Five possible theories of reality

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 second 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. This second article deals with a sequence of five possible theories of what reality might consist of:

1. All that seems to exist, even what seem to be thoughts, may be an illusion.
2. Only independent thoughts exist. No separate being thinks them; the thoughts just exist by themselves.
3. Only one thinking being and its thoughts exist. The thoughts only exist when the being is thinking them.
4. Several thinking beings and their thoughts exist. The beings can interact with each other telepathically.
5. Real physical objects also exist, in conjunction with any of the above scenarios.

Here is an overview of each of these possibilities, and how each one fits in with my experience, my use of reason and the practicalities of living my life.

Theory 1: All that seems to exist, even what seem to be thoughts, may be an illusion.

Overview: This is the most cautious assumption of reality. Thoughts seem the most certain entities to exist, but maybe they only seem to be thoughts. Maybe they do not even exist. Maybe nothing actually exists except the illusion of existence itself.

Experience: This scenario seems the furthest away from the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’, to the extent of seeming incompatible with ‘my experience’.
Reason:
This seems to involve a paradox. However, ‘I’ cannot rationally rule it out as I have no way of disproving it or of proving any alternative. Maybe this scenario is correct, but what seems to be ‘my thinking’ cannot comprehend how. This is the easiest scenario to defend using reason alone, because it makes no definitive challengeable assertion.
Functionality:
As a working assumption of reality, this enables the illusory ‘me’ to function in what seems to be the same way as the real ‘me’ would if everything did exist. The illusory ‘me’ is at no disadvantage by virtue of being an illusion, because what seems to be ‘everything else’ is also an illusion.

Theory 2: Only independent thoughts exist. No separate being thinks them; the thoughts just exist by themselves.

Overview: If this is correct, then the illusion of ‘me’ is simply part of ‘the thoughts.’ This illusory ‘me’ cannot understand how this technically works, but this may be because ‘understanding how this works’ is not part of the ‘the thoughts.’

Experience: Assuming the actual existence of something (in this case, the ‘independent thoughts’) this scenario seems the furthest away from what the evidence of my experience. What ‘I’ seem to experience is an illusion, and so is ‘me’. What ‘you’ may seem to experience is an illusion, and so is ‘you’. What then is the relationship of the illusory ‘me’ and ‘you’ to the ‘independent thoughts’? An analogy is that the ‘independent thoughts’ are a computer programme, and ‘me’ and ‘you’ are some lines of code in that programme.
Reason:
Of the scenarios that make a challengeable assertion (by assuming the actual existence of something), this seems the easiest to defend using reason alone. This is because it involves the fewest entities that are “assumed to exist without knowing that they exist,” i.e. the ‘independent thoughts’. This means there are fewest points of attack where the ‘independent thoughts’ (or indeed the illusory ‘me’ or ‘you’) are obliged to prove anything.
Functionality:
As a working assumption of reality, this scenario renders meaningless any attempts to analyse or choose or do anything. The ‘independent thoughts’ are, in effect, in control. Whatever the illusory ‘me’ or ‘you’ seems to decide, the ‘independent thoughts’ just continue to do whatever they would have been doing anyway.

Theory 3: Only one thinking being and its thoughts exist. The thoughts only exist when the being is thinking them.

Overview: If this is correct, there are three sub-possibilities.

(a) Only I, Michael Nugent, exist. My thinking has generated the illusions of me having written this paragraph, and of ‘you’ existing and reading this. An analogy is that Michael Nugent is a computer programmer, and ‘you’ are some lines of code in a computer programme that he has written.

(b) Only you, the person who seems to be reading this paragraph, exist. Your thinking has generated the illusions of ‘Michael Nugent’ existing and writing this paragraph, and of you reading this. An analogy for this relationship is that you are a computer programmer, and ‘Michael Nugent’ is some lines of code in a computer programme that you have written.

(c) Only another thinking being exist. Its thinking has generated the illusions of ‘Michael Nugent’ existing and writing this paragraph, and of ‘you’ existing and reading this. An analogy is that the ‘thinking being’ is a computer programmer, and ‘Michael Nugent’ and ‘you’ are some lines of code in a computer programme that it has written.

The sole ‘thinking being’ (whichever one of ‘us’ it may be) has also generated the illusion of all of the world’s literature, history, art, sport, civilisations, wars, knowledge, pleasure, pain and ongoing events. This being is what some people (if they existed) might call a god. That said, if you are the sole ‘thinking being’, you might consider generating a higher standard of illusory life for yourself.

Experience: Because some ‘thinking being’ is assumed to exist, this scenario seems another step closer to the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’.
Reason:
It also seems another step harder to defend using reason alone. Another entity (you or me or another ‘thinking being’) is assumed to exist that cannot be known to exist, i.e. its existence cannot be proved using reason alone.
Functionality:
As a working assumption of reality, this may considerably boost the self-esteem of whichever ‘thinking being’ is assumed to exist. It also renders meaningless any attempts to debate or communicate anything, because nobody exists to communicate with. The thinker’s apparent disagreements with ‘other people’ are really internal arguments between the thinker’s own thoughts.

Theory 4: Several thinking beings and their thoughts exist. The beings can interact with each other telepathically.

Overview: You and I and others exist as ‘thinking beings’. We generate the illusion of sensory experiences, using our thinking, and we interact telepathically in a universe with no physical entities. However, there are limits to what our thinking can do. For example, each of us still seems to cease to exist (or ‘die’) at some stage, and we only seem able to communicate some thoughts and not others. We do not know why we all generate (more or less) the same illusions of sensory experiences, but this may be simply the way things happened to pan out.

Experience: Because the ‘thinking beings’ can communicate with each other, this scenario seems another step closer to the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’.
Reason:
It also seems another step harder to defend using reason alone. Many entities (the interacting ‘thinking beings’) are assumed to exist that cannot be known to exist, i.e. their existence cannot be proved using reason alone.
Functionality:
As a working assumption of reality, this enables me to function and interact with others, in what seems to be the same way as I would if our bodies and other objects actually existed. For example, we only seem able to transmit some thoughts and not others, and these ‘transmittable thoughts’ seem to correspond to those that we would communicate through our senses, if our senses existed.

Theory 5: Real physical objects also exist, in conjunction with any of the above scenarios.

Overview: Adding real physical entities to any of the above scenarios, such as atoms and rocks and trees and human bodies and bicycles and microwave ovens and space rockets and planets and galaxies.

Experience: Adding real physical entities to any scenario brings it another step closer to the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’. The effect is greatest with scenario four, which combines thinking beings, their thoughts, and interaction between the thinking beings. Here, adding real physical entities makes the nature of reality identical to the apparent evidence of ‘my experience’.
Reason: Adding real physical entities also makes each scenario another step harder to defend using reason alone, by assuming extra entities that cannot be known to exist.
Functionality: As a working assumption of reality, the real or illusory ‘me’ can function (in each scenario) in much the same way irrespective of whether the physical objects are real or illusory. This is because, in each scenario, my real interaction with real physical objects seems functionally identical to ‘my’ illusory interactions with illusory physical objects.

Assumption Based on These Theories
In the next article in this series, I will explain – based on these theories – why I assume that reality is basically as it seems to be.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jacob April 3, 2009 at 7:27 am

Me and my firend were taling about somethign like this the other day but he basically said what if everyone is just thoughts floating around in a dark abyss and we are just making “the Universe” up for entertainment, beacuse there is nothing else to do in forever

2 Michael Nugent April 9, 2009 at 2:59 am

That is, of course, if your friend exists :-)

3 genesis June 27, 2010 at 7:20 pm

does pain exist? if we were thoughts floating in a dark abyss, do we make up pain and suffering too? death and life?

4 Mathias August 15, 2010 at 4:59 pm

On 3 or 4 seperate occasions I've found myself in an alternate reality frightingly similar to theory 2. I usually get depressed and feel like the light has been shut off. My friends seem more like distant echoes and the minute i try to explain what I am feeling I realize like your article says:

As a working assumption of reality, this scenario renders meaningless any attempts to analyse or choose or do anything. The ‘independent thoughts’ are, in effect, in control. Whatever the illusory ‘me’ or ‘you’ seems to decide, the ‘independent thoughts’ just continue to do whatever they would have been doing anyway.

And: It also renders meaningless any attempts to debate or communicate anything, because nobody exists to communicate with. The thinker’s apparent disagreements with ‘other people’ are really internal arguments between the thinker’s own thoughts.

I then get frustrated and annoyed that they even bothered asking me why I'm looking so gloom. Thankfully I tend to forget these ideas

5 Priya January 28, 2012 at 5:59 pm

This was very enlightening to read. I am 18 years old and i constantly think about reality, perception and substance. Reading this from your point of view, was not only precise and clear, but enabled me to attain a broader overview and i also like your reasoning, as many people fail to give reason. Not everything in this this ‘reality’ must have reason, but it is nice to read the reason when you’re existent in this ‘reality’ as it helps one to maintain sanity. I did go a little ‘insane’ and had an outer body experience for two weeks, it was similar to;
Theory 3: Only one thinking being and its thoughts exist. The thoughts only exist when the being is thinking them.
and how i was fixated and paranoid.

I soon became very de-realised, it was a horrible experience.
So yes, this article is extremely enlightening. Thank you!

6 alex July 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm

What about an alternative theory that multiple people actually exist and all reality is based on the existing being’s conscious, rather than thought. The fact that their body needs the things around us to exist for our own sake, for what ever reason that may be.

7 Jemima January 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm

This was so comforting to read. I am 15 years old and since visiting a lecture on the subject of reality on a school trip I have struggled to maintain the same purpose in my life in my certainty in the only thing that can be certain, that we know absolutely nothing and we may not even exist.
In fact on further thought on it, in the infinity of different possibilities of “realities” truth, the one that we have in our “minds” is infinatly unlikley as we have no substantial evidence for anything. I am infinatly close to being able to state that for definate only sinario 1 is true.
I find it very difficult to explain this to my friends and family but our 5 “perceptions” on reality, if you think of how small a snails brain is compared to a human, there is infinite possibility that there is an answer that a human brain just doesn’t have the capassity for and for this reason we are completley hopeless in ever knowing anything.
So yeah, I try not to think about this too much.

8 Andrew October 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm

It’s hard to pinpoint something that has no substance or cannot be measured in any way. There may also be the fact that we are subject to many different types of reality and that different people experience it much differently. Do we receive ourselves as reality frequencies as well as our perception of our surroundings. I believe that we are part of a physical universe with the ability to receive but not alter our surroundings. If you perminately lived under the influence of LSD for instance than we would be asking different questions on reality . Oh it makes my brain hurt

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