Schizophrenia and Descartes: Your Reality is not What You Think
‘Reality’ as we humans perceive it is a chemical reaction in the brain. Having a chemical formula, then, it can consequently be artificially created; it is entirely unreliable from a Cartesian point of view. The Matrix was profound in its time because it predicted technology advancing past human consciousness consciousness, redefining what we believe reality is. This philosophy, however, has existed far longer than the silver screen. Rene Descartes is closely associated with the philosophy of Rationalism: the idea that we know things from reason rather than experience.
Descartes made the distinction that some things which can be known through observation are not necessarily provable. Jim Baggot in his book A Beginner’s Guide to Reality when explaining Descartes’s Rationalism puts it like this:
[P]hysical objects possess primary qualities such as extension in space, shape, motion, density, number, and so on, all underpinned by the concept of material substance. […] Secondary
qualities such as color exist only in our minds and therefore cannot be said to be independently existing real qualities of physical objects.
More simply, primary qualities are absolutes, where secondary qualities are based on perception. All of these qualities are based on our senses’ ability to interpret this information accurately. Moreover, the senses can be easily deceived. Secondary qualities like color are incredibly easy to deceive, just ask any overly practical man what color a wall is, and he might say “blue;” but a discerning woman will quickly (and creatively) describe the wall as “aquamarine” or “Santorini blue.” Additionally some people are color-blind, and are unable to perceive colors properly at all.
There is also the issue of relative perception. There is technically no way of knowing that humans perceive colors unanimously. One person’s green could look like another’s orange and the world would get on just fine. Without connecting two different consciousnesses on a spiritual level, some perceptions of of reality are simply transferrable.
Temperature is a more primary quality, but it, too, can be misinterpreted by the senses. Consider the thermal grill experiment, a scientific experiment used for torture in the past performed easily with hot dogs. Cutting three hot dogs in half, putting 3 halves in the fridge and 3 in the microwave until gently warmed. Then laying the slices in an alternating pattern: hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold. Laying a victims arm across the ‘grill’ deceives the neurons in the skin into believing and thus informing the pain center of the brain that the arm is burning. There is no physical damage, but there is significant sensory misinterpretation.
Number is also a primary quality that can be deceived. We believe that numbers are absolute in three dimensional space. But because illusions can exist in two dimensional space they must necessarily also exist in three dimensions. Consider the impossible trident illusion: how many tines does this fork have? What shape is the central object? How would the nuts thread onto the bolts?
Even though we believe with certainty that our own senses are absolute, this could be attributed to confirmation bias. Because we are using our senses constantly, it is easy to assume that they are infallible. This is why optical illusions are so interesting.
Our realities are, according to Descartes, based on our rationality and not on direct observation. Furthermore, one could reason that our conscious perception of reality is limited entirely to what our minds can comprehend. Our phaneron, the filtering of reality through our senses, is completely dependent on our senses being accurate.
George Berkeley, a philosophical idealist, took Descartes’ views further and said that physical reality exists only in the mind of God, that if God were to essentially stop thinking about our reality, it would cease existing completely. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it this way:
Thus, although there is no material world for Berkeley, there is a physical world, a world of ordinary objects. This world is mind-dependent, for it is composed of ideas, whose existence consists in being perceived. For ideas, and so for the physical world, esse est percipi. (Latin meaning that to exist is to be perceived)
Berkeley believed that we perceive objects, making them real, and when we let go of the idea, (stop perceiving it) it ceases to exist in our mind. Consequently, all of our physical world exists for us to perceive only because God first created it in his mind. While these ideas seem absurd, there is some scriptural substance that can be interpreted as supportive. Acts 17:28 says “‘For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Descartes’ ideas were outlandish, but Berkeley’s seem absolutely nonsensical on their first face. Yet when we consider how humans perceive reality, uncomfortable questions begin to surface. On one hand, how do we know things? America in 2020 is a fantastic example of ‘certainty.’ Protesters on the east side of the road chant for liberalization, believing the others to be blatantly incorrect and hateful, while the west side of the road believes their opponents to be completely incorrect and un-American. Most of the individuals present (some are more open minded than others) believe themselves to be ‘right,’ regardless of what the other thinks.
This in no way invalidates absolute truth, but it instead highlights the universal inconsistency of the human mind; the malleability of perception; the fragile schemas that humans base their reality upon.
For examples of fragile realities, look no further than mental heath.
Individuals suffering from schizophrenia are dealing with an altered perception of reality; they are often described as having “lost touch with reality.” While schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder are still not well understood, there are commonalities in patients that give some indications. Most patients exhibit signs of neurotransmitter deficiencies; lacking chemicals like dopamine and glutamate is generally understood to be a root cause. Genetics are also a major factor. Sharing common genetics with individuals suffering from schizophrenia is thought to increase likeliness of development by tenfold or more.
Schizophrenia is so unusual because unlike depression, manic depression, or even Alzheimer’s, it distorts an individual’s perceptions of reality. Voices, sounds, visuals, sensations, and innate feelings are all elements of a divergent reality. These are all issues that can affect secondary and even primary characteristics of reality. All of the human senses can be deceived, and with individuals suffering from schizophrenia this is almost certainly are deceived.
This raises the question of what a ‘normal’ perception of reality really is. In spirit with Descartes, if a neurotypical mind cannot rely on its senses to know things, the schizophrenic mind and the common mind are in similar situations. This is not to say that a schizophrenic mind is equal to a neurotypical mind in functionality, indeed most aspects of schizophrenia are incredibly debilitating; the afflicted schizophrenic suffers greatly.
Instead the question could be portrayed as follows: Wherein a schizophrenic mind and a neurotypical mind are both considered by Descartes and Berkeley to be separated from reality, though a schizophrenic reality is indescribably less pleasant, from what standard should ‘neurotypicality’ be derived?
A nihilist could not effectively answer this question. A humanist would be hard pressed as well, because if humanity is indeed the standard of excellence, yet no human can claim comprehension of reality as Descartes suggests, then the standard of excellence is abysmally low. As a matter of fact, the humanist cannot, according to Berkeley, prove that there are ‘humans’ by which to derive humanism.
If we are all prisoners in our own heads, watching things through senses that can lie and be lied to, there is no way of knowing what is real at all.
This postulation represents a departure from both secular schools of thought and some traditional modern Christian thought as well. Modern thought follows a Hobbean (Thomas Hobbes) perception that external reality is absolute. Even the Church on the whole tends to separate God from material reality. While this does not diminish the omnipresence of God, it does change the nature of how we perceive him. It is much easier to think of God as an external force through empiricism and materialism; Deism follows from this thinking.
Indeed, it is much more comfortable to separate ourselves from reality in our minds; in the process it is easy to separate ourselves from God.