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Is Anything Really Real? PDF Print E-mail

19 May  Is Anything Really Real? - Derek Maitland

For centuries, one of philosophy's fundamental debates has swirled around what is real and what is unreal in our existence. Is our physical world real,or is it simply a manifestation of our unique perceptions? Indeed, can anything in our existence be proven to be an absolute reality?

This is something we’re all absolutely familiar with – it’s a twenty dollar bill. And, with the help of a very philosophical science-writer’s refreshing new perspective on the age-old philosophical debate on the true reality – and with nothing up my sleeve -- I’m going to turn this banknote into a very valid representation of the self-induced dream, or hyper-reality that our existence actually is. And, by doing so, question whether anything actually exists.

I don’t know if you’ve read anything about it, but two teams of scientists at California and Cornell universities are claiming they’re close to a goal that’s fascinated science fiction writers for years -- rendering objects invisible.

They say they’ve developed a kind of high-tech Harry Potter’s cloak that can work in optical wavelengths to make a bump look flat, for example, implying that things can be hidden under the bump and made invisible.

Despite what’s obviously a brilliant scientific breakthrough, I can’t think of any really useful application for it – other than the military, criminals and stalkers – but I can see a certain stark paradox in the question of invisibility itself. 

They’re not actually hiding objects, or matter, per se, at all – because everything around us, every single thing, is actually invisible, and it’s only our unique sense-perceptions that gives it all shape, colour, taste, texture and movement.

And so, we reopen, once again, that age-old philosophical can of worms – is the reality we choose to sense, touch and smell around us the only reality; and in fact, can we call anything at all really real?

You’ll recall that Plato let the worms out of the can when he defined true reality as not the universal matter about us, but ideals – eternal, unchanging abstract forms in a changing, decaying, material world.

Democritus produced an atomic theory of matter in which reality is hidden from us – and the so-called Atomistes took it from there to sachel-bomb the early die-hard realists and materialists, and, indeed, to herald quantum physics long, long before its time.

Kant, of course, argued that space and time were characteristic only of our human perception, and regarded true reality as a timeless web in which nothing perishes. Then Fichte, Scelling and Hegel took that a step further by arguing that if true reality, or reality-as-in-itself, is completely beyond our apprehension, then we can never have adequate grounds for asserting that there is any such thing at all.

And remember, we’re talking about reality-in-itself here, that other reality – not the material reality we perceive around us and believe in. We’re gazing across the cosmic divide, contemplating the proclaimed true reality of the spiritualist and transcendentalist. And the question is whether even that one doesn’t exist.

But let’s stay for a while on this side of the divide, in the material world that most humans regard as the only reality. Fichte ultimately argued that this so-called phenomenal world was a creation of the human ego.
Bishop Berkeley insisted there’s no physical world at all, and nothing exists except minds. Everything about us exists only in our sense-perceptions – our incredible ability to see, hear, touch and smell – Berkley declared, and therefore it’s all a dream that we ourselves create.

To extend his argument further, we can possibly lay claim to being the only entities in the entire universe that can actually perceive it, or experience it. The 20th century philosopher Cyril Joad questioned, in fact, whether the human mind is a fundamental feature of the universe -- a key to the actual interpretation of it – or simply an accident, doomed one day, as Joad wrote, to finish its pointless journey with as little significance as it once began it.

Which should send us all off warmly to our beds tonight. 

But are we completely sure there’s actually anything for us to perceive? Matter, Joad declared,”is infinitely attenuated and elusive; it is a hump in space-time, a mush of electricity, a wave of probability undulating into nothingness. Frequently it turns out not to be matter at all, but a projection of the consciousnmess of its perceiver.”

OK, so we’ve now taken a look at some of the eminent arguments concerning  a material reality. Now we have to take a look at the commonsense reasons why we’d consider ourselves stark raving mad to regard the plants and trees and rocks, mountains, houses, office blocks, cars, animals and even our own human brethren around us as simply an illusion.

Indeed, as the traditional reality test goes -- if a rock falls on one, it is brutally hard, hurts one like hell and, if it’s big enough, will squash one completely flat. Within the sense-perceptions that we possess, that rock is definitely very real, and if one requires another example, try crossing Parramatta Road against the green lights any late Friday afternoon.

But modern quantum physics explains why the rock is not real, we ourselves are not real and neither, it follows, is the pain. The entire universe, including us, is a vast swirl of atoms, in turn made up of sub-atomic particles, in turn made up of even more infinitismal particles that even our most powerful microscopes cannot yet perceive. 

As for the question of collision and pain, the science writer George Johnson eloquently reminds us it’s all to do, again, with our own sense-perceptions. “We are electromagnetic creatures in an electromagnetic world,” Johnson says. “With every step we take, it’s electrons exchanging photons that generates the repulsive force that stops our feet from going through the sidewalk, that creates the illusion of solidity in a world that we’ve come to believe is mostly the empty space inside electron shells.”

As the award-winning science writer Jim Baggott -- who’s lately published a book called “The Beginner’s Guide to Reality” -- sees it: “Without our minds, what do you have? Photons, atoms, rarefactions in the air – all producing different patterns of stimulation of the brain.
“In none of this physics and chemistry,” Baggott goes on, “can we find colour, taste, scent, softness or melody. All are secondary qualities produced in the mind.” And he insists: “A world completely without colour of any kind would be invisible to us. Without colour of any description, we would be blind.”

And if that’s not enough, Baggott continues: “We have to accept that we have no evidence to support an argument that our representation of reality – our reality of appearance, translated through our senses – is identical to reality-in-itself.”

Baggott, of course, approaches the question – as Bishop Berkeley and others already have – as to whether reality can be said to actually exist if we don’t perceive it. And he says it’s useless to talk about an independent reality if our only knowledgeable reality is what we ourselves questionably perceive it to be. 

So, again, the implication is this – Is there anything, in fact, that’s real.
We may stubbornly contend that reality-in-itself – that reality beyond our senses – is real. But how do we know? And can we ever know -- reminded as we are by Kant, Schopenhauer, Descartes and just about every philosopher of weight since time began, that we simply do not have, and will probably never have, the intellectual ability to find out?

I like Jim Baggott’s interpretation of the whole issue, because while he goes deeply into the physics of the question of reality, he also presents a stunningly clever human argument – and something that should be completely obvious to us – that we have invented our own reality, that it isn’t actually reality at all; that we live a kind of false or self-induced existence as portrayed in the movies “The Matrix” and Jim Carrey’s “The Truman Show.”

And he does it through one of the simplest yet socially vital illusions that we’ve ever come up with – currency, legal tender, or, as he chooses to portray it, the $20 bill.

Baggott tells us, “I’m not sure what the actual value of a rectangular piece of paper made from cotton fibre is, but I can guarantee you that it’s worth a lot less than twenty dollars. How, then, do we come to accept that it is worth twenty dollars?”
Baggott contends that we’ve built our own reality – a hyper-reality, independent of the physical reality – by assigning values and social functions to objects that have no physical relation to the function being fulfilled.
He looks at it this way: We’ve built great cities, industries, commercial hubs and hallowed institutions like government, the judiciary, politics and social service in general in which millions upon millions of people are just living out their lives.

But none of it would work, indeed, none of it would exist, unless we assigned symbolic functions to physical objects that we find or make.
So a river – a natural object -- becomes a boundary between territories, with both sides of that boundary acknowledging the function and value that we ourselves have assigned to it. But it’s still simply a river, and would be so even if we didn’t exist.

Likewise, a band of precious metal – again, its actual value dictated by us – is assigned the ritual function of a wedding ring. The wedding itself, with all the rules and observances that we assign to it, takes place in a pile of objects which we’ve built and shaped, and to which we’ve assigned the status and function of a church or city hall.

We build other piles of objects and call them a court, or a financial center, or a marketplace in which to exchange our twenty dollar bills – the linen-impregnated paper that we’ve endowed with purely symbolic status and value – for objects that we require for our existence. 

But as Baggott makes clear, in order to make all this work, we have to strictly observe all the rules, rituals and social values that we ourselves have dreamed up to apply these things to our existence – and the status comes from our own minds, from the hyper-reality that we’ve built and which exists independently of reality-in-itself. And he reminds us that if we didn’t actually exist, these things would be valueless rocks, vegetable fibres and whathaveyou.

Baggott says: “All these impressions of [our complex social structure] might indeed be marvellous, but they are still impressions created in our own minds, and without our minds there is a sense in which they cease to exist.”
  And he makes the point that, in the realm of legal tender especially, the value function is becoming even more of a dream. Our societies are becoming virtually cashless – not much need any more for the paper and linen banknote.

Because of the Internet, money has become hyper-real, he says. “Increasing demands for secure methods of making Internet payments and transactions may yet create a new kind of money that exists only in cyberspace.”

As I said, I like Jim Baggott because, as a confirmed realist, a materialist, he’s been able to elevate the question of true reality right out of the traditional and totally unproveable argument of the physical versus the transcendental and give the issue a brilliant new perspective.

He makes the point that if every single one of us suddenly perished, the mountains and cities and dams and superhighways and everything else we’ve built would still be there. But without us, the entire material spectrum would have nothing, or no-one, to perceive and experience it as such.

But doesn’t quantum mechanics tell us that all matter is completely invisible? If so, my closing question is this – if it’s just our sense-perceptions that provide shape, colour, texture, sound and smell to what is, in essence, a completely invisible reality, does that reality-in-itself – completely independent of us -- actually exist at all?

Indeed, does anything at all really exist? Is anything really real? 

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