Monday, May 5, 2014

Discussions of Perception: Descartes, Huxley, and Plato

Rene Descartes asks us to consider whether or not we can truly trust our senses. Our senses are our only medium between our minds and the physical world. Without our senses there is no perception of anything physical. We are almost forced to trust our senses if we plan on functioning within the world. However, we would be living ignorantly if we did not question our senses from time to time.

            Popular movies like The Matrix call us to question the validity or honesty of what our senses perceive. How would we know if what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel are real if we did not question? Are our senses simply being fed information while our true bodies lie imprisoned? Or perhaps we don’t have bodies at all. How could we ever know?

            Aldous Huxley proposes another possibility. In his text, The Doors of Perception, Huxley proposes that our brains possess a reducing valve that limits the amount of “reality” that we can perceive, because, if we could perceive reality in its entirety, we would not be able to function in the “real” world. When we alter our perception our brain’s reducing valve malfunctions, and we can perceive more of reality than normal. Huxley details a personal experience he had after experimenting with LCD. The drug caused his “reducing valve” to malfunction and he describes being able to see many different layers to reality. There was a oneness between all things that he was able to finally witness. With our reducing valves in mint operating condition, our senses are unable to pick up on the whole of reality. There is more to it than what we soberly perceive.

The experience of a malfunctioning reducing valve can be likened to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The prisoners believe they are truly experiencing reality, but in actuality they are seeing false images projected on to the walls of the cave by firelight. When the prisoner understands that he is, in fact, imprisoned, he breaks free and leaves the cave. The brilliance of the real world outside is so awesome that it blinds him for a time, before he can see the whole of reality. 

I suppose it is impossible to truly know reality since we are dependent so heavily on our senses as mediums and translators. I say we stay open, but trust our senses for the meantime, since they are all we have. If we walked around constantly suspicious of our senses, we would never get anything done. 

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