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Is There Anybody Out There?

by Rick Lewis

Having wrested the editorship back from Mark, the tango-dancing Talmudist of Old Norwich Town (he seemed to be enjoying himself too much – hasn’t the man ever heard of angst?), I’ve been reminiscing about the launch of Philosophy Now five years ago.

After the first issue appeared, I was chatting to my friend Steve about its progress, and telling him that we had sold quite a few subscriptions. A brief shadow crossed his finely-chiselled features. “But Rick, what will you do when the magazine closes? You’ll have to give everyone their money back.” It was a reasonable point, I thought. Back then six issues seemed an awful lot – would the magazine really last that long? After five years, happily, we’re still here! Hip hip hooray! We are continuing to boldly go where no philosophy magazine has gone before – this is the first issue to be sold in bookstores in Canada, so hello and bienvenu to our Canadian readers.

Steve also said (shortly before I strangled him) “but Rick, how do you know the magazine exists?” He was expressing the common conception that what philosophers do is worry over whether they exist, whether other people exist, and whether or not the world is real. While philosophy does in fact cover other topics too, it is true that questions like “what things exist” (ontology) and “how do we know something exists” (epistemology) have always been central parts of the subject.

Of course you could say “these questions are a doddle – if I can see it, hear it, pick it up, then it exists. If I can’t, it doesn’t. End of story.” But in that case, what about things like bank accounts, computer programs, quarks? How do you know these things exist? You can’t see them, although you can detect their effects. What about a smile? You can see that, but you can’t separate it from the mouth it is on and put it on the table with a label attached to it saying it is a smile. That was why the Cheshire Cat’s behaviour seemed strange to Alice, when it disappeared leaving just its smile behind. So maybe there are different sorts of existence. A smile doesn’t exist in the same way that a table exists.

A few centuries ago, some philosophers were wondering whether anything could be proved to exist at all, in fact whether we could have certain knowledge about anything. For any opinion put forward, there seemed to be two contrary opinions. The man who rescued philosophy from this morass of scepticism, René Descartes, was born four hundred years ago this year, in 1596. René realised that even if everything he saw, and everything he thought, all the impressions in his mind, in fact, were illusions, the products of a malicious demon hell-bent on deceiving him, then the very fact that he was being deceived would at least make it certain that he was thinking. “I think!” he declared, and armed with this first shred of certainty was able to advance another step “Aha – if I’m thinking, there must be someone doing the thinking, so I must exist!”

René, a brilliant and companionable slob, is remembered with almost universal fondness in philosophical circles, partly for his habit of staying in bed until midday thinking about philosophy (or so he claimed). He believed that he could prove not only his own existence, but that of God and of the rest of the universe. However, his logic there was less compelling, and the debate about how to show that the external world exists has rumbled on ever since.

In the last few years, technology has given a new twist to this kind of problem, with the advent of Virtual Reality. Someone wearing a VR headset may see and hear objects which don’t exist for anyone else. He or she may have no guide to whether or not those objects or people are real except for a memory of putting on the headset. Martin Thomasson argues (on p.8) that technology and indeed city life in general tend anyway to cut us off from each other, to make us behave as if the external world was an illusion.

Several other articles in this issue also look at questions of existence, knowledge and technology. A couple look at the power of the state. The British Government, ever-conscious of the flow of philosophical debate, now plans to reassure people that they do in fact exist by issuing them with Identity Cards. (What do you think about ID cards? Please write!)

Proving what seems obvious is sometimes more difficult than it looks. The other week I was stopped in the centre of Ipswich by an evangelist, who wanted to convince me of the falsity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I argued with him confidently enough, until he said that there wasn’t time enough for evolution to have taken place because the world was only 6000 years old. The dinosaurs apparently coexisted with early man, just like in the Flintstones! I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Nonetheless, at the risk of my soul, I’m publishing three reviews of books about aspects of evolution. There are obviously some very talented writers explaining the latest thinking – but why are none of them ever around when I need them!

In the meantime, you should seriously consider the question of whether this magazine exists. Because if it doesn’t, you’ve just been robbed of £2.80.

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