On Perception And Subjective Reality

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein

Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” – Douglas Adams

These statements are indeed true, but only up to a point. One is invited to observe his or her surroundings and inform us what he or she perceives and whether what is perceived is entirely specific to one. I had an interesting discussion with a friend sometime ago which led to the question of perception and its flaws. My opinion is that there is objective perception – something we all see or feel or think about, something that often pre-dominates external experience and is self evident. I will like to take the time to answer the question what is meant by “perception.”

Merriem-Webster dictionary defines perception as “…the way you think about or understand someone or something : the ability to understand or notice something easily or the way that you notice or understand something using one of your senses.” For the purposes of this discussion we will concentrate on the first part of the definition i.e. the way you think about or understand someone or something. This can also mean that the way you see the whole of something may be completely different from the way you see the sum of its parts.

We may all agree that, often times when people perceive they contribute some information to what is being observed and when they have to communicate their observation, this information often but not always becomes visible or perceptible. The accuracy of our perception is therefore directly proportional to one’s ability to detach one’s opinions or a priori from actuality. For instance, the difference between the educated and the ignorant person lies primarily in their perception which gives rise to the significant difference in their cognition or intelligence. I shall narrate an anecdotal story to illustrate my point:

Many people believe in ghosts. In fact, I have at one point being afraid of ghosts but now I have no intellectual space or energy for such thoughts. We still do not know whether ghosts exist or not. Although the idea of ghosts can be dismissed as an illusion or mere perception, it can be “real” depending on the number of people in a community who believed in it. When a significant number of people believe in something it becomes real to them. What one believes one acts upon it, and our actions inevitably affect one another in a community. In certain primitive societies there are elaborate rituals to drive away ghosts. So a ghost is real there, just as aliens and vampires are real in most parts of Europe. End of anecdote.

Now let us look at the effect of subjective reality on the individual. The first European to enter the African hinterland was a merchant. In the case of the upper Guinnea or West Africa, it was a Portuguese named Diogo de Azambuja, who presented himself to the chiefs and people as a friend and a trader. At that time, trading in humans had not begun. Diogo de Azambuja and his cohorts spoke nicely but had guns hidden in their cloaks. Once they had learnt of a flaw in the perception of the people, it was time to launch an attack. They presented gifts of strong drinks, gunpowder and muskets in return for gold and war captives. So the first slaves sold in Africa were war captives not nobles, belonging to tribes different and distant from those selling them. The sale of war captives was common everywhere including ancient Rome and Greece.

Then centuries later, many Europeans joined in the trade. Some African traders (mainly chiefs) with the aid of the foreign merchants could no longer wait to receive captives so they took to raiding weaker communities. An orphan, a rogue, any poor defenseless thing was captured and brought to the European forts and castles to be sold. This is the whole tragedy of the African existence which emanated from our inaccurate perception of the world around us.

This painful history is still relevant because it influences the way the African or people of African descent are perceived. The master thinks for the slave. Any slave with higher perception or thinking capabilities was a threat and was quickly eliminated. Nevertheless, flaw in perception exists everywhere not only in indigenous Africa. In fact all terrible mistakes or decisions, emanate from subjective reasoning or reality. This is my experience of life. Some say there are no mistakes, only choices and I think this is true only in regard to one’s personal life. But it doesn’t mean the mistakes or subjective tendencies of others does not affect us.

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