A Matter of Perspective

When it comes right down to it, everything in life is a matter of perspective.

From the moment we wake up, on through the day, and into the dream filled night, our thoughts shape the world we perceive. Our senses take in millions of clues around us and sort them into an invisible framework that our minds use to form our thoughts.

But what is really behind those perceptions? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and neurologists are among those who dedicate themselves toward finding the answers. Is it a matter of the mind, past experiences, environment, or chemicals in the brain?

Or is it a combination of them all?

Feelings of pleasure or distress come from chemicals in the brain. Evolution has given us a reward system that infuses our brains with dopamine when anything good happens, just as our amygdala activity increases in negative situations to bring feelings of anxiety. Advanced technology such as fMRIs allow researchers to actually watch different areas of the brain activate while a person responds to various stimuli.

Yet, our personal experiences — particularly those during our formative years — affect the way our brains will process events and release the chemicals that produce feelings of happiness, sadness, or anxiety. Also, our environments can sensitize, or desensitize, us to future events, further modifying our chemical responses.

So are we merely slaves to our chemical responses? Do the experiences of our formative years shade our feelings for the rest of our lives? If so, does the why behind our emotional responses matter at all?

While our chemical responses motivate our actions, evolution has also given humans the ability of metacognition. We have the ability to think about thinking. Metacognition allows people to analyze and understand both their thoughts and emotions.

This could lead to better understanding of our own emotions and of the actions of others. It could lead to self-awareness and greater compassion. Perhaps we could become more tolerant and less judgmental. If we learned to think about our thinking and appreciate our decisions, perhaps the world could be a better place.

Unfortunately, people are not taught to think about their own thinking. Despite our advanced technology, we live in a society that is largely ruled by superstition and faulty logic. People are given conflicting advice on how to deal with their own feelings.

Gender-typing attempts to define the proper traits for the sexes, just as racial stereotypes try to further pigeon-hole people. We are not taught to see beyond those misconceptions to the underlying chemical reactions occurring in our brains.

We all search for happiness through external sources: love, money, friendship, job satisfaction, travel, adventure. Yet perhaps the real path to happiness lies at the end of a more internal journey. After all, a state of happiness is often a matter of perspective.

Commentary Hurts

I like reading the news through the Internet. It’s nice to have many articles on the same topic at my fingertips and it can be fascinating to compare the different slants used by various reporters.

But there is a downside.

Many online news articles give readers the option of posting comments. This seems like a good idea, in theory. A chance to get a response from the people. Until you read the seemingly inevitable hate.

Is it the anonymity of the Internet that makes people feel they have the right to spew venom? Would the same people say these things in a face to face discussion?

Unfortunately, I fear many of them would.

Civil rights are a tricky thing. Believing that everyone has the right to their own opinion and the freedom to express that opinion means letting people say whatever they want, no matter how offensive. Or does it?

What about respecting other people’s right to their own opinion? Or, to go further, to their own beliefs and lifestyle choices?

What happens when one group’s beliefs include the importance of “spreading the word” or “educating others”? What if one group’s beliefs include the importance of persecuting other groups of people?

Is that an inherent facet of religion? To persecute anyone who doesn’t share the same beliefs? To spread hateful comments over news articles that report on a different way of life?

Which takes precedence? Freedom of speech or freedom from persecution?

I Am, Therefore I Think?

I’ve been on a philosophical kick lately, mainly existential. I’m wading through Being and Nothingness now and probably will be for some time. It’s a weighty read, not only because of the special terminology and constant references to other philosopher’s works (some familiar, others not so much), but because it sends my mind spinning in different directions (which may or may not be correct interpretations of the text).

Take Sartre’s fundamental position of the pre-reflective cogito as the primary consciousness. That is an idea I’ve wondered about for a long time (though not in those words). Descartes may have said “I think, therefore I am”, but who is the I having the thought?

The way I understand it, Descartes’ cogito is based on the recognition of thought about oneself, i.e. if I doubt my existence, I must exist to be able to have that doubt. However, that is using an awareness of the thought (or doubt) to prove self-existence. So what is that awareness?

This is the thought behind Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito. In other words, there are two things happening within the thinking behind “I think, therefore I am”. While the awareness of the thought is the I (or Ego), the thought itself is the actual primary consciousness (pre-reflective cogito) and happens idependent of an I.

As I type, there is consciousness of the computer in front of me (pre-reflective). I can experience the computer through my senses, such as sight and touch. However, that consciousness of the computer has nothing to do with I or me until I reflect on my own awareness of the computer. It is only when I become conscious of my own awareness of the computer (reflective) that I comes into being.

So what does that matter? Well, for one, a pre-reflective cogito creates an argument against solipsism (the idea that only one’s own self can be proven to exist). It does this by defining the I (or Ego) as an object instead of as the subject. Therefore, the pre-reflective cogito is conscious of the Ego in the same way that it is conscious of other objects (e.g. the computer, a chair, a tree).

In George Orwell’s 1984 (one of my all time favorite books), the protagonist, Winston, is ultimately struggling against solipsism. The Party has gained complete power over the people by distorting reality and enforcing belief in whatever reality they dictate. To hold these beliefs, one must practice doublethink, which is the ability to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. Those who have thoughts that go against the party are arrested for thoughtcrime.

As O’Brien tells Winston, “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull.” (Though O’Brien denies that this is solipsism, but rather collective solipsism which he asserts is a different thing.)

During Winston’s reeducation, we see how the concept of reality, and what constitutes reality, can become a slippery subject, especially as Winston struggles to understand O’Brien‘s actual experiences (or thoughts) as opposed to his own. He can not be certain whether O’Brien is lying to him or whether he actually believes the contradictory truths that he asserts. That is the idea – the questioning of reality as experienced outside of his own mind – that Winston cannot overcome.

But, back to the question of why any of this matters. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s all pointless speculation. Or maybe it means everything and is a glimpse at the “truth” behind all of our perceptions.

For me, these are just the thoughts that rattle around in my brain as I go about my day. I am, therefore I think.