Perceived Existence

My dad had this t-shirt when I was growing up (which I guess means he still has it) that said, “If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?” 

As a kid, I never really got it. As a 23 year old woman with a boyfriend, I get it.

It’s, of course, a play on the actual philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”

The joke from my dad’s t-shirt and the actual philosophical question from some 1700s musings from George Berkeley both deal with perception. They both wonder the same thing: do things exist outside of our perception? 

I did a little digging on this George Berkeley guy and the history of this question. It was not him who asked it, but he did start all this perception drama by stating, “the objects of sense exist only when they are perceived.”

Admittedly, it makes my head start to spin after a while, and, like high school calculus, I just eventually say “never mind.”

But for some reason, I can’t say never mind this time. Is perception the basis of existence? It does not mean you can just pretend things don’t exist. If what you’ve said or done to someone has hurt them, you don’t get to say, “It didn’t happen.” However, I’d argue you do get to say, “That is not the way I perceived it.” 

I think we all believe this to be true, even, perhaps, without knowing it. 

The man who says (innocently) to his partner, “That’s what you're wearing tonight?” and is met with anger, annoyance, and/or disappointment and hurt feelings. For the partner, this is perceived (and thus, exists) as a criticism of his/her choice of outfit. For the man who said it, however, it does not exist at all as a criticism. It is a question! He perceives it as a question, therefore it is (for him.) It doesn’t mean the hurtful question does not exist. It just means it does not exist for the man. 

Am I making any sense here?

Think of a belief you hold that you’ve argued over with someone else. 

In any argument, isn’t our “side” just a product of our perceptions? We believe we’re right and the other side is wrong, but is any of that even so if it is all based on perception? 

It’s not that things don’t exist. It’s just that they might exist differently from person to person (because perception differs from person to person). 

In high school, a friend of mine asked me casually: “How do we know we’re all seeing the same colors? What if blue looks different for you than it does for me? How would we ever know?” 

*insert explosion sound w/ image of brain*

It’s all perception, and perception is individualistic. Again, it’s not to say things don’t exist, it is to say that things exist in the way that they do based on our unique perception. If only we could be more sensitive to this. If only we could remember that my blue might not be your blue, and nothing anywhere ever can say my blue is the right blue. 

This took a turn towards empathy, which I’m by no means displeased by, but it did start out as a different seed in my head.
For me, the question of perception and existence came up in a pondering of failure. 

I wondered recently, if no one ever sees my failure, no one ever noticed a mistake I made, does it still exist? Do I still feel the pang of failure if I fail privately? Is failure’s existence subject only to perception, the same way the sound of a falling tree in the forest is?

I’m not sure, but if it is, do you know what that means?

It means that all of those things we’re afraid of— failure, taking a wrong turn, saying the wrong thing, swinging and missing— only exist if we perceive them. It means that our perception of things is what makes them so. It means we decide if something is real or not. 

I have chosen to think deeply about my perceptions and the things that exist for me. I have chosen, too, to be sensitive to others' perceptions. 

I realized that the difference in those who have succeeded and those who have failed is merely perception. Failure doesn’t have to exist at all, if existence is, indeed, based on perception. 


Sorry for the long-winded head whirl, but I couldn’t handle this one alone.