One question has plagued humanity for many years past: how do I know that reality is real? What if everything around me is an illusion and I am really living in a matrix? How do I know that the reality I experience is the same reality experienced by others around me?
This notion, known as skepticism, has been around since at least 360 BC in Ancient Greece. There are many different arguments for and against skepticism, and while I may explore some of these in future blog posts (subscribe if you’re interested!), right now, I’m only going to address the underlying issue.
The question that I would like to address in this post is our response to skepticism. How should we respond to doubts as to whether or not reality is actually an illusion? It seems that the real world exists, but can we ever be truly certain?
While many philosophers throughout the ages have come up with different responses to skepticism, I’m going to limit this blog post to my personal response to skepticism. I realize that I’m certainly not the first to come up with this specific response, but I don’t remember which other philosophers respond in this way, so feel free to leave a comment with their names so I can give credit where credit is due!
First, let me ask you (the reader) a question. How do you know that birds are real? Would you believe me if I told you that all birds are actually government drones used to monitor our every movement? The replacement process began during Reagan’s presidency, and all birds (except for chickens and ducks) have been switched with fully-functioning replacements since then.
Or what if I told you that the entire world’s squirrel population are actually plotting something? They’re preparing to rise up against humanity, destroy society as we know it, and enslave the human race. They’ve been planning this for hundreds of years now – they’re just waiting for the perfect time to launch their plan.
These seem ridiculous, don’t they? If I told you that these were true, would you believe them? Why or why not?
It seems to me that the reason you shouldn’t believe these two statements is because you have no evidence that they are the case. While birds could be government spies and maybe the squirrels are planning an uprising against their human overlords, you would be called crazy if you actually, genuinely believed one of the two. I’m not saying that you’d be wrong to believe these – maybe one or both of these are true! It just shows, however, that if we make a statement like this without any evidence to back us up, we would be crazy.
It seems to me that skepticism is the same way. While it could be true that we’re all living in a matrix and that reality is merely an illusion, we have no evidence which shows that it is likely to be the case. I’m not saying that it isn’t a possibility (that’s a topic for another blog post), I’m just saying that, in the absence of evidence, we should go with the simpler theory a la Ockham’s razor.
While we do have evidence that our senses sometimes deceive us, it seems that we have more evidence that our senses are (in general) valid sources of information than we do that our senses are constantly deceiving us. If we did believe it to be reasonable to continually doubt our senses, we’d be stuck in bed, paralyzed all day, not knowing whether the ground beneath the bed really exists or not.
Ultimately, I believe that this is the problem with these theories. If the theories are incorrect, we need to live a normal life. If the theories are correct, we have no way of knowing that they’re correct and therefore are forced to live as if the world around us is real.
Now, the whole situation would be completely different if there was no substantial evidence for the real world’s existence, but it’s important to note that there is substantial evidence that the real world does exist. For the most part, ever since we are born, all people live and act as if the real world exists. It seems to be built into our nature to believe and live in the real world. This seems to me substantial enough evidence of the real world’s existence.
Thus, to conclude, there’s no way for me to prove that I’m not a brain in a vat. However, just like with the “birds aren’t real” campaign, in the absence of reasons to believe that reality doesn’t exist, I believe that it is most reasonable to believe and act as though the real world does exist. While substantial evidence that the world is not real could shift the balance, it seems that the most important evidence points towards the real world’s existence. Thus, even if we can’t prove the world’s existence, it seems reasonable to presuppose it.
- Some of the ideas for this post came from my Modern Philosophy course with Dr. James Harold. Some of the other ideas came from my Epistemology course with Dr. Logan Gage.
- George Moore’s “Here is one hand” argument is very similar to the argument I make in this post. I don’t remember if I came up with my line of reasoning first or if I based it on Moore’s argument