What is knowledge? This difficult question attacks the basic building blocks of human thought and reason. Once open to the possibility, our mind can wonder if the world we see and feel is, indeed, real at all. It is true that we are bound to the senses which form our link to the outside world, and that these senses can be fallible. But what evidence would lead us to believe that the world with which we interact is partially imaginary? Dreams — a creation our mind and imagination composed from an amalgamation of sources which can spring from anywhere within us — can take on only those forms of nature which our minds can encompass. Were we to compare these creations with what we see in the waking world, we would find our dream images to be much like children's drawings made of shapes and shadows. Think of a single blade of grass, something we have all seen and which some may have taken the time to examine closely. While we can outline its basic form, and even observe carefully its growth or a little scar on it from being cut, we cannot imagine how each cell of it works and relates to the whole. Or we may think of a lake, its complexities too vast for any mind to fully conceptualize, the area below the surface being completely unknown to most of us. We walk along the shore but can never see with our own eyes the intricacies within a single drop of water. If even the most brilliant human mind cannot understand all these humble things, it leads me to believe that no single mind could create and project a world so far beyond its ability to grasp as the universe seems to be.
If the world does not spring from our own minds, but exists in its own right, what of the fallibility of human perception? The physical human senses are essentially measurement tools, exacting and wonderful, but with limits. For example, if we were to use only our five senses to try to gauge the emotional state of another person, we would be dependent on physical responses such as tears or smiles. However, if people were so obvious, we would not be forced to use language in trying to communicate and understand emotional states. Similarly, if we attempt to understand nature with only the five physical senses we will be unaware of much that is occurring within it. These senses are adapted to the physical and have become expert at gauging the world they perceive. But within each person so much more occurs which cannot be understood using only the material senses. If we rely solely on our physical perceptions, much of what could be known or understood about the world is cut off and left dormant.
There are, of course, nonphysical senses. Imagine a friend is emotionally overcome and crying in your arms. Why would you yourself feel their pain and anxiety unless more than just tears and sobs were being communicated? It would be difficult to explain these situations, and our reactions to them, if physical senses provided our only information. While these emotional states produce physical side effects, such as shaking, these effects are not the cause of the reaction within you. Cause and effect relationships are notoriously complex. If a dam breaks and causes a flood that destroys a town, is it the building of the dam that caused the flood or the flaw within the design of the dam? Clearly there is a cause and effect relationship between the flood and the dam, but to oversimplify the situation by saying that the existence of the dam was the sole cause of the flood negates the actual failure of the structure. Similarly, in analyzing the human body, if we attempt to argue that all is physical and negate what occurs between the physical reaction and our own emotions, then because the emotional is not understood we might be apt to discard it.
What is real raises another question: How do we know that what we think, feel, and see is reality, and how can we trust our perceptions? A mentally ill person may perceive things which the vast majority of us do not. How is this person to trust perceptions which appear to be different from what the rest of us see or feel? His perceptions make his reality so dissimilar from the norm that he may become unable to interact with much of society. Each of us is like this "madman," however, in that we are confronted with vastly differing realities which we attempt to reconcile with each other. As societies we use common beliefs, ethics, morals, religions, and customs to attempt to soften the differences arising from what we individually see and believe, so that we may more easily agree with each other. We are trained to put on colored spectacles and see the sky as whatever shade of off-blue these glasses may tint it. This process permeates our lives, our upbringing and family further tinting our glasses, making it a shade all our own colored by all that has made each of us an individual in this world.
Understanding that we have been directly affected by the world in which we live, we can ask ourselves what would happen if we were to question what we know and believe to be reality? What if we attempted to see the world outside the context which we have been taught to accept, and instead tried with our own eyes to see nature which informs the world around us? Would we be labeled as outsiders to generally agreed upon experience and see a world that materialist reasoning would be confounded by? If we accept the idea of Darwinian evolution as a fact, what reality would we make of two dogs fighting in the street? What if we do not accept mindlessly that there is nothing more that we can know about human existence other than what is measurable with our five senses or with the wonderful tools that science has invented to amplify them? What would we see if we tried to look at the world not with eyes which attempt to create simple material hypotheses which explain effects but rob the cause of its inner splendor?
If there were answers to these questions, they could not be contained in lines of text; they can only be unlocked using the fantastic powers of thought which each person possesses. If we are to ask "What is reality?" we must look within and see the world that each person creates for himself. We must divorce ourselves from beliefs which attempt to control what we will see before we see it, and give us neat universal answers which easily permeate the minds of all they touch. Reality is individual, and the only method of understanding it is for each of us to look at it with our own eyes, mind, and heart.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)