If you asked someone, “Do things exist?” the response would probably be, “Of course things exist! The world is full of things. Everyone knows that there is physical stuff out there—that reality is tangible and real!”
But what allows any thing—a hand, a chair, or any other object—to exist? One way to discover the answer is to imagine a specific thing—say, your hand—expanding and expanding until there is nothing in the universe except the hand. What would happen to it? … Really, just take a moment and try this. You’ll be amazed at your experience … You wouldn’t see the hand anymore, would you? Why? … It would disappear because there would be nothing in the universe that was not the hand. This is a very basic concept about reality: In order for any thing to exist, there must also be not that thing.
Consider this for a moment. Can you see that any physical object is bounded by “not that object”? If an object did not have any borders—that is, if it wasn’t surrounded by “not that object”—it couldn’t be distinguished from everything else. In other words, it wouldn’t exist.
The same principle applies to nonmaterial concepts. Love and hate, peace and war, strong and weak, beautiful and ugly—these only exist and have unique attributes because they have been distinguished from each other. For example, the state of war is distinguished from peace by the presence of armed conflict. When there is no armed conflict there is peace. But if peace existed throughout the world all the time, and if the alternative (war) was unimaginable, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish peace. Peace, as a condition distinct from war, couldn’t exist.
A Universe Without Distinctions
Now imagine everything in the universe without any distinctions. It’s all just an undifferentiated whole. Can you see that there is nothing? That’s because in order for anything to exist, it must be distinguished from everything else. If no distinction is made between a specific thing and everything else, there is only an undifferentiated everything—which is another way of saying nothing.
Everything, without any distinctions, is the same as nothing. Take a moment and think about that. Until consciousness has made a distinction, nothing can possibly exist.
Therefore, the world really isn’t the way you perceive it. In fact, it isn’t any way until you perceive it that way—that is, until you distinguish it that way. You don’t even sense what’s “out there” because there’s nothing out there to be sensed. (Nothing, as we’ve seen, however, is the potential for everything before anyTHING is distinguished.) In making distinctions, we use our sensory apparatus (the five senses) as well as our perceptual framework (language, culture, and individual beliefs).
An excellent example of this point comes from a Time magazine cover story on human consciousness.
“A baby born with cataracts—an unusual but not unheard-of condition—and left untreated for as little as six months becomes permanently and irrevocably blind. If a sixty-year-old develops cataracts, an operation can restore full sight. The distinctions most of us make unconsciously and at a glance—foreground vs. background, moving vs. stationary, vertical vs. horizontal, and dozens more—are concepts that the brain has learned. It literally has to wire itself, with neurons growing out to touch and communicate with one another in an ever more sophisticated network of connections. And if those connections are not repeatedly stimulated in the first few months of life, when the brain is still in its formative period, they atrophy and die.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, moving and stationary or vertical and horizontal are not things “out there.” Rather they are “concepts that the brain has learned” (or distinguished) as a result of having a specific sensory apparatus (and brain), without which they couldn’t be distinguished. That means they literally wouldn’t exist.
In other words, if everyone was born with cataracts (which would be normal if everyone had that condition), our reality would not possess moving and stationary, vertical and horizontal, etc.—despite the fact that we are convinced that these are inherent attributes of reality.
Is There AnyTHING Out There?
Here’s another thought exercise that will help make it clear that what we think is “out there” is largely a function of our perceptual apparatus. Imagine that beings from another galaxy arrived on earth. Imagine further that instead of human eyes they had a different “viewing sense.” When they viewed our world they might not see the solid objects we see; instead they might see atoms: electrons spinning around protons and neutrons. They might notice that almost all of what they were viewing (the atom) was empty space. So if these creatures were the inhabitants of earth, they might not even have a concept of solid matter.
Imagine further that instead of human ears, these visitors from space had a sense that picked up radio waves but did not hear “sounds” made in their presence.
And finally imagine that they had a sensory mechanism like dolphins, who “see” the echo of sound vibrations they send out.
These aliens would experience and describe a totally different universe than the physical universe we would swear exists all around us.
Our role in creating our reality can be seen in another area. Apart from our perceptual apparatus, our most important tool in making distinctions and creating our reality is language.
As Edward Sapir, a noted anthropologist, has said: “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”
Language Determines How We Perceive Reality
Language is far more than a tool for communication. With language we categorize, distinguish, and create the universe. Ultimately, we perceive the world consistent with our language. For example, when we think in English, we perceive a world made up primarily of objects: people, trees, houses. These objects do things or have things done to them using verbs. We literally see everything in the world in this fashion. We don’t perceive “things out there” because there really are things out there. That just happens to be our worldview, because in our language there is a subject, which acts upon an object, which exists independently of the subject. In the English language, independent entities (subjects and objects) are primary, rather than processes or relationships. That’s not true in every language.
As Ralph Strauch points out in his book The Reality Illusion: “Some languages are structured around quite different basic word- categories and relationships. They project very different pictures of the basic nature of reality as a result. The language of the Nootka Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, has only one principle word-category; it denotes happenings or events. A verbal form like ‘eventing’ might better describe this word-category, except that such a form doesn’t sound right in English, with its emphasis on noun forms. We might think of Nootka as composed entirely of verbs, except that they take no subjects or objects as English verbs do. The Nootka, then, perceive the world as a stream of transient events, rather than as the collection of more or less permanent objects which we see. Even something which we see clearly as a physical object, like a house, the Nootka perceive of as a long-lived temporal event. The literal English translation of the Nootka concept might be something like ‘housing occurs;’ or ‘it houses.’”
We swear things exist because we distinguish them though our particular perceptual apparatus and through our language. Change those and you dramatically change the world that you think is “out there.” There might not even be any more “things.”
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