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Tallis in Wonderland

Reflections on Reality

Raymond Tallis holds a mirror up to the philosophical world.

Many of us are propelled into philosophy by the sense that things are not as they appear to be. This is not just a worry about getting some things wrong. Rather, it is a disturbing suspicion that we – all of us – may have got everything wrong. This uncertainty is directed equally towards the nature of the cup next to the word processor on which I believe I am typing this column as it is to the status of an entity such as an electron, the thoughts and feelings of those closest to us, or to what awaits us after death. Doubts about the true nature of the world of our daily lives, or, indeed, about our own nature, may darken into profound uneasiness, as when we fear that we are dreaming. Alternately it may blossom into delight, when we suspect that there may be more to the world – perhaps something more beautiful, mysterious, and wonderful – than what seems to surround us as we go about our sometimes humdrum business. For a secular humanist such as myself, the intuition of a hidden reality may glow with a sense of possibly illuminating the spaces vacated by the departure of the promises and threats of religion. Unlike a God taking a personal interest in the world, this reality would not judge its inhabitants, rewarding and punishing them as He thought appropriate.

Doubting the Doubting

There are many paths to universal scepticism directed at the deliverances of everyday experience. One is argument. Parmenides, the greatest of the pre-Socratic philosophers, used the unquestionable truth that ‘what is not is not’ to deny that things could come into being (from what is not) or go out of being (to what is not), or be separated by empty space (which is not). He concluded from this that the universe is really an unchanging unified ball of homogeneous stuff. Pre-empting the objection that this is hardly how things seem to us, he instructed his followers not to be “guided by your dull eyes, nor by your resounding ears, but test all things with the power of thinking alone.”

Other philosophers have justified questioning our manifest image of the world by highlighting how often our senses mislead us, and how, when we dream, we locate ourselves in worlds to which nothing corresponds. René Descartes’ argument in his Discourse on Method (1637) pre-empts the objection to universal scepticism that we only occasionally get things wrong:

“Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true and assured I have gotten either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time, I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.” (Italics mine).

This case for universal doubt has been fiercely contested. If we can discover that our senses have deceived us, we must surely do so from the standpoint of one who is frequently undeceived. Only if we can get things right can we truly discover that we have got them wrong. Exposing falsehoods highlights the bedrock of seemingly unquestionable truths on which our lives rest. If we can get some, or even many, things wrong, we do so against a background of generally getting them right. The very process of questioning the truth of all our perceptions may therefore seem itself to be questionable, since the claim that everything revealed to us falls short of reality seems to remove a gold standard against which unreality may be judged. Radical scepticism may therefore be haunted by the meta-sceptical suspicion that universal theoretical doubt about what is around and within us is not to be taken seriously. After all, such doubt does not bother us when we are running for a bus, trying to get a new-born baby to sleep, fearing for our life, worrying about another’s ill health, planning a career, or just getting cross with someone talking loudly on an iPhone on a train. The shin-barking solidity, the push and shove and heave, of the material world, and the stresses and strains of the social realm, with its embarrassments and anxious responsibilities, the unquestioned and unquestionable connectedness of the joys and sorrows of the daily round – in short, jampacked daily life – discredit doubts about ‘everyday reality’, particularly if those doubts claim to undermine the very assumptions that form the ground on which we stand as we go about the business of our busy days. Our existential investment in the shared world of ordinary appearances and beliefs undermines any claim that we are cut off from reality.

Cue a confession. For most of my waking hours I cannot take the preoccupations of sceptical philosophers seriously – and sometimes not even when I am rehearsing their arguments for this column. The many processes that lead from the tingle of doubt to the published article stand on presumptions that are questionable in theory but undeniable in the practice of everyday life. As Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, (1955)).

A famous argument against the idea that reality is utterly different from how it normally seems to us was advanced by the analytical philosopher JL Austin (1911-60). In Sense and Sensibilia (1962), he argued that the very term ‘reality’ makes sense only in the context of its opposite – the unreality of events or entities that are experienced as, or discovered to be, or exposed as, unreal. ‘This is real’ as a qualification granted to an entity is typically asserted when someone is at risk from making a (local) mistake. A duck may be asserted to be real only against the counterclaim that it was just a dummy, a toy duck, a decoy, or a picture of a duck. This gives the idea of reality as borrowed force, on loan from the idea of unreality.

Reality In Motion
Reality In Motion by Paul Gregory

Reason versus Reality

Not so fast. There remain good reasons for doubting the reality of what surrounds us. Two of the most compelling are the mediated nature of the sense experiences and the knowledge that give us access to what we count as reality; and the increasing divergence between our everyday image of the world and the scientific account of it.

First, the mediated nature of experience. What we are confident is ‘out there’ becomes present to us only through interaction, initially between our sensory apparatus and that which we perceive. For many philosophers, this is sufficient reason to justify thinking that we do not directly perceive material objects. Rather, we sense intermediary mental entities, often called ‘sense data’ after Bertrand Russell’s use of the term: how the world looks, sounds, feels etc, to us. This claim is supported by the facts that our experiences are perspectival, and that the experienced world is filled with secondary qualities of objects – their colours, sounds, tastes, feelings of warmth and cold, to name a few – which are generally considered to belong not to the objects to which they are ascribed (such as ‘the red ball’), but to the minds of subjects consciously perceiving them. Sensational qualities exist in experiencing minds, not in the external material world.

And this is only the beginning of the interactive story. As Eric Watkins has put it, “what is immediately given lacks the kind of structure that would be required to justify propositional knowledge” (‘Kant, Sellars, and the Myth of the Given’). To think about things evidently requires a good deal of top-down conceptualisation, such that what is given in sense data is gathered up mentally into certain categories. While this position falls short of full-blown Kantianism – according to which it is the activity of the mind which locates our experience of objects in space and time – it nonetheless radically undermines the idea of consciousness displaying uncontaminated instances of what’s out there. In this, experience seems to involve as much concealment as revelation – thus justifying the characterisation of appearance as ‘a veil’ covering reality.

And then there is what science tells us about the natural world. Science deserves our respectful attention if only because of its astonishing predictive power and ability to transform our lives through the application of its theories in technology. But general relativity and quantum mechanics have undermined our everyday understanding of reality. Einstein’s amalgamation of space and time into spacetime suggests an unchanging eternal ‘Block Universe’ for the world independent of our experience. This justified Karl Popper’s describing Einstein as ‘The Parmenidean’ – a soubriquet which the latter was happy to accept. And quantum mechanics has led many to embrace ‘quantum probabilism’, the view that the world has no definite state in the absence of observation. This claim is the mainstream Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – itself the most powerful and productive theory science has ever entertained.

Before metaphysicians capitulate to the authority of physical science, however, it is worth reminding ourselves that its two most powerful theories – general relativity and quantum mechanics – are fundamentally incompatible. Moreover, there are as many interpretations of quantum theory as there are physicists unwilling simply to follow Richard Feynman’s advice to ‘shut up and calculate’. We should not, therefore, assume that the justified authority of science extends to metaphysical questions, including the nature of reality. Besides, science is entirely based on measurement. While this may liberate observation from subjectivity and perspective, it does so at the cost of exsanguinating the natural world – removing its qualities and reducing it to quantities, until ultimate reality is seen as a mere system of magnitudes. This is reflected in the tendency of some scientistic philosophers to conclude – as do James Ladyman and Donald Ross in Everything Must Go (2007) – that material objects, even atoms, are phantasms. Ultimate reality, they argue, is composed of mathematical structures without individual objects. Prioritising structure over any content which might have a structure, or – as in the case of Carlo Rovelli’s relational quantum mechanics – arguing that relations are more real than any items that may enter into those relations, is, to say the least, problematic. It does not provide much encouragement to those who believe that philosophy should bow to science. Physics is in enough of a metaphysical mess for philosophers not to feel obliged to embrace the bad philosophising of scientists.

This notwithstanding, it looks, after all, as if we cannot deny that there are valid unanswered philosophical questions about the nature of reality. It is right that the multi-layered taken-for-granted world should be pierced by uncertainties, even if the questioning stance cannot be maintained in the pell-mell of everyday life. The certainty that, sooner or later, we shall arrive at our last busy Wednesday, and part company from our own existence and its correlated world, is in itself sufficient to justify our sense that life, after all, is perhaps in some sense a dream, and that the reality we take for granted is not the way reality is all the way down.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2023

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, is out now.

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