For the past several days, since Friday of last week in fact, I’ve been feeling a most peculiar and unsettling feeling. See, the problem is, I’m not entirely convinced of my own existence.
This is going to be a multi-part series of posts. I don’t know how many, nor what I’ll say in my next one, but this is a complex line of thoughts I’m having, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get it all out in one post. It might be disappointing – I don’t think I’ll come to any hard conclusions here. Feel free to ride along if not getting answers doesn’t bother you. =)
Part 2 is here: Real Reality 2 of n: A Conundrum
Part 1: The Problem with Perception
Let me explain. I’ll start with the outside world – the external world as it appears from my point of view. Let us take it as a fact, complete and whole and true, that there is no way for me to directly verify the existence of this external world. Nothing in the external world can be verified to exist with 100% complete certainty. This is a known problem, and I’m not the only one to have stumbled across it, but it is a perfectly accurate viewpoint.
If you’re not following, consider this: how do we perceive the external world? Through our five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Raw data about the outside world is collected by our sensory organs and transmitted electrochemically to our brains, where this data is parsed, analyzed, and constructed into what we feel is an accurate portrayal of the world. This portrayal is then fed to our consciousness, and we form decisions and act on the basis of that information.
Do you see the problem yet? Going from the external physical world (what we think of as real hard solid objects) to the internal mental world (the world we actually perceive as hard solid objects) requires several changes in format – lossy changes – before we are even allowed to start thinking about it. Consider sight alone: (1) light enters our eyes as photons and strikes our retinas, which (2) produces an electrochemical response that travels through our optic nerve and into our brains, where (3) the signals are translated into a visual scene that exists entirely in our minds. This isn’t the complete picture – there’s more processing that happens, and I don’t fully understand it all – but that’s 3 format changes in just this simple explanation – from physical light to electrochemical response to a mental projection of the scene. Consider as an analogy how much data is lost or corrupted when you make photocopies of photocopies.
If you still don’t see the problem here, consider this: electrochemical inputs can be faked or manipulated. You prove this yourself every single night when you slip off into your dreams. How many of us can say we never had a dream so vivid that we were certain of its reality, no matter how bizarre its manifestation? I certainly can’t say that.
So that’s the crux of my problem. There’s no scientifically valid way for me to verify the existence of, well, existence. Any physical apparatus I could build would be inadequate. How would I verify the existence of the apparatus itself? This is foreshadowing…
Are there any points to be made for reality’s reality? Is there any way to restore my confidence? The persistence of reality seems to be a solid point in favor. We do all seem to share a predictable, persistent, and self-consistent experience of reality. If I put a hole in my wall at home, that hole will stay there until its fixed, whether I’m around to perceive the hole or not. If I leave my house untouched for fifty years, I can come back with confidence that the hole will still be there. The things I do in this world have lasting consequences, and choices cannot ever be unmade. The arrow of time points in one consistent direction, and entropy never decreases.
These are like paper bricks in the wall of evidence, though. Suppose we all just came into being, literally, five minutes ago, complete with memories of a past that never actually occurred. This is a wholly unscientific line of thinking, but interesting nonetheless – such a state of being would be consistent with the representation of the world we perceive, and we would be completely unaware that anything was amiss. You simply can’t rule it out. Once you stop taking reality for granted, you realize you could come up with dozens of ideas that would manifest a world such as ours.
What this boils down to, for me, is that I am not at all convinced that the world around me is real. I have no way to justify such a claim, as I only have my own experiences to draw from. I can never experience anything from any point of view other than my own. The people I meet, interact with, and form relationships with are no different from the rest of reality in this regard. Yes, this means that I’m not at all convinced that you are real either.
No offense. =)