If you have been on the internet in the past week, you have probably come across the dilemma caused by this dress
This issue of perception has caused a sort of existential crisis on the internet, as people’s reactions have ranged from being perplexed to having anxiety attacks.
This is not, however, is not the first time humanity has struggled such an issue. and while we have tried to explain the issue away, others have used similar crises to draw wisdom about the human condition.
Sufi teachings, for instance, contain a story with some eerie similarities:
The Agarin was a Sufi sage of the Middle ages, well known for his wisdom and teachings. A Frankish king heard of his wisdom, and being a lover of philosophy himself, sought out The Agarin to learn from what he knew. The king arrived in all pomp and pageantry, and presented himself to the Agarin. When the king asked to be taught, The Agarin told the king that before he could be taught the great wisdom, he had to master the basic lessons. The king, proud of his studies, stated that he already knew the basics. The Agarin offered a test to the king, to see if he truly had the foundations of wisdom. He asked the king and those that traveled with him to line the main street of the city.
The following morning, the king and his party lined the main street of the city. When all was ready, The Agarin’s students streamed into the city, marching, singing, playing instruments, and performing. At the completion of the spectacle, The Agarin stepped forth and announced that the test would consist of a single question: “What were the colors of the robes worn in the parade?”
The king laughed at the simplicity of the test. “Blue!” he announced, as those who stood beside him cheered his victory.
The other side stood in silent fear, until one of the party responded, “Your highness, they were brown!”
The party of the king exploded into an uproar of outrage. One side defended the king observation of “blue” and accused the others of treason for challenging the king’s observation. The other side swearing only that they could not lie to their king, swore the robes were brown, and begged the king for mercy. Accusations of betrayal, insanity, and beguilement were thrown at members of each side, until finally The Agarin called the parade back into the city.
“As you can see,” he said to the king, “one half of each robe is blue, and the other half is brown. What you expected from the world kept you from seeing the world as it is. When you can understand that, then you can being to learn our wisdom.”
(Paraphrased from Idries Shas’ The Wisdom of the Idiots story of “The Two Sides”)
For the Sufi, the lesson to be learned involved our assumptions about the world and the limitations of our perspective. We learn to be secure about the world by making it predictable, by making it knowable. However, even though there is an actual absolute world around us, our ability to know this world is restricted by the limitations of our human perspectives. We exist in the world, but our experience of it is filtered through our limited human senses, and even more limited human understanding. As such, the “reality” we build our sense of security on is limited. Most of us cannot accept this, the crisis it produces sends us into a terror because it forces the truth upon us that this sense of safety is a facade.
When the illusion of security falls, there are two possible responses. The first is double down and deny the challenge, to declare the flawed belief as fact and then to attack the facts that defy it. This is the path of certainty, as you no longer hold beliefs, you no longer have changeable ideas, you are certain that the world is the way you need it to be to feel safe and secure and there is no other way to see it. The second is to accept the limitations of your own understanding of reality, and to learn to function in a world without certainty.
In our current world, we lean heavily towards the path of certainty. Our social and political discourse thrives on certainty. We don’t talk to each other any more, and we are lucky if we even talk at each other. We mostly self insulate, refusing to even consider the other even has anything of value to say. We buffer and insulate ourselves against any challenge, attacking and ridiculing the sources of such challenges. We have to be absolutely right, and anyone else has to be an idiot.
But like the Argarin’s robes, this picture creates an undeniable challenge to our certainty. The dress exists, it has definite certain colors, but our perception of what those colors are has been different due to effects of light on our ability to understand and interpret those colors. The panic and existential crisis produced is so salient because we have become so entrenched with our habitual reliance on certainty that we never learned to deal with the inevitable challenge that is so absolute that we could not attack or explain away. And like the king, that unassailable challenge came in the form of a blue dress.
The answer to put this dilemma to rest is to remember our limitations when it comes to knowing the word, to remember our perceptions are filtered through flawed senses and into an even more flawed apparatus for understanding them. The answer lies in accepting that how we perceived the dress has been different than how others have perceived the dress and the realization that we might not have perceived it as it actually exists. Many of us cannot do that, but those of us who can are choosing the second option, choosing to abandon security and certainty to learning more about how the world really is by accepting the limitations of our perspective.