Exploring the Senses with Your Senses

In one form or another, we all have heard the old philosophical wisdom “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), proposed by RenĂ© Descartes.

Meditating over this statement, we eventually realize that this is pretty much we actually will ever know with certainty.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a very lucid dream you once had. I remember one where I had gained many riches in form of money or gold. Not sure what exactly it was, but I remember that I could feel this valuable possession in my hand. If you right now take your mouse into your hand and feel its surface, its weight, its temperature – this is how I experienced these riches.

Then, to my great dismay, the thought crept into my mind that I will be waking up. It became more and more certain that these riches would be gone when I woke up, so I fought waking up. If you ever tried to not wake up, you know how hopeless this undertaking is. As I slid more into my waking state, the thought became more real that there was nothing in my hand, yet I could still feel it.

I ended up having to consciously open my hand to convince myself that nothing would fall out of it – and, obviously, nothing fell.

Looking back at that incident I could not help comparing it with my immediate certainty that I set here in front of the computer screen, typing along on my keyboard and definitely feel the keys moving under my fingers. I feel my feet touching the carpet, I sense its structure and temperature – all very comparable to my sensations of the riches in my hand while I was dreaming (as I know now.)

Why am I so sure that my perception of the environment are any different than my perceptions while dreaming? Looking at it philosophically, I have to admit that this certainty is completely unfounded.

We perceive our environment through our senses and that dream-experience showed me clearly that I can not trust my senses. There is no proof possible that this table I am sitting at is something that exist outside of me. Any means to prove its existence depends on my senses:

  • I can touch it – sense of touch
  • I can see it – sense of vision
  • Somebody describes it to me – sense of hearing

et cetera.

There are perceptions, we would all agree, that are not quite as solid as these perceptions of elements of the physical world. Let’s take a religious perception for example, where somebody is certain that she experienced god. For this person it might be as real as the pain I feel when the hammer hits my finger instead of the nail. But most people will agree that this is a more subjective reality.

In principle, though, there is no difference between these perceptions.

Therefore you will have to accept as you read this, that the existence of a person who wrote these lines is purely a matter of faith – you believe, that there is, or was, a person who sat at his computer at one time and wrote these words – but you certanly have no proof.