In my first post on this topic, I presented a problem: reality cannot be trusted to exist as fact because there is no evidence one can present that proves existence beyond all doubt. As a result, I cannot trust that you exist – but (as I explored in the second post) I also cannot trust that I myself exist. I ended at an impasse, as I clearly seem to exist, despite my uncertainty. The problem for me is clear: the only way me to accept my own realness is to do so on faith.
As a skeptic I dislike this answer. A skeptic tries to base his or her beliefs on something certain – physical evidence – rather than speculation or guesswork. Without evidence a belief is simply a neat idea, not correct or incorrect. Validation only comes by examining the evidence.
But at the base of everything – at the very root of all questions – is the question of reality. Is this real? This question cannot be answered meaningfully by anyone, using any means.
As a person operating in society, I clearly do operate on faith that I exist. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother asking questions like this in the first place – what would be the point? I wouldn’t bother with a job, or family, or relationships of any kind. I wouldn’t bother to persist my existence – but I wouldn’t bother to end it, either, since there’d be no such thing in the first place.
Rather than go round and round, searching for an answer that can’t exist in the first place, I’ll examine why I’m having so much trouble with this. In a nutshell, the physical evidence contradicts my personal, subjective feeling about what it means to be a living, thinking, conscious being that exists in this reality.
All of our experimentation has shown that my mind – that is, what I’m referring to when I talk about being me – comes directly from my brain – the three-pound lump of flesh sitting inside my skull. Somehow, all of my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, beliefs, memories, and personality are generated through ongoing electro-chemical reactions.
Evidence for this is fairly easy to find. You can experiment in this space yourself, if you’ve got access to the equipment needed: mind-altering drugs of some kind. For me, this is easy – I’m on medication for my ADHD and for bipolar disorder, and both of these meds alter how my mind works by changing the chemistry of my brain.
The experiment is simple (if a little un-scientific): observe yourself (or better yet, have someone observe you) both while on the meds and off, then compare notes. My ADHD medication changes how I work by helping me to stay on one task at a time. My bipolar medication improves my mood. By taking a chemical into my body, my mind is changed. This is testable and repeatable, and it wouldn’t work at all if the brain did not cause the mind.
If you don’t have access to these sorts of medications, here’s a better one: Alcohol. How does your mind get drunk if it is somehow separate from your brain?
Can matter think? Most people say no, of course not. But the evidence seems to be suggesting otherwise – that matter in the form of a brain can think. Where does this thought come from? Where do these questions I’m asking come from? Where does the experience of looking at this monitor end up once it’s been processed by my eyes and my brain?
I feel my existence in a way I can’t feel anything else. I have a whole world inside my head, generated on the fly by my perceptions. This monitor that I’m looking at does not exist in the manifestation I’m perceiving – all I have access to is the signal – electrochemical noise produced by my eyes – but the source is forever locked away from me.
Actually, even the signal itself is unreachable – all I have at the end is a feeling. I see the monitor because light from the room bounces into my eyes. Cells in my eyes react to the light and release chemicals. Nerve cells react to those chemicals and produce an electrical signal, encoding the information and sending it to my brain. Neurons process these signals, giving rise to more signals that somehow attach meaning and context, cascading forever in a process that, somehow, gives rise to the conscious sensation of having seen a monitor.
Every part of this cascade is physical – if you change the brain, you change the experience. The matter in my brain is thinking whether you like it or not. Whether I like it or not.
And I don’t like it. Despite all the evidence – especially the evidence I’ve personally experienced – I can’t bring myself to truly believe it. I feel like more than matter. I don’t know what I feel, exactly. The problem here is that it’s very tempting to fall into deeper traps than the one I’m in. I must remain skeptical, as much as is possible, but I can’t deny how I feel.
There have been times, like last night, when I’ve felt deeply connected to the universe in ways I can’t quite describe or recall. I stared at the almost-full moon, looking at it from a quarter million miles away, and I imagined seeing the Earth from space – seeing the light of the moon wash over the clouds above me and the exposed landscape below, where I stood, looking up. I could feel the distance, could feel the fact that the moon itself is an entire world, made up of almost 81 quintillion tons of rock and metal. It’s really real, and it’s really there, and you can really go there if you have enough people helping you.
I could feel my real and true and scientifically accurate and testable and verifiable connection to that hunk of rock in space – that it and I are made of the same material. Its form and organization may be different but the building blocks are just the same – matter and energy. The stuff that makes me what and who I am is the same stuff that makes the rest of the entire universe – no more or less special. If you’ve never felt like that – like an inseparable part of the universe – you’re really missing out.
At the same time, I feel like a free agent; conscious, aware, and free to make choices that define my destiny. I feel like a piece of the universe given intelligence and made to look back in on itself. I feel like something that is capable of feeling! Matter alone can’t feel, can it? Shouldn’t there be something more? The evidence says no, and the science says we just don’t know enough yet – but this feeling can’t simply be wrong, can it?