Finding the Context of Self

‘In every act of sensation, reasoning, or thinking, we are conscious to ourselves of our own being; and, in this matter, come not short of the highest degree of certainty.’ – John Locke

Perhaps one of the most famous statements in philosophy comes from René Descartes’ Discourse on Method: Je pense donc je suis – I think, therefore I am. That statement seemingly ends the argument in of an individual’s existence. So airtight is the logic, that even questioning the self proves existence as Locke states some 50 years later as “that very doubt makes me perceive my own existence.”

So, we’ll agree for the time and we as individuals exist because we perceive and process the world around us. By merely thinking of the a concept, we will ourselves into being a reality. But what about everything else?

One of my favorite bits of philosophy, if only for the simplicity of the image, is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.allegory_of_the_cave It goes something like this: there are a group of slaves chained to a set of chairs deep in a cave. Having been born there, the cave is all they know of the world. They are immobile, and only able to see the cave’s wall that is in front of them. Behind them is a wall, a cave-dweller and a fire, all unbeknownst to the slaves.  Through it all, the dweller is casting shadows from the firelight onto the wall. These images, Plato explains, constitute the entire reality for the slaves. It’s only through escape and into the sunlight outside the cave, that the slaves will ever know the “true” reality of the world.

See, Plato believed that the bulk of human knowledge is already out there, waiting for us to stumble into the light and realize the truth. He thought, in essence, that our brains came hard-wired with all that truth and we just had to figure out how to access it. It’s a concept that a decent number of mathematicians believe today, so much so that there is a theory gaining popularity that we are all living in a complex mathematical simulation. Think The Matrix, and we’re all waiting for our own Laurence Fishburne to bring us our red pill.

To me, this whole simulation idea sounds a lot like the cave. And while shadow puppets might seem fairly rudimentary when compared to smart phones and paralyzed people walking, remember that those puppets are all the slaves know. They have no context for anything better or more sophisticated. When I consider the simulation theory, one of the main questions I keep coming back to is, how does all of this effect our sense of self? If I am perceiving, and thinking about, a world that isn’t real, am I real? Or am I merely a line of code in an otherwise massive computer program?

Regardless of whether the world is “real’ or “simulated,” it is vital that we perceive as much as we can, always question, and do our best to further define the context of our individual lives. Otherwise, we are no better than those poor saps chained up in a cave watching shadow puppets and calling it life.


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