that would be real? Would you say that was a description of reality? Of a real thing? Does that seem solid and enough?
So let’s start with the fact that it’s a good book. You loved it, but does that make it good? Because maybe the other person hated it. So we can’t truly say in some objectively real way that it’s good. It just Is. And each of you in your own separate reality see it your own separate way.
Okay, how about the fact that it’s orange? That’s a little more objective, right? Sorry. According to a historian I met on a train once, until the 16th century there wasn’t even a colour orange. Artists painted with ochre which was a sort-of orange, but unless you’re an artist or decorator or someone else who was taught to see it, you couldn’t take a collection of paints and mix me up some ochre.
When the Portuguese and Spanish traders brought orange trees to Europe people noticed that the bright colour was similar to the shade you’d have if you mixed white and ochre. People started saying, ”it’s the colour of an orange,” and then “It’s an orange-y colour,” and eventually it just became orange. So if you asked some ancient relative to go get you some orange paint he literally wouldn’t be able to see it to find it.
This does sound incredible, but as the BBC Horizon documentary Do You See What I See? demonstrates quite clearly, we do not all see the same. The Himba Tribe of Africa does not have the colour blue. But because their lifestyles needed them to be able to distinguish between two different kinds of grasses, they do have two different greens. You can show them 12 dots; 11 clearly green and 1 clearly blue, and they cannot find the different one. Likewise, if you show the scientists 12 dots, they do not see 11 green ones and 1 other one that they don’t have a name for; they see 12 green dots just like the Himba did.
So the book is neither good, nor orange. Is it a book? Is it a physical object? Well, what is a physical object? A physicist will tell you that there’s some energy acting in a certain way there, but even that energy would be made from other energy and so on, right down to that little Higgs-Boson God-Particle that many currently believe is the base energy of the universe. But if the book is made from that then so are you. So what distinguishes you from the book…?
You might think because you can feel the book you know it’s real. But your feelings are interpretations within your thoughts. When they’re operating on your knee they don’t anaesthetize your knee, they anaesthetize your mind. In fact, in parts of Europe it’s not uncommon—even during surgery—to have your consciousness altered by hypnosis rather than anaesthesia.
So you don’t feel with your hands, you feel with your mind. You interpret signals and you tell yourself a story about what’s happening. Under the right conditions, you can’t even distinguish the difference between freezing and burning. So your mind tells you there’s an orange-coloured storybook there, but since you only have you to check with, you can never be entirely sure. You’re like Decartes. You only know that if you are thinking you exist. The rest is up for grabs.
If you’re not even sure if there’s an orange storybook sitting on the table in front of you then maybe you shouldn’t be so strident about your personal opinions, huh? That’ll stop most of your arguments right there—and 50% of those are entirely repetitive anyway. There is no need to convince anyone of anything. You can’t even be sure you would lead them in the right direction. Instead, relax. Try not to take your own thinking too seriously. Like Jack Kerouac said, “…it is all a great strange dream.”
Just enjoy it as much as possible and ride the rest like river.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.