The Other I

April 16, 2010

Different starting gates

All of us make assumptions in our thinking that often seem so obvious and reasonable that we are not even aware that they are completely beyond proof.

In the Western world, we assume, for instance, that the world of objects we experience when we are awake exists independently of our experience of them.  And we assume that other people who are not blind or deaf or in some other way suffering from sensory incapacity can experience them too.  So I believe the desk at which I am sitting is a real desk and if you were here, you would see it too.

But how do I know that for sure?  how do I know that this desk is not simply a figment of my imagination?  how do I know that what I think of my memory of my entire day isn’t a dream?  Occasionally, what I have thought was real has turned out to be a dream, and when I wake up I sometimes as not sure whether I dreamed something or actually experienced it when I was awake.

Actually, there is no way I can prove beyond doubt that the world outside my mind is objectively real.  But since most of the time, everybody else seems to behave as if they are experiencing the same world I am, and since everybody else seems to believe without question that that world is objectively real, so do I.  As does almost everybody else everywhere in the world most of the time.

But most of the time isn’t all the time, and occasionally there are personal disagreements.  Sometimes these disagreements are even between entire cultures.

When our consciousness is altered through illness, drugs, lack of sleep, stress, or because of the very nature of our brains, or because the society within which we live interprets experiences in a particular way, we sometimes do not agree about what is real.

For instance, hallucinations are terrifyingly real for someone seeing it.  Voices have directed people to comment acts as irrational as murder, suicide, and impossible feats like floating or flying unaided.  Similarly, peoples from some cultures today believe that their dreams reflect visits from real people.  I remember one of my foreign students who could not get his mind around a Freudian interpretation of dreams because he did not believe, as we do in the west, that dreams are sole creations  of the dreamer.  For him, the people in his dreams really were talking to him.  They were real, even those who had died.

If we start out with different basic assumptions about what is objectively real and what is not, we are going to have a great deal of trouble understanding each other until we recognize that we are each starting from a different place.

As I said, most of us most of the time accept the objective existence of the world.

But there are other, equally important assumptions, about which we are not so generally agreed.  And some of the most divisive, if often unrecognized, differences in our starting assumptions are between science and various religious views.

Is there, for instance, a supernatural world which has both the power and the desire to directly influence what happens in this natural world?

Before you start spluttering that the answer is obvious, pause a moment.  Neither position might be quite as ridiculous as you might first think.

Or perhaps more accurately I should say that although I have made up my own mind about the question, people who disagree with me no longer seem to me to be quite so obviously wrong-headed as I once thought.

Why this is so will be the subject of my next post.  Unless the volcanic ash currently emanating from for the volcanic eruption in Iceland does more than simply ground every single commercial flight in Britain and halt flights throughout all of Europe.  All of which is happening now.

Unless, of course, all this is a figment of my imagination.


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