Smoke & Mirrors

Philosophical Reflections III

I exist in a world whose origin and qualities are independent of my conscious mind. If I wish to live and prosper in that world then I must learn about it, and I have concluded that the interaction of senses, memory, logic and experiment are my primary and fundamental means for doing so. This philosophical foundation is a common ground for further inquiry: no consciousness with whom I can communicate can logically and consistently deny it.

From this foundation, I can study the world and discover its qualities. What I am, and how I should act, cannot be decided until I know the nature of the world.

Realism versus Illusionism

When I examine the world, I find objects distributed in space and changing with time. I don’t merely observe these things: they impinge on my freedom of action in critical ways (for example, I can’t walk through walls). Two primary models of the world arise:

  1. Realism: the external world has a physical reality. Objects exist just as my consciousness exists, in and of themselves, not as some kind of illusion. That is, they are what they appear to be: where “appearance” is not merely superficial sense impressions, but their nature as analysed to whatever degree of detail and precision is required.
  2. Illusionism: the external world is some kind of illusion. The illusion may be created by a part of my own mind not accessible to my consciousness, or may be controlled by some other agent, be it God or a computer program. At its most extreme, the latter theory includes the possibility that my consciousness and all my memories were created in the last instant before now.

Objectivism, Subjectivism and Chaos

In Reflections 2, The Getting of Wisdom, I noted that “reality” (by which I mean the external world) may be hard (invariant, and independent of my consciousness), or soft (subject to my whims, or simply capricious). If reality is hard it may be called objective ; if it is soft, it may be either subjective (if influenced by my whims), or chaotic (if capricious). It could be a mixture of any or all of these.

Realism naturally aligns itself with objectivism. If things in the external world exist in and of themselves, then one would expect them to behave consistently with their nature, and not change their nature simply because I want or believe otherwise.

Illusionism naturally aligns itself with chaos or subjectivism. In an illusion, there is no a priori reason to expect consistency, or immunity from my hopes and fears.

However, it is conceivable to have a more or less chaotic realism: one not governed by physical laws, at least not completely. It is also possible that my wishes can have an influence: for example, if magic or psychic powers existed. Note, however, that to the extent that these acted according to consistent rules of what worked and what didn’t, reality would still be objective!

Likewise, it is possible for an illusion to be hard. For example, one can envisage being a consciousness interacting with a computer program which is simulating what we call reality, according to fixed rules. In such cases, there is an objective reality, but it is beyond our ability to discern it: everything we can discern is an illusion controlled by the “metareality”.

The Hardness of Reality

Thus, the venerable question of illusionism vs realism is largely a distraction: in principle, it can never be decided absolutely. On the one hand, an illusion can simulate reality to any degree of precision and hardness; on the other, an objective reality would appear soft if one had mental powers able to override physical laws, or if those laws were beyond understanding.

The important question, which is answerable, which determines how we should act, is not “Is it real, or illusion?” It is this: “Is it hard, or soft?” The answer to the latter question will guide us to the most reasonable answer to the former.

“Naive illusionism” would propose the softest reality: it is just a dream, and things don’t act according to their nature (they don’t have one!) but change all the time, arbitrarily or according to my whims. This rapidly fails the test of observation and experiment.

One might then try “optimistic illusionism”: the world is an illusion, so nothing can really hurt me, especially if I’m not expecting it to. I can easily test this theory at any time, with unfortunate results for both the theory and my well-being!

One can continue along these lines, testing and discarding “soft reality” theories as they arise. This process leads to one clear conclusion: reality, the external world, is hard, to whatever depth of inquiry I go. Any theory of a soft reality, any theory that my wishes or desires can directly change reality, any theory that reality is inherently chaotic, fails. I might still wish it were soft; I might even find vague indications of that; but any rigorous experiment, any prediction I can test, proves that it is not.

The Nature of Reality: Objective Realism

Since reality is demonstrably hard, the most reasonable interpretation of its nature is objective realism. Illusionism remains theoretically possible, but only in this form: the world is a perfect simulation of objective reality.

People often argue for illusionism on the grounds that it cannot be disproved. The deadly flaw in such arguments now becomes apparent. When stripped of obfuscation, their core is this: illusionism is possible, therefore reality is, or at least might be, subjective or chaotic. But this ignores the fact that the only illusionism which is possible is hard illusionism, which so closely mimics objective reality as to be indistinguishable from it.

We have now arrived at a basic axiom of the nature of the world: reality is hard. And the most natural explanation of this is that it is real, and objective.

The theoretical possibility that reality is an illusion remains, but if so it is so hard that it may as well be real. Furthermore, a hard illusion requires a hidden reality behind it, of at least the same fundamental complexity as the apparent reality it simulates. Clearly, in the absence of any evidence or any way to test it, such an hypothesis serves no function at all. My question to those who propose such fancies as “we are mere bugs in a cosmic computer program” is this: why should I believe that? The answer: none.

The Primacy of Things

Subjectivism is the primacy of consciousness: the control of a non-objective reality by our wishes and whims. Objectivism is the primacy of things: objects are what they are, irrespective of our beliefs and wishes, whether we know their nature or not.

We have determined that the truth of the matter is the primacy of things. Furthermore, it is plain that far from ruling reality, our consciousness is ruled by it. A blow to the head, a whiff of anaesthetic gas, and our consciousness vanishes. A pinch of chemical, and our consciousness zooms around in cloud-cuckoo-land. Deprived of food, water or air, our consciousness weakens, wanders, withers, dies. The conclusion is inescapable: consciousness depends on things, not things on consciousness.

The Failure of Philosophy

The failure to admit the basic fact of reality – that it is hard, that it is objectively real or at least a perfect facsimile – is the cause of many of the idiocies of modern philosophy. Kant’s “analytic-synthetic dichotomy”, which alleges that all knowledge is either true by definition (hence empty), or not necessarily true (hence uncertain); the worst excesses of linguistic analysis, which reduce knowledge to some kind of democratic agreement, with no reality beyond the whims of men; these and all their ilk shatter like glass on this one fact: reality is hard. Beneath all the verbiage, hidden behind the volumes of obfuscation, lies the hidden assumption that there is no objective reality, that consciousness is primary and reality is its construct. This assumption is demonstrably false: and the whole edifice is a house built on the shifting sands of wishful thinking and hypocrisy.

Hypocrisies & Follies

It is in our day-to-day lives that we affirm objective realism. For all the talk about subjectivism, nobody lives that way: “We all know that reality is subjective, a creation of our minds… oh, pass the salt, please”. When faced with the nitty-gritty of actually living in the world, we know what the truth is. The philosopher who says that philosophy has nothing to do with life is actually saying: “my philosophy is so silly even I don’t believe it.”

Everybody lives as if reality is hard, because we know that we can live no other way. No matter how rabid the denial of objectivism, we all must live in an objective world, and we all act accordingly. Philosophers who spend all day preaching that the world is an illusion, go home to their families and eat their dinner. Suggest that the salaries of such philosophers be abolished, on the grounds that it is “theoretically possible” they’ll be better off, and you will soon see how much they believe their own nonsense.

Observe the pronouncements of subjectivists. “The theories of 500 years ago were as valid as today’s, because they were believed as much.” “Atoms did not exist until scientists thought of them.” Such things are seriously stated by respected intellectuals to international audiences, as if only the naive could believe otherwise. We who cannot wish away the whine of a mosquito as we lie in bed at night, we who must wait out the course of a common cold, we who will go out of our way to avoid stepping on a pin: we determine the binding of matter and the shifting of continents, our whims command the spinning of the Earth, the course of the Sun, and the birth of galaxies! Can you imagine a greater folly than this? We control the Universe, but cannot control a flea.


For more on the hardness of reality, see Forest Bump.

© 1992, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.