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The Uncertainty of Perception

“Seeing conditions what we believe believing conditions what we see.” This observation is the core of society and the substratum of human behavior. Psychological studies have reinforced and proven theories involving the conditioning of humans. However, failure lies in the attempt to assign the causes to a single concept. Among the vast influences for human behavior is our tendency to see what our beliefs would have us to, and hence, believe only what we happen to see. Obviously, my previous statement only obfuscates our attempt to comprehend the intended notion. In order to attain total understanding of the profound thought the quotation develops, I will attempt to analyze and apply it to my experience and knowledge of conditioning. Primarily, I need a concise interpretation of the idea. The contextual definition of see is “to perceive by the eye.” Unfortunately, sight, is only one of five senses. Even worse, the images we see through our eyes are statistically only one-millionth of our actual reality. Therefore, anything we see is not the entire being or actuality of the world around us but instead a finite perception (by means of vision) of the universe. The technical definition of the other key term, belief, is “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” In context, I will use the typical philosopher’s definition and define belief as “the unthinking acceptance of an idea or system of ideas.” Philosophically, belief is “blind” and is described as “the process of making a commitment to an idea in order to make that idea work for you.” In a selfish sense, it is the process of making ideas true. Transitionally, the quotation can be interpreted as “Our finite perception of reality determines what we will accept as the truth, and what we view as the truth will alter our already limited perceptions of life.” Although wordy, a better connotation is produced and the coherence of the concept is increased.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?” writes Lewis Carroll in his piece, Through the Looking-Glass. The situation of the Unicorn and Man appears to be that neither believed in the other because they had never seen the other species, thus illustrating the age-old slogan “Seeing is believing.” In today’s modern society that maxim is evident. Due to the Unicorn’s discovery of Man, the Unicorn can now hold a belief that man does indeed exist. Does the man not feel the same? The Unicorn had never before sensed Man and when it saw one, all of the rumors it had heard about man before suddenly transformed from speculation into truth, and that certainty is now accepted in the Unicorn’s mind. David Hume best described the relation of what we see and believe when he said the following about his “Bundle of Perceptions” theory: “What we call a mind is nothing more than a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations, and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and identity.” Hume’s idea is that our mind is the storage of the “Bundle of Perceptions” we experience everyday and from these we form a unity or belief. These relations prove how “Seeing conditions what we believe.”

Although our perceptions are finite, belief plays a major role in what we see as well. Marcus Aurelius said it best when he proclaimed that “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” In other words, as humans we subconsciously act how we think we should. Our actions are based upon our beliefs. We do what we think we ought to. If the subconscious can control our actions, then what stops it from controlling our senses? Nothing. Tragically, the insurmountable uncertainty of what we see is increased even more when we apply the knowledge that our vision is indeed limited. Doubt runs through our minds when the painstaking reality that the same beliefs we have encompassed into our lives are now known to have based on our unreliable vision. This same doubt forces us as humans to make ourselves reinforce our beliefs by spreading them and forcing them on others. Krishnamurti recognized this human flaw and concluded, “The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.” But why do we believe? Tertullian responded to that in his work De Carne Cristi with Credo quia impossible, or “I believe because it is impossible.” What Tertullian means is that knowing is impossible when our perceptions are confined so he must believe in order to continue. Like Tertullian, I have to be content with what appears to be my reality. However, I enter an endless dilemma when I perceive something that is unrecognizable to my beliefs, or something that coincides with what I want to see. Hence, I begin to let my beliefs control my vision and what I see is no longer actuality but instead what I’d feel comfortable in observing. Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed the very thought when he said, “People see what they are only prepared to see.” I share the belief with Emerson that it is significant to know and attempt to not believe. Ironically, Emerson also stated “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” So I shall.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with a walking, living, example of conditioning (other than myself); my one and a half-year-old little brother, Zachary. Recently, he became violently ill with a form of the flu. Unfortunate for him, he regurgitated most foods due to their incompatibility with the virus in his stomach. Zack loved foods such as yogurt and eggs, but when he was fed them when it was not known he was sick and his stomach disposed of them orally, a bad connotation was then associated with those food products and Zack will no longer eat them. He has the belief that they will make him vomit and views the food as “bad.” As sad as it may seem, that is everyday conditioning that we are exposed to. With the pragmatic process of “Seeing conditions what we believe [and] believing conditions what we see” coded into my brain, I strive to know and not believe in order to decrease my perceptive uncertainty. I will always strive for knowledge and not belief as I live by the words of Socrates as quoted by Plato in his Apology; “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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