The question of reality is a popular one. From the ancient Greek philosophers to modern films (The Matrix, Inception, Shutter Island), the task of defining reality manifests itself in a variety of ways. Even before we can ask, “What is reality,” we must interrogate our ability to even answer such a question.
Humans’ connection to the physical world relies on our sense of taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. However, we do not experience the physical universe in a direct way, there exists a middle man: our brain. Collectively, our sense organs are referred to as the PNS, and gathered information is received and processed by our CNS. Therefore, everything we experience on a daily basis, every physical sensation, are merely our brain’s interpretation of the real world. You are not seeing text on a computer screen right now, you are seeing the brain-processed product of whatever this is. So logically, I think it’s safe to say that the human perception of reality is heavily, if not completely, mediated by our nervous systems.
But then how can we trust our perception of reality? How can we rely on this to be the true, objective reality when we perceive it through our subjective brains? I’m sure you’ve encountered the perception-of-color dilemma as an example. True, there does exist a relativity between objects that remains universal. But this relativity itself may differ the same way that math fractions can be proportioned in different magnitudes.
But honestly, the above issues are too dialectic and pointless for my taste. Instead, I take the idea of a subjectively defined reality, and apply it to our perception of the metaphysical, meaning our ideas, emotions, and attitudes towards different situations of life. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding David Hume writes:
Nothing is more free than the imagination of man; and though it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses, it has unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, in all the varieties of fiction and vision.
Imagination is what allows us to connect the dots any which way we like. Our minds endow us with the incredible power to dream, envision, and create things without the restriction of the laws of physics (or any laws for that matter). But not only that, if reality is truly a fluid, subjective thing, then our imaginations function as the bridge between ourselves and the outside world. Our imagination takes our sense perceptions and molds them into something that we can relate to on the deepest, most instinctive level. Like a translator, we rely on it to understand the universe.
It’s a sad notion that imaginative potential tends to fade as we age. As we travel along the conveyor belt in the educational factory, creativity and artistry more often than not get replaced by mechanical facts and skills. I know this is quite an arrogant statement to make, especially for a kid who’s only a rising high school senior. But I’m simply voicing what my human instinct tells me. Don’t take my word for it, take it from Ken Robinson and his compelling TED speech.
I constantly remind myself that for pragmatism’s sake, I must endure. But I fear that in the not too distant future, my imagination may disappear completely, relegating me to a life of monotony, working at a corporate job dressed in a cookie-cutter suit. The film Revolutionary Road explores this danger in a moving way. Pragmatically speaking, imagination or “the vision” as Apple likes to call it, would catalyze American industrial and scientific innovation, which would do wonders for the job market and economy. Metaphysically speaking, an active imagination would help us discover meaning. The world around us can suddenly become more lively, as if the black and white coloring book had been completed. Experiences become richer and more fulfilling. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to believe that dreams can be actualized. If everyone did so, consider how much more exciting the world would be. Colors never before seen, sounds never before heard, ideas never before thought. And suddenly, on one fine morning, monotony becomes only a word, a remnant of bleaker times.
Perhaps that’s why older kids and adults alike look upon young children with fascination. They remind us of the days when our imagination danced rampant in a reality of pure possibility. In an instant, we could transport ourselves to the age of the dinosaurs. In another, we were superheroes saving the world. Such power of mind we once possessed. Such humanity.