Perception

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

I recently learned that all languages have a word for the soul – not to be confused with the music of Motown. Materialism is a philosophy of objectivity, so a materialist might argue the soul does not exist because it cannot be measured. However, there are other things which can’t be measured, and yet they exist. Examples are the event horizon of a black hole, and we cannot definitively know whether a photon is a wave or a particle. In a more practical sense, I’ve never seen Hong Kong, but I know it exists. I wonder if Stephen Hawking considered the soul, a concept which I define as the non anatomical essence of a human being.

Last week I helped a high school friend with a school assignment about perception, which can be defined as becoming aware of something through the senses. My brain cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch anything in the world. It sits encased within my skull and deciphers sensory inputs from the outside world collected by my eyes, ears, nose, tongue and integrated nervous system. In the 17th century Rene Descartes wondered if his senses biased his thoughts. So as an experiment he went into a darkened room alone and deprived himself of as much sensory input as possible. He concluded that there was more to him than his senses told him. He famously exclaimed  “Cogito ergo sum,” I think therefore I am.

I once wrote a Focus essay about the five senses and posited a sixth sense which I attributed to intuition, at least if you’re a woman. (A man has gut-feelings.) Conceptually, I see intuition as analogous to a rudder on a ship. It integrates the senses, combining them with memory and reason, and directs our ship.

Intuition is defined as “understanding something immediately…without reasoning.” Does intuition and reasoning occur de novo (new) from the tabula rasa (blank slate) we are born with, as proposed by Aristotle in his treatise, On the Soul? Perhaps experiences write upon that blank slate which ultimately reasons. Aristotle’s student Plato held the notion that the mind is an “entity that pre-existed somewhere in the heavens.” Consider Jeremiah 1:5. Perhaps “ah ha” moments or epiphanies result from experiences and memories written upon a transcendent construct and ultimately integrated into thoughtfulness.

Like the soul I believe intuition is real, though difficult, if not impossible, to measure. And together these fuzzy constructs define our essence. Few would challenge the notion that humans possess intuition. Yet in our enlightened  post-modern era of science and materialism, many otherwise logical people discount the soul.

There is an idiom which holds that you should walk in someone’s moccasins before criticizing them. I can understand this admonition even though I’ve never worn moccasins. Sometimes the best teacher is shared experience. We’ve all been criticized, sometimes non humanely or constructively. Movies are a useful vehicle to share experiences. A paranoid schizophrenic perceives the world differently than I do. The best I can do is try and empathize. The Academy Award winning biographical movie, A Beautiful Mind, depicts Nobel Laureate John Nash’s schizoid reality. However, I cannot begin to perceive the world of the Austin, Texas bomber or the Parkland High School murderer.

I’ve been teaching a seminar for medical practitioners, and recently asked them their perception of health. Understandably, their immediate response was physical health, but there are other domains to consider. Mental health is equally, if not more, important. Most perceive the mind-body relationship. Socio-economic issues such as poverty, war or drugs certainly influence heath. And lastly, spiritual health must be considered.

Kurt Goldstein coined the psychological term self-actualization, defining it as a “motive to realize one’s full potential.” Important components of his theory were the pursuit of knowledge, to give to or positively transform society, creativity, and the quest for spiritual enlightenment. In 1943 Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of human needs. He saw human’s most basic needs as physiologic, such as food and water. At the next level we seek safety from, for instance, the elements. At a higher level humans search for love and belonging. And as our basic needs are met, humans move higher on the pyramid to strive for self esteem and finally self-actualization (where windy pontifications are possible).

Is there a difference between the self and the soul? Does the mind integrate and constitute the self or is there a more primary motive force? This is more than perception and arcane psychology or philosophy. I believe the soul is the motive force of our reality. And it is through the soul’s guidance that humans realize their  purpose. Just as I believe in intuition, I believe that our essence, the soul, which integrates our will and is our rudder.

Blaise Pascal was a scientist in the 17th century and wrote the mathematical equations for hydraulic theory allowing, among other things, power brakes and steering on your car. Pascal was also a theist and held, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person.” 20th century theologian and writer Thomas Merton wrote, “There is a point vierge at the center of our being untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth…inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind…which belongs entirely to God.” And the modern spiritualist Mark Nepo imagined that, “Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…an umbilical spot of Grace where we were first touched by God.”

Sometimes, nothing more need be said.

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