The 5-minute philosopher was stimulated by the sad loss of Alan Saunders. Alan had the unique skill of being able to give lay people like me a window of understanding into philosophy and making what can be a dry subject very interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pretend to be able to share Alan’s skill – its just that no longer having the Philosophers Zone to stimulate my hunger for thought leads me to dabble myself.
One of the cornerstones of philosophy is the way we perceive our world and where we fit into it. To do such Aristotle determined we have five senses, those of touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing, a concept still considered relevant today. These are of course a result of receptors such as our eyes, ears, tongue, nose and nerves that send messages to our brain, which in its infinite complexity compares and stores these signals to create our perceptions. In struggling to understand our brain Greek philosophers sometimes considered it as a sixth sense, and being linked to the other five called it the common sense. I have heard it said that, in no longer considering the brain as a sense, modern-day philosophers have lost their common sense!
The five senses can be misled – illusionist and magicians ply their trade by confusing our senses for our entertainment. Religious practices can manipulate our senses through ceremonies; think of the Balinese fire-walkers or chanting monks and Catholicism stimulates all five senses in its churches. There is also unintentional misinterpretation where we ‘do not see the wood for the trees’. Buddhism calls this the ‘five blind men and an elephant’. Five men all claim they know what an elephant is having touched different parts of its body. One touching the trunk thinks an elephant is a giant snake, one touching the legs thinks an elephant is like tree trunks, one touching the tail thinks an elephant is a fly swish, one touching the tusks thinks an elephant is a plough and the one touching the body thinks it is like a giant cooking pot. The five men argue about what an elephant is, whilst they are all right in their individual perceptions, these are far from what an elephant is. If on the other hand the five had collaborated their information they would have had a much better idea as to what an elephant is. This is a good allegory for life on council. When a planning application comes before council, one member may see it as adding vibrancy to an area, another may see it as an impost on a neighbours amenity, one may consider it in terms of planning law and another as about heritage. The individual assessments in their own right are correct, but a more holistic opinion would be an amalgamation of all these views. Back to the elephant, at a recent talk at the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre here in Perth, the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Abbot Ajahn Brahm added that there is also a similar Buddhist parable about ‘five blind elephants and a man’. Yes – the elephants wanted to know what a man was like so they all felt him to find out, this time they all agreed that a man was very flat!
The senses can also be misled cerebrally. In 1954 Aldous Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception, where he chronicled his experimentation’s with mescaline and made the case for drug induced ‘enlightenment’. The sixties counter-culture took to this with enthusiasm, leading to one famous rock group shortening it ‘The Doors’. Lecturer and Neurosurgeon Professor V.S Ramachandran talks of clinical manipulation of the senses. He claims he can ‘cure’ people who believe they are visited by God or Jesus by removing a small specific part of the brain, an operation he has not performed on the grounds he has no place in removing Jesus or God’s visiting rights to his patients.
Our perceptions are something we build up over our lives and are a combination of physical stimuli and cerebral processes, have you ever thought about the concept that what you see and smell as an orange is thus because that is your experience of an orange, but maybe someone else’s perceptions may be different? In one of his disc-world novels the late satirical author Sir Terry Pratchett talked of the perceptions of the eagle and the tortoises and how when in the desert they have very different concepts of the same place. When you experience something are you the tortoise or the eagle?
Our senses are important in determining the way we perceive the world and our place in it. Employing them allows us to get the best out of life, but they should not be considered the only ‘truth’. Embracing outlooks different from our own can lead to better outcomes and understanding of the world we live in.