01 June 2007

There's something happening here . . .

One of my majors at EMU (Eastern Michigan University, about six miles and, at that time at least, several cultural light years, east of the University of Michigan) was philosophy. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to major in philosophy, and I certainly didn’t have any kind of existential or metaphysical ax to grind, I just kind of noticed one day that I had accumulated enough credits to make it a second major. As I recall, that was something of a relief because I had been struggling to create a course of study the school would recognize with a degree. The mish mash of classes I had taken over the last several years did not readily fulfill any of the curricula in the catalogue, and making philosophy a major was just what I needed. It wasn’t that I was in any real hurry to graduate, but my wife was hinting that for the sake of the children I might want to wrap things up and move on.

I actually enjoyed the philosophy classes quite a bit which is why I would happily opt for a course on aesthetics or situational ethics instead of another god-awful math or science requirement. Learning to read carefully, connect unrelated concepts, defend my position and probe for weaknesses in the logic of an argument were all as much fun for me as many people say downhill skiing is for them. Except not so cold, you didn’t have to wear those silly boots and you broke fewer bones. There was, however, one debate I could never get very enthusiastic about, and that was the ever popular: What is Reality.

The way I see it the problem was started by Plato, perhaps one of the most evil men in the history of mankind, or womankind for that matter. Guys like Attila the Hun might come through the village raping, burning and killing you (in any random order), but after an afternoon of plundering and pillaging they left you pretty much alone. Plato, though, was not so benevolent. He comes along and the first thing he does is separate your soul and your body.

Before Plato separating your soul from your body had been one of the side effects of a visit by someone like Attila, or an executioner; but Plato yanks them apart with no regard at all as to how they might feel about it, and sends them off to spend the rest of time wondering why they feel so incomplete. Then he sticks your body in a cave with your back to the door. At least Attila left your remains in familiar surroundings. Reality he says, if I remember correctly, is outside the cave having a good time in the sunshine and all you can experience is the shadows you see on the wall, and we all know how accurate shadows are.

Then Descartes comes along and adds to the confusion by insisting you can never be sure what’s going on because your senses lie and dreams can seem real and yada yada yada. Scrooge makes pretty much the same argument while trying to tell Marley’s Ghost he doesn’t exist. He (Descartes not Scrooge) finally decides that the only really consistent things he can discover are these thoughts that keep wandering around inside what may or may not be his head. Naturally he finally gets around to deciding that since those thoughts are real (I’ve never been quite clear on how that was proved), and those thoughts have to be thought by something it must therefore prove that he exists. From there it’s just a hop, skip and jump to proving God exists and all’s right with the world. But what that world is….

For some reason this inability to know Reality makes some kind of direct connection inside the brain of the average college student. Or at least it did in the mid to late Sixties. Perhaps it was a side effect of the frequent chemical meddling of our perceptions some of us were apt to indulge in, or perhaps my university had particularly metaphysically contentious students. “If I see a tree, how do I know it’s really there?” They could debate it for weeks. Months, if you’d let them. Eventually I would get tired of all this pointless metaphysical doubt. “If,” I would say, “you see a tree and want to know if it’s really there. Put your head down and try to run through it.”

“No!” they would say. “You’re missing the point. Even if you run really hard and crack your head open, it doesn’t prove the tree is there it just proves that your hallucinations are consistent with your expectations of what would happen if you tried to run through a tree that was really there.”

I would then try to explain what I meant. It doesn't matter if the tree is really there or not. That tree, and the universe we think it is in could very well be the One, True Reality; or it could be the demented imaginings of a warthog on a particularly hot day. It doesn’t matter. Either way we have to conduct our lives as if there is a tree in that particular spot. Some smartass would always counter with, “Yeah, but what if you’ve just done some LSD, man, and everything is like some big hallucination and you have these giant bat wings growing out of you and you think it’s okay to jump off the building? What about that, man?”

My usual answer would point out that that person would soon cease to be a bother to me. Anyway, drug induced hallucinations are temporary states as are dreams, and at some point they will end and your perception of reality will once again come close to matching that of the other people around you. There is no consistency to hallucinations, but Reality, whatever it is, is constant. You see the tree today, and unless it is physically removed you will see it there tomorrow. Trying to run through it today will be as painful as it was yesterday.

Then I had an endoscopic exam.

For those who have not had the pleasure, I will try to briefly describe what happens. (For a nice video on the procedure and its history go here, and then scroll down to "At the Forefront of Endoscopy.") I was having a series of abdominal hemorrhages, and the doctors would use this test to pinpoint what was going on. The endoscope is basically a tube with a diameter about the same as my index finger with a camera on the end along with some little tools they can do things like take a biopsy or cauterize a bleeding blood vessel. You have to swallow this tube, and since you never really get to swallow it all, it plays hell with your gag reflex when they move it back and forth. To keep you from biting into it they put this block in your mouth that the tube goes through. To get you into the proper mental state they pump you full of valium, and maybe other drugs, which puts you in a place where you can think, “Okay, they’re going to stick this tube down my throat and I’m going to choke and gag on it for ten or twenty minutes until they’re done. Cool.”

Now here is the fiendish part. On top of the tranquilizers they give you something—I really don’t know what it is—that makes you forget something has happened the instant it happens. You are completely conscious, but you don’t know anything is happening to you because as soon as it happens you have forgotten that it happened. The only memory I have of any of the four or six exams I have had is of a brief second where they must of eased off on the mystery drug. For one or two seconds I’m choking on the tube, and then I hear a voice say something like, “Oh, you’d better increase the…” That’s it. Otherwise, nothing ever happened.

What is the Reality?

To my wife, who was there for a couple of the exams, and the doctors and nurses that performed them, the examinations were real. They lived through them. For me they never happened. I know intellectually that I had these tests, but except for the one or two seconds I mentioned they didn’t happen to me. It’s not like not remembering surgery. After surgery there is always the perception of time having passed similar to waking up from a particularly sound sleep. After the endoscope exams no time has passed.

So now, if someone says to me, “If I see a tree how do I know it’s really there?” I will still say, “Put your head down, and try to run through it,” and then I’ll say, “if you remember bouncing off of it, it’s really there.”

Looking up at the tree As I pass Each day leaves fall.


  1. Amazing. Really well done. Quite evocative.

  2. Descartes's whole reason for his doubting enterprise was to prove that god exists. For a long time, that was the the whole impulse for philosophy in the western tradition. So his enterprise was doomed from the start since he already had the result he wanted in mind before he even began his inquiry.

    I agree with you that the "What is reality" question is hopeless and hopelessly tedious. I was a philosphy major as well. When my fellow students started on the "what is reality" discussion I usually politely bowed out.

    What you said about careful reading, connecting ideas, and so on, that is the chief value of a phil major. I'm glad I went that route.


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