This is part 2 of a multi-part series on the topic of my understanding of reality. The first part is here: Real Reality 1 of n: The Problem with Perception.
With my first post, I wrote about my insecurities regarding the existence of a world outside my own mind. I speculated that, since my only contact with the ‘external’ world is via my five fallible senses, there is literally no way to convince me beyond a shadow of a doubt that it actually exists – though I do present some arguments that it might. Remember that these little essays are just my thoughts on the subject, such as they are. I’m not claiming to offer any answers at all, and would not be in a qualified position to do so even if I thought I had any. =)
I have an interesting logical conundrum for you to mull over. I’ll approach this from your point of view. First, some hypothetical assumptions:
The first assumption – this one is simple: Assume that you are the only conscious being in existence, and that the physical world, and everything in it, is a sham.
The second assumption: Science and the physical evidence suggests to us that your mind – including your consciousness – arises as a direct result of the physical configuration of your brain and your body. This is a matter of some intense debate, in religion, philosophy, even the physical sciences, but for our purposes let’s assume this is true – there is no soul that you possess that gives rise to your consciousness.
Do you see the problem yet? Assumption one states that the physical world is a lie. Assumption two states that my mind is a direct manifestation of my physical body (which itself is wholly contained within the physical world).
If you try to hold both of these assumptions as true, then clearly something is missing – how can my mind arise from my physical body, if my physical body is a lie? It does seem logically consistent that if one of these is true, then the other is not. They’re mutually exclusive possibilities, but (in the interests of full disclosure) it could be possible that neither of these are true.
Personally, I don’t think the second assumption is wrong. The physical evidence very strongly supports a materialistic theory of the mind, and there’s very little getting away from that (unless you want to dismiss science and evidence, which many people are quite happy to do). If this physical world itself is indeed as real as it seems, then I think the material origin theory is the right one – that our physical laws are enough to explain the mind and consciousness.
Hopefully by now you can see what my dilemma is. In this world of physical processes and inviolable laws, what you see (the evidence) is what you get. We humans may interpret the evidence incorrectly, we may even have the wrong evidence sometimes, but we can only trust to be real that which we can measure. But our measuring stick is only as real as the thing its measuring. The most basic property of a thing – the very existence of the thing itself – is impossible to measure with any tool, including our brains.
Where does that put us? I was kind of hoping to come to the conclusion of this post with something a little more… resolute… despite my disclaimer that there would be no answers, but this is more of an impasse than I expected. I feel that I exist. I also feel that all of you exist, although I’m less confident of that. My acceptance of my own existence should bolster that confidence, but it doesn’t, despite the logical inconsistencies that arise.
If the physical world is not real, then what are my thoughts made of? Where do they come from if not the material stuff inside the confines of my skull? Where do my experiences go once I’ve had them? Is there any point at all to this line of questioning, when the answer is so seemingly unknowable given my confinement to this world?