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Reality Check

by Rick Lewis

Ancient Greek culture was a fever dream of myths, gods, spirits and superstitions. The early philosophers stood out from their time by exhibiting a bracing scepticism, a restlessly questioning temperament, a willingness to cut through all the nonsense and find the truth. Unsurprisingly, then, one of the biggest questions for them was, which things are real, and which aren’t?

Plato in his Republic concocted a famous story which vividly illustrates the question and provides one solution to it: the Allegory of the Cave. In Plato’s tale, a group of captives sit in an underground cavern where they have spent their whole lives. They are chained up side by side so that all they can look at is the cave wall in front of them. Their backs are to a fire, and people walking behind them carrying different objects therefore throw different shaped shadows onto the wall in front of the captives. These shadows are all that the captives know – and all they have ever known – of reality. One day one of them manages to slip her chains and escape unseen into the glorious sunlit world above. She wants to flee into this bright new world, but thinks it her duty first to return and tell her fellow captives of her stunning discovery. Let’s just say they aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the news as she had hoped.

Plato is making the unsettling point that we may be the prisoners in the cave, inhabiting a world of shadows. This notion that the world we see is either a dreamworld or else at least a distortion of a real world continues as a thread through all of subsequent philosophy and culture, right down to the 1999 movie The Matrix and beyond. If there’s any possibility the world we inhabit might be like that, isn’t it vital to find out?

People (particularly philosophers, for some reason) are constantly told to ‘get real’ or ‘be a realist’. But what does that even mean? In philosophy, to be a ‘realist’ about X is to believe that X has some existence independent of our minds. One can be a realist about almost anything. If you believe that apples have an independent existence then you are an apple realist. If you think that moral rules are discovered rather than made, that they are an objective part of the world, that makes you a moral realist. If you think numbers exist, you are a realist about them, and so on. (Except that philosophers of mathematics tend to call this “being a platonist”).

But maybe that’s just terminology, so Paul Doolan in our opening article asks, what does it actually mean for something to be real? Next, Paul Griffiths considers whether things could ever be exactly as our senses report them. Turning our faces East, perhaps Buddhism can help us to pierce the veil of illusion hiding reality? Brian Morris says that alas, Buddhists are pretty conflicted about this, with at least four incompatible traditions of thought on the matter. How about mathematics? At least there we don’t have to worry about the fallibility of our senses. Adrian Brockless examines whether mathematics is part of the fabric of the universe or is invented. Perhaps what is real is to do with cause and effect? Martin Jenkins explores the connection between causation and correlation.

Presumably no measurements we can conduct within this world will enable us to check if the world itself is an illusion. But surely the mere fact that the universe appears to behave in a consistent way – that the Sun rises without fail every morning, that whenever we throw a small rodent into the air, its motion obeys Newton’s Laws – surely that very regularity at least shows that an external world exists, and is self-consistent? After all, the universe does appear to obey mathematical laws, at every scale from the microscopic to the cosmological, and down to the last decimal point. Hence the importance of understanding the status of laws of nature. The characters in Eleni Angelou’s dialogue debate this issue.

Some people are accused of living in a dreamworld and liking it. Certainly, in The Matrix the baddie Cypher makes a conscious decision to betray his friends in return for a life of comfortable illusion. Is that what we’re all like? A famous thought experiment by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia invites us to imagine an ‘experience machine’, which can make you believe you are having any pleasurable experience you choose, completely convincingly. Why, he asks, would we not opt to stay plugged into such a machine continually? Nozick was trying to show that ethical hedonism – the idea that pleasure is the highest good – has something wrong with it. But his thought experiment also shows, I think, that when offered an informed choice we do tend to value reality over pleasant illusions, for only the real world and real people are truly meaningful to us.

Does this issue of the magazine, containing all these ingenious articles by clever contributors, itself exist independent of me? I think it must, because I’m simply not clever enough to have imagined all the ideas within it. So please enjoy our issue on reality, and I hope it gives you something more substantial to chew on than cobwebs and shadows.

Or of course, you could close the magazine and go back to your everyday life. As Morpheus says in The Matrix: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Are you ready to see how deep this rabbit hole goes? I’m afraid you may discover that it’s not just one rabbit run but an entire warren.

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