When, in the movie Matrix, Morpheus shows Neo what is the Matrix, he does not force it upon him. Knowing is always a choice. And choices must be made only when you are prepared.
This is why I dedicated the first four chapters of our journey to prepare you, dear Seeker. We showed the value of skepticism and why emptying your basket of unwarranted ideas about the world is vital to attaining true knowledge. We showed how science is only a method of knowing, and not the ultimate answer. We talked about the sources of knowledge and why empiric observation is the sole method of knowing the world. And last but not least, we showed the value of simplicity, sharpening the Razor for what’s to come.
I think you are now ready. It is time for you to take the Red Pill about the Nature of Reality.
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself”
The Red Pill
I will start with something easy to grasp. But by the end of my argument, you are going to have your world turned upside down. Or rather, inside out.
Look around you. Maybe you are reading this at your desktop or laptop. Or perhaps on a tablet or mobile. Pick up the nearest object you can easily hold it in your hands. Look at it, focus on the feeling of having its weight in your hand. What colour is it? What’s the scent of it? Can you feel the texture? Is it rugged? Is it smooth? Try to observe that object with all your senses.
Good. Now put it aside and after you finish reading what you have to do next, close your eyes. And try to imagine that object. It’s sensation of feeling, the smell, the height, the colour and shape, everything about it.
Pretty easy, huh? Are you aware of what you just did? You recalled an object from your memory. But what does it mean to recall? Where IS that recalled object when you can see it with your mind’s eye?
Well, it is in your consciousness. We are never aware directly of the reality surrounding us. We always perceive it through our senses and WITHIN our consciousness.
I cannot stress this enough, because this is the first step in understanding why our understanding of the world is wrong. But I will help you with a definition and a few examples.
First of all, what is consciousness?
The textbook definition, let’s say, from the Merriam Webster dictionary focuses on the quality of being aware, of having perception, or inner life:
But you could also see consciousness as the field of awareness within which all off your existence takes place. All the colours you ever seen, all the tastes you ever tasted were all inside your consciousness. And not just the perceptions of the “outside reality”, but also “your inner life”. A feeling that you’ve had? It was within the mental space of your consciousness. A sensation of pain? In consciousness. An elating feeling of love or a heart-wrenching despair? All within your consciousness.
I even challenge you to think of something that you’ve ever experienced that was not within your own consciousness!
Alas, by definition, that is impossible.
Everything we ever experience, every dream, thought, sensation, feeling, perception is within our own consciousness.
It is all pervasive and all-encompassing, and it is the only thing we are sure that is real. Cogito, ergo sum, or Sentio, ergo sum. And yet, it is the thing we know the least of. We have studied our world from the quantum scale to the grand scale of our universe. But our consciousness remains a subject of speculation, myths and endless scientific or non-scientific research.
There are many things we don’t know about consciousness, but they are grouped into two categories: easy problems and the hard problem.
The easy problems deal with the mechanics of our mind, how it works and what it does. These are not actually simple at all, but there is a constant progress in the scientific community regarding them.
The real issue is with the hard problem. And the man who stated it is David Chalmers, contemporary Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, and our sidekick for today.
I liked him more with a mullet.
But what he’s really good at (and I hope you can take your time to watch at least his TED talk) is to show why the hard problem of consciousness is so hard:
“why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information exist at all?”
Why are we aware? What is the evolutionary use of having a subjective inner life? We could just as well survive and reproduce without the need of having an inner experience, or qualia, as it is called. And to exemplify that, it is time to talk about zombies.
Meet the Philosophical zombie
Imagine something that looks exactly like a human being, in all possible ways, from the outside appearance to the blood cells and his inner organs. He is capable of reasoning, just like an advanced chatbot or an AI, but he lacks inner life. He is not sentient, he has no inner thoughts, no inner life, and no awareness of the self or of the outside. It is just like a robot, made of human flesh.
If you poke him with a sharp object, he will not feel pain, but will act just like a human in pain – he would recoil, say “ouch” or scream, or even say that he is in pain.
Now imagine such a zombie evolving from zombie primates. Such creatures would be perfectly well equipped to survive in the nature, would avoid predators and would hunt or gather resources, and would reproduce.
So, why do we have inner life? I consciously (ha!) avoid the other half of the hard problem, which is “how do we explain consciousness” because I just wanted to focus for now on defining consciousness as the sole way of knowing the world.
Mary is not a zombie. Mary is a scientist, specialized in the neurophysiology of vision. For the sake of this thought experiment, she is forced to study the world from a black and white room, with a black and white TV, black and white books etc. Even herself is only in shades of grey, and she has never seen colours in her life. In her study, she gathers all the physical information there is about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […]
So, what will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color TV? Will she learn something new or not?
This thought experiment, called Mary’s Room, attempts to establish that there are non-physical properties and attainable knowledge that can be discovered only through conscious experience. It attempts to refute the theory that all knowledge is physical knowledge.
Think about it yourself and come up with an answer. If you want to read more about it, you can here.
And, talking about colours, have you ever wondered what magenta is? I mean, you know the colour, it is this one. But does it really exist, or is it “just in our heads”? After all, it is nowhere to be found in the colour spectrum.
I really like how they end the article:
“The truth is, no color actually exists outside of our brain’s perception of it. Everything we call a color—and there are a lot more than what comes in your box of Crayolas—only exists in our heads.”
But what about our other senses? They must relate to something objective out there, in the real world, right?
Ehh, not so much. The feeling of touch and texture, and wetness (is there something “wet” in water molecules?), for example, is just our way of making sense of the things we are touching. Hearing range (in Hertz) is notoriously different, even between the member of the same species. And taste and smell are so vastly dependent on genetics, we can hardly compare our olfactive or gustatory experiences.
But what is it like to be a bat and to “see” with echolocation? Can you imagine that sense? Or a snake, sensing heat or electrical charge? Turns out there are a lot of animals that perceive the world in ways we could never even imagine. Check out this beautiful strip made by The Oatmeal about how a mantis shrimp sees the world, with sixteen types of color cones (and thus,”fundamental colors”):
And since everything we know about the world comes through our senses (like we discussed in the topic about empiricism) one could say that the world IS what we perceive of it.
Let this sink in a bit. And search within yourself.
Would you believe that the world is actually ran by underground gnomes that control our minds? Or pink unicorns that you cannot remember because they wipe your memory?
Heck No. Our common sense is almost never to trust something we never see (either us, or someone we trust, like scientists with microscopes directly saw atoms).
So, for the vast majority of humans, the world IS what we can perceive of it. Everything we perceive, we perceive though our senses and into our consciousness. We never directly perceive anything.
Then why are we so bent on believing there is an objective world out there, independent of any observation, that still exists even when nobody observes it?
Uh uh. Do you feel that red pill kicking in?
John Locke, the 17th century philosopher of whom we have previously talked when tackling empiricism, considered that we can still make sense of the world and being objective and external, while admitting that our perception is subjective, by splitting the qualities of any perceived object into primary qualities and secondary qualities.
The Primary qualities, are things like its size, mass, density, position in space etc. Things that belong to the object itself.
While secondary qualities are the ones bestowed upon it by our subjective senses, like colour, smell, texture etc.
Locke argued that the difference between primary and secondary qualities explains the disagreements we have in our perceptions. And that the secondary qualities are not REAL, but induced in our minds through the primary qualities.
Berkeley, known to many as the father of “subjective idealism” (he called this philosophy immaterialism) continued Locke’s logic and showed that you cannot perceive the primary qualities without the secondary qualities. Let me elaborate on that.
Take that same object you took in your hands when you began reading this article. Now, try to measure its objective properties while trying to actively ignore its subjective ones. Like, try to see its size without seeing the colour.
Newsflash – you can’t.
And since Berkeley showed that primary qualities and secondary ones are inextricably linked, the logical conclusion is that you cannot KNOW an object’s primary properties without the act of subjective observation. And since:
- an object is simply made of primary and secondary qualities and
- reality is what we perceive to be (or at least that is the only thing we can KNOW, everything else is speculation)
Then it results that the existence of reality is conditioned by the act of subjective observation. Can you feel that worldview tilting?
A very good video explanation of what I have pointed above was made by Crash Course Philosophy on Youtube, check it out:
Berkeley’s Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived) is his version of Cogito, ergo sum. What is real is only what is perceived, and nothing more.
That means that the nature of reality is entirely mental, akin to a dream that we share, as characters assumed by a single dreamer. And that our bodies are within the mind, and not the other way around. And that death is not the end, but simply the end of an illusion of separateness.
Ok, I am aware I have suddenly made a lot of bold statements, but one by one, I will prove them to you, in the next chapters.
Idealism, as a paradigm, is a very, very deep hole. And I would do it no honor trying to fully describe its implications in the rest of this article. For now, I just wanted to make you think, make you ask questions and lift the veil of Naïve realism from your eyes.
You most certainly have a lot of questions and a lot of things appear not to have sense in idealism, at least at the first glance. Trust me, most of those are because you still cling to materialist assumptions.
Next time I will present the main reasons why idealism is a more parsimonious ontology and why it makes more sense than materialism, while also preemptively tackling and refuting some of the main materialist counterarguments.
Are you starting to feel this yet?