Reality is basically as it seems

by Michael Nugent on June 22, 2008

Note: This article was written several years ago. I have since incorporated its content into a more recent article that you can read here:

Why nothing can be known with certainty, and why it is reasonable to say that we know things

I suggest that you read the above article instead of the old one, for a more up-to-date version of my thoughts on this issue.

Old article follows

This is the third article in a series about why I assume that reality is basically as it seems to be. In the first article, I explained why I believe nothing can be objectively known. In the second article, I described five possible theories of reality. This third article examines the patterns in the five theories of reality, and concludes that:

1. Each new scenario seems closer to the evidence of my experience.
2. Each assumes the existence of extra things that cannot be known to exist.
3. Each seems increasingly functional as a working assumption of reality.
4. These apparent patterns contain a key ‘on/off’ reason-switch.
5. This leads me to assume that reality is basically as it seems to be.

And here is the detail of how I arrive at this assumption:

1. Each new scenario seems closer to the evidence of my experience.

This is the first of three patterns that these possible scenarios seem to follow.

(a) In the first scenario, all that seems to exist, even what seem to be thoughts, may an illusion. This scenario seems so far away from the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’ as to be incompatible with it.

(b) Gradually extra entities are assumed to exist (‘thoughts’, ‘thinking beings’, physical objects). Each of these seems to match with parts of the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’.

(c) In the final scenario, all permutations of thoughts are combined with real physical objects. This makes the nature of reality identical to the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’.

2. Each new scenario assumes the existence of extra things that cannot be known to exist.

This is the second of three patterns that these possible scenarios seem to follow.

(a) In the first scenario, all that seems to exist, even what seem to be thoughts, may an illusion. This is the easiest to defend using reason alone, because it makes no definitive challengeable assertion.

(b) Gradually extra entities are assumed to exist (‘thoughts’, ‘thinking beings’, physical objects) that cannot be known to exist. Each of these assumptions makes each scenario a step harder to defend using reason alone.

(c) The final scenario has the greatest number of ‘entities that are assumed to exist but cannot be known to exist.’ This makes it the hardest scenario to defend using reason alone.

3. Each new scenario seems increasingly functional as a working assumption of reality.

This is the third of three patterns that these possible scenarios seem to follow.

This third pattern depends on something being assumed to exist. If everything is an illusion, then the illusory ‘me’ is at no disadvantage by virtue of being an illusion, because what seems to be ‘everything else’ is also an illusion.

(a) Stage one: ‘independent thoughts’ or another ‘thinking being’ are assumed to exist, but ‘I’ am not. This renders meaningless any attempts by the illusory ‘me’ to analyse or choose or do anything.

(b) Stage two: I am assumed to exist, as the sole ‘thinking being’. I can now seek to analyse and choose and do things, but cannot communicate as nobody else exists.

(c) Stage three: I and other ‘thinking beings’ are assumed to exist. I can now function in much the way that I seem to, based on the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’. This allows me to have a meaningful working assumption of reality.

At any of these three stages, the real or illusory ‘me’ can function in much the same way irrespective of whether the physical objects are real or illusory. This is because, at each stage, my real interaction with real physical objects seems functionally identical to ‘my’ illusory interactions with illusory physical objects.

4. These apparent patterns contain a key ‘on/off’ reason-switch.

In terms of making a working assumption about the nature of reality, the biggest conflict is not whether physical objects or gods are assumed to exist. It is whether anything is assumed to exist that cannot be known to exist, using reason alone.

In other words, the switch is turned to ‘on’ once it is assumed that anything at all exists. This may not even be ‘thoughts’; it may be something that seems to be ‘thoughts’ but is actually something else. But as long as it is assumed that that something exists, and it cannot be known to exist, the switch has been turned to ‘on’.

If it is assumed that it is self-evident that something must exist, then the switch is turned to on once something identifiable is assumed to exist that cannot be known to exist. Depending on the rational faculties of the ‘assumer’, this could be when ‘thoughts’, a ‘thinking being’ or ‘me’ is assumed to exist.

5. This leads me to assume that reality is fundamentally as it seems to be.

Once ‘I’ turn on this switch, ‘I’ have assumed in principle that “things-that-cannot-be-known-to-exist” may exist. What then might these things be?

Experience and Reason: Once I assume that anything exists, it is now rational to assume that reality consists of those specific things which seem both (a) most consistent with the apparent evidence of my experience, and (b) most likely to be the case, based on applying reason to the apparent evidence of my senses.

This leads me towards the final scenario of my five theories of reality: it includes me as a thinking entity, you and other thinking entities, thoughts that are generated by me and you and other thinking entities, and real physical objects, whether animate or inanimate. It is not rational to assume that some, but not all, of these exist.

Also, it is not rational to assume that specific things exist if they are either (a) less consistent than other possibilities with the apparent evidence of my experience, or (b) less likely to be the case than other possibilities, based on applying reason to the apparent evidence of my senses. This includes unicorns, leprechauns and gods.

Functionality: This argument is strengthened if it results in a working assumption that makes it easier for ‘me’ to function in what seems to be reality. This also leads towards the final scenario of my five theories of reality, where ‘I’ am assumed to exist and interact with other thinking beings and physical objects.

It does not matter if ‘I’ am wrong in this assumption. If so, ‘I’ will just seem to cause the same things to happen as would happen anyway.

So, for practical reasons as well as theoretical ones, my working assumption is that reality is basically as it seems to be, based on applying reason to the apparent evidence of my senses, while remaining open to changing my specific beliefs if I become aware of new evidence.

Reality is Basically as it Seems to Be

Note that I am assuming that reality is basically as it seems to be, not that every detail of reality is actually as it seems to be. I am saying that:

(a) It is reasonable to assume that we exist as thinking, sentient beings in a world of real actual objects.

(b) It is reasonable to assume that the specifics of reality are those theories that are closest to the evidence of our experience, and that seem most likely after applying reason to that evidence.

(c) It is reasonable to always be prepared to change our assumptions if we get new evidence, but not until then.

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1 www.metamorfosis.com June 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm

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