Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chaung Tzu and Reality

Whom shall we get to decide what is right?  Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide?   But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?  Shall we get someone who agrees with me?  But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide?  Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us?  But he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide?...Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer.  Shall we wait for still another person?[i]                       Chuang Tzu

 “Whom shall we get to decide?”  This is a very good question.  When my son was little an elderly Chinese lady came to visit.  She looked at him with a smile and said, “You are so ugly.  Ugly…ugly…ugly!”  How could it be right for someone to call others ugly?  Under normal circumstances none of us would appreciate such a comment.  But I remembered listening to her remark with a sense of pride.  In her world, there are demons that like good looking children.  But these demons are so codependent that they depend on human opinions.  The trick is to trick the demons.  So when this elderly Chinese lady said “ugly” I knew better.  She actually meant, “You are so cute!”  How can calling people “ugly” be right?  Who is to decide? 

It was 8:30 in the evening at King’s College, a regular weekly meeting of philosophers and students of philosophy.  The date was October 25, 1946, a day not to be forgotten. 

This was the only time these three great philosophers—Russell, Wittgenstein, and Popper—were together.  Yet, to this day, no one can agree precisely about what took place.  What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy—whether there were indeed philosophical problems (Popper) or merely puzzles (Wittgenstein).[ii]

Many interpretations of this event expressed, many versions written.  There were allegations and arguments over what took place.  The ten-minute exchange between two great philosophers was about what can be known and what cannot be known.  The irony, every one saw what they saw and took with them what they thought was taking place.  What really took place?  What was real?  Who is to decide?  

Reality is tricky.  A Buddhist monk once said to me, “A dream is a temporal reality.  Reality is a very very long dream.”  Perhaps this is the reason when Buddha was asked if he was the enlightened One, he just replied, “I am awake.”  The awaken Buddha was silent when asked about the Ultimate Reality.  Lao Tzu would have agreed.  The real cannot be named.  But our society is extremely proficient in the art of naming reality.  This chapter explores the impact naming of reality has on the human psyche from Chuang Tzu’s perspective.  If Chuang Tzu had read the Velveteen Rabbit he would have agreed with the Skin Horse, “Once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who do not understand.”[iii]      

So we learn from Kant that the real world we are in (noumenon) is not the real world we live (phenomenon).  We all think it is real but it is as real as we think it is.  My wife came home one evening and told me an incident at the psychiatric ward she was visiting.  A schizophrenic patient rushed to the psychiatrist in despair crying “Doctor, doctor…I see people.”  The doctor turned and pointed toward my wife and her colleagues, “You mean, these people?” 


“Don’t worry, they are real people.”               

What is real to one, may not be to the other.  The spirit world of ancestors is real to many Chinese but not to most Caucasians.   There is only one God to Muslims but there are millions to Hindus.  There are angels.  There are no angels.  There are miracles.  There is no miracle.  Good begets good.  Deceitfulness reaps rewards.  Which reality?  Who is to decide?

Kant tells us that there is an organizing principle in each of us.  This organizing principle, which exists a priori, makes possible for our connection with the external world, the phenomenal world.  David Hume takes it a step further.  There is no external causal relation nor continuation.  Everything is the creation of the mind.  Human beings are just a bundle of perception, hence the expression, “no matter, never mind.”  When we sit and observe a mountain, according to Hume, we only see because of our sense perception.  When we close our eyes, the mountain no longer exists for us.  When we look again, it is there.  Every time there is a mountain, there is sense perception.  The continuation of existence is only our rational interpretation.  We question Hume’s common sense.  But the question remains especially through modern psychiatry.  Aren’t we wired to see, hear, sense, and feel a certain way?  We learn the darkness of melancholia in relation to neurotransmitters.  And why do some people hear what is not spoken, see what is not there?  Carol North recounts her struggle with psychosis:

Without even a knock on the door, the nurse burst into my hospital room.  She held out a Dixie cup containing a little green pill and a little white pill.

“Military pellets?” I asked.

“No, this is Haldol.  Dr. Hamingway wants you to take it.”

I swallowed the pills.  The nurse, satisfied with the completion of her mission, turned on her heel and exited.

Next, a man in a long white coat and a tie burst in.

“Is there no privacy?” Hal protested.

“No!” said another voice.  “It’s the day of the eagle.”

“Hi, I’m Dr. Dolby,” said the man in the white coat.  “Can we talk for a little while?

Not filtering out my irrelevant ideas, I asked him, “Are you wearing white because this is the Day of the Eagle?”

He looked at me strangely, then repeated, “No, I’m Dr. Dolby,” in a louder-than-normal voice, as if I were hard-of-hearing.  Positioning his yellow legal ablet squarely on his clipboard, he said, “Can you name the last five presidents?”

It sounded like some kind of trick question to me.  Too bad he didn’t realize I had the power to diffuse my molecules and slip right through the brick wall to the outside.  He could never keep me here.  In the meantime, I decided to answer his question: “Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Hal…”[iv]

“Who is Hal?”  Or to be more accurate, “Who the hell is Hal?”  His voice is real to Carol as the other that talks about the day of the eagle and that of Dr. Dolby.  Did Dr. Dolby realize that she could diffuse her molecules and slip right through the brick wall?  Perhaps not because they both were wired differently.   

We learn through studying brain anatomy that temporal lobes are related to memory, language and learning.  “Clinically,” says Robert Hedaya, “euphoria, auditory hallucinations, and delusions are usually associated with impaired function of the dominant temporal lobes.”[v]  We also learn that vision and visual memory are associated with occipital lobes.[vi]  Referring to the role of the temporal cortex Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb write, “Common symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy include olfactory and gustatory hallucinations, déjà vu, derealization, depersonalization, and repetitive motor acts.”[vii]  Regarding the parietal cortex, “a patient with a right-sided lesion may deny that the left arm exists and may even fail to put clothes on the left side of the body.”[viii]  But does the left arm exist?  If we are wired differently, will we see differently or hear differently?  If so, what has this wiring, this mental circuit, to do with reality?  What is reality?  Who is to decide?


 [i] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 43-4. [ii] David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 2. [iii] M. Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit and How Toys Become Real (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanich, 1983), 14-16. [iv] Carol S. North, Welcome, Silence: My Triumph over Schizophrenia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 249-50. [v] Robert J. Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry (New York: Norton, 1996), 4.[vi] Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry, 4. [vii] Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb, Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994), 101. [viii] Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb, Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, 101.


  1. Enlightening and refreshing are two descriptives that come to mind after reading this eloquent piece. This piece brought up some important points that were quite fitting with a research project in which I am currently engrossed. There was mention of the idea that we are all wired differently. Additionally, brain activity in the temporal lobe was discussed. Fusing these ideas results in a relevant topic in which I am interested in. ..Neurotheology. As I discussed in a previous post, research has shown that people with over active temporal lobes (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy) are more likely to report intense feelings of religiosity and religious experiences versus people without hyperactivity in this region of the brain. Based on this idea, “The God Helmet” was created by scientist Michael Persinger. Persinger took something “jock-ish”, a yellow football helmet, and “dorkified” it by wiring it so that a magnetic field was created around ones ears, the area of the brain where the temporal lobes lie. When worn, the temporal lobe is hyper stimulated, inducing an epileptic response. The result: 80% of participants reported some type of religious experience. This finding alone blew my mind and created more questions than it answered. What does this mean? What are the implications regarding religion and biology? But, more pertinent to this article…what about the 20% of participants that did not have a religious experience? Why wasn’t this study 100% effective? To me, this study supports the idea in this article that we are all wired differently, some are wired to have religious experiences without a helmet, others need a little artificial encouragement, and others are not wired to respond either way. What will it take to elicit a response in the later population? A stronger magnetic field? A near-death experience? Will they ever have a religious experience? Are they even capable of doing so? There are infinite many questions to be addressed and avenues to explore but one idea that this study does support, at least, in my reality, is that we are indeed wired differently and that is the beauty of the human experience. - Kristen Richards

  2. I found this passage interesting. Yet, my interest doesn't relate to the existential question of who can determine reality. (e.g. God). I think more about a non-religious/spiritual psychological question of how do I know your reality is real? This question makes me think of schizophrenia. A delusion is a belief, just as you believe you are reading my writing now. If I told you that you weren't really reading it, it would be difficult to grasp. But when treating schizophrenics, I'm saying that my reality is more realistic than their reality and therefore, I am deciding what is reality. Yet I still don't know how to answer your final question... who is to decide what is reality?... mental health professionals?

  3. The nuances in human "wiring"--not to mention development--seem responsible for our varying experiences and perspectives. As in the illustration from the post "Chuang Tzu, Foucault, and Deconstruction," to lengthen a duck's legs or shorten a crane's does nothing to improve the functioning of either. And molding a human soul into a pre-fabricated frame seems a natural impetus for angst, to say nothing of pathology. So it makes sense that the question would be raised in our minds, "Who is to decide what is optimal functioning; who is to say what is normal behavior?" And, perhaps at the core of all of our questioning, what we really mean to say is, "Who is to say what is truth?"

    Initially, the response that truth is relative, or based on perspective or experience, seems helpful. After all, if my truth is simply different from yours--and neither of them wrong--we can put aside those differences and decide to disagree agreeably, right? Maybe. I do believe that none of us knows exactly what the truth around a given situation, belief, or even our own experience is. But to say that simply because none of us knows the truth completely does not negate that truth exists.

    To answer the question, "Is there absolute truth?" in the negative may be politically correct. But at what cost to the human psyche? Simply because I do not belong to your camp and you do not belong to mine, does that mean we do not belong at all? What is a person, then, except a great sensory receptor and creator of perceptions? "Is this as good as it gets?" ;)

    I believe God exists and moves both within and outside of each of our realities. And that His existence and the truth of what that entails--whatever that may be--is the truth of my existence, as well. Like Kant, the world in which I live is not the world in which I am. Perhaps that is why silence/meditation/contemplation have a history of use by spiritual figures: Is it in being, rather than doing, that these worlds, these different realities, align? And the human soul is drawn closer and closer to True Reality?

  4. This article questions reality and who decides it. I think reality is relative; it relies heavily on an individual’s perspective. An individual’s experiences determine how things appear to him or her. A man who is experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations may see or hear things that he believes are real. A woman is standing in the same room as the gentleman with the hallucinations does not see or hear anything; his reality is therefore not hers. Whom should we say is right? I suppose both individuals are correct. Although she is not experiencing the same effects does not make his experience any less real. Although society has and will continue to dictate what is real, I believe as therapists/psychologist we need to acknowledge a clients reality when in a session, to aid him or her in recovery.
    `Alicia Nicoleau

  5. The article makes a number of interesting points. I believe on the one hand that reality is often difficult to label as being concrete. One might be able to suggest that there as many "worlds" or "variations" of reality as there are people to interpret it. On the other hand, there must be an objective universal truth of reality out there, even if none of us can fully perceive it without a distorted lens. The way we interpret our situations depends not only on neural wiring but also every past experience we have had. On top of that, human memory is atrocious. The more often we remember events, the more often we hear about those events from others, the more divergent and distorted our memories of that event become. Memory, perception, and reality can be somewhat terrifying when we realize how relative and transient it might be. Relativity can be dangerous however. Though we live in a word of ambiguity and gray areas, we must make black and white decisions. Despite our limitations, depite our inability to perceive what others do, we must make life-determining decisions. It is perhaps these different takes on reality, these alternate perceptions or perspectives that is the impetus for so much of the discord our world seems to offer.

  6. This was an interesting reading. At the outset, Chuang Tzu triggers our very basic intuition of questioning ourselves who we are, what is real and where do we go from here? Many great philosophers and ethicist have not somehow exhausted answers to these perplexing questions. Current research has elucidated the main functions of the nervous system such as that the cerebral cortex for its cognitive and interpretative processes, and that the limbic system controlling emotional states and motivational drives yet no one can certainly define what is reality. Perhaps there are no answers, maybe because reality is ever changing and infinite? Maybe because the vital link is not on answering these questions but lies in experiential living and the many lessons we learn from it?
    Kantianism teaches us that experiencing pain and pleasure are morally insignificant and that emphasis must be in the connection between morality and reason because reasoning is what separates us from the rest of the animals. Being human does not necessarily mean that we know all the answers to what is reality. I think what is real depends on the individual’s own definition of it. What is magical is the ability to master sharing that illusive “state of being” with another human being even for just a moment in time.

    Rose Sakamoto

  7. I think that reality is typically defined as what the majority within a given culture are experiencing. Right or wrong it seems that the minority experience within a given culture is typically deemed "abnormal". This has obvious problems becasue history teaches us that the majority is often wrong.

    Although there is a great deal of differences among individual realities I believe that there is also a great deal of overalp. My personal reality includes God, the bible and a moral code of condcut. I do not beleive that I am in the business of defining what others realities should or should not be. However, I do beleive it is my duty and privelege to intervene when one's reality violates the laws of the land, personal safety, other's safety and or the ability to care for oneself. Hence the reason I am in the profession I have chosen.

    If my intervening on another's reality under the aforementioned conditions is somehow philosophically wrong then so be it. At what point do we stop philosophizing, take a stand on a belief and act on it? I love grey areas but seriously, how long can we or should we sit in them? I suppose that in itself is philosophical.

  8. This article really got me thinking...who does determine what is reality? It was mentioned that "what is real to one may not be to the other." Everyone perceives things differently. How can I say to someone that roses are blue when they have never seen a blue rose, for example. I think this article is calling us to be open minded. I don't know how the world of psychology and psychiatry fit into this seeing that people are in mental institutions because they say they see or hear things, but this kind of ties in with the Chuang Tzu, Foucault, and Deconstruction article in that we start to label and classify people by definitions we've "created". It makes you think of the other side.

  9. I believe that reality is a result of processes in our brain, from the neurotransmitters that are released, to the strengthening or weakening of the connections between the different neurons. This is why the schizophrenic can be paralyzed with fear because of the reality that he lives in or be convinced of the authenticity and appropriateness of his actions—good or bad—when left untreated. Unfortunately for him, his reality is due to malfunctioning of those chemicals and connections. Therefore, for a schizophrenic with an understanding of the fictitiousness of his reality (at least compared to most other people), deciding what is globally true can be quite a task, as it was for the person in the example being fearful that the truly real people that he saw were only a part of his private reality.

    I don’t agree, however, with Hume’s statement that reality of the outside world exists only when we can physically perceive it, i.e. when you close your eyes the mountain ceases to exist. Once again, if one was an infant, I can see how this may be true, because their ability to see beyond the present situation and store memories aren’t as developed yet, hence the reason why peek-a-boo is such a fun game for them. However, for those even slightly older than infants, we know that the mountain still exists because we have a memory of it, and so it is still a part of our reality. If that mountain were instead a chair in our path, after closing our eyes, we would walk more cautiously because we know that the chair exists and could stumble over it if we aren’t careful. Sadly, for this same reason, someone with Alzheimer’s disease, whose chemicals and connections have lost their ability to function properly, this reality gradually excludes more and more of those memories that had become a part of that person’s reality over the course of his life. So this shows how unstable and fallible reality itself can be.

  10. While reading this article, I began thinking about my time working with schizophrenic clients and the various versions of reality I heard. For one client, his reality was comprised of little purple martians that were everywhere and his goal each day was to avoid running them over. For another client, Jesus Christ was living in his closet and a blue monster under his bed. Seems pretty implausible, right? If you believe in one true and ultimate reality that you and I believe to be a part of, then yes it does. If you believe that we all construct our realities and therefore many realities exist, then no. Psychology teaches us that only one true reality exists and in this reality, little purple martians do not exist. Therefore, it is our job to prescribe some type of antipsychotic drug such as Haldol as the article mentioned, in order to bring the client back to the only reality that exists. Somehow, I can't help but find this approach unsettling. Overall, I appreciated the message this article conveyed and enjoyed reading it. It gives the reader a chance to think about how they think about reality.

  11. The real idea I draw from this is to take into account how very real our patient’s perceptions of reality are. As professionals we may easily make the mistake of downplaying or trivializing things that are very real for our patients. Would it not be more helpful to work with them from their perception of reality.

    I would also like to note that this brand of relativism ultimately results in a meaning loss. Is we can not determine what is real and what is not. Why bother? Why bother with life at all. If everything is just an illusion of my sensory system and there is no ultimate truth of sanity or insanity. Or wholeness why even bother with any thing?