Friday, June 12, 2009

Is Reality Real?

In this Uncommon Descent post, Barry Arrington expresses his support for the first tenet of Spiritual Rationalism, which is that “Reality exists, and is independent of our thoughts or feelings. In other words, there is a ‘there’ out there, which we can perceive with our 5 senses, and not an illusion that we can choose to ignore or manipulate based on our own whims.”

To quote Arrington…

“Keep in mind that our beliefs can never be justified in an absolute sense. You have a justified belief that you are sitting at your computer reading this scintillating post. Even though this belief is highly justified and almost certainly true, you cannot rule out that you are dreaming or that you are in the Matrix or that you have been deceived by one of Descartes’ demons…

It is interesting to note that the Matrix idea is not new. In the 1700’s George Berkeley (after whom the California city and university are named) proposed that an individual cannot know that an object “is.” He can only know that he has a “perception” that there is an object. In his “Life of Johnson” Boswell records Dr. Johnson’s response to Berkeley:

‘After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’

Up until now, I had never heard of this Dr. Johnson story, but it’s quite fascinating. Indeed, in Chapter 9 of The Mustard Seed, Heather Manning tells a similar tale.

“Imagine that you and I are in a room with a table. We see the table with our eyes. We touch it with our fingers. We smell it with our nose. If we wish, we can even taste it. Now, if I suddenly ran towards that table, I will trip and fall down– even if I prayed for the table to disappear. If you ran toward the table, the same thing would happen to you. The consequences are always the same. There is a ‘Reality’ out there whether we like it or not.”

Of course, the Johnson/Manning analogies aren’t 100% foolproof. Nothing in life ever is. As Arrington points out, we live in a world of probabilities, not certainties.

“At one level Boswell was right and Johnson was wrong. As a matter of pure logic, Berkeley’s ideas are irrefutable. Berkeley would have replied that when Johnson kicked the stone, all he could be certain of was that he had a perception in his mind that he kicked a stone. He could not be absolutely certain that he had in fact kicked a stone. Nevertheless, Johnson’s main point is valid. Our sensory experience of the outside world is all we have. If we doubt that experience, we are left in a hopeless mire of doubt and skepticism. Therefore, while we can never be certain that Berkeley was wrong, as a practical matter, in order to live our lives and make progress in science, we can safely ignore him.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss philosophical hyper-skepticism in detail. For my present purposes, I will note that even hyper-skeptics look both ways when they cross the street. In other words, while hyper-skepticism may be interesting to discuss in the parlor on Sunday afternoon after lunch, it is perhaps the least practically helpful idea in all of philosophy. For the scientific enterprise (and life generally) hyper-skepticism may be dismissed with a nod.”

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