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The World Well-Found
Some say the world is an illusion. Postmodernists claim it is a culturally-constructed ‘interpretation’. In a groundbreaking rebuttal of these sceptics, Susan Feldman argues that the world is just too irritating not to be real.
The ‘real’ world, and our post-modern (modern) unwillingness/inability to detach the ironic, distancing, idealist scare-quotes from ‘real’: is it lost to us? Can it be found again, without a commitment to foundationalism, inference to the best explanation or transcendental argumentation?
Here’s one new attempt: the argument from irritation.1
Why would the world-cum-construct of consciousness or imposed interpretation be so annoying? I don’t just mean the big things that bug us either: war, pollution, disease, injustice, stupidity. I mean the petty minute by minute stuff that drives us batty.
Take noises. Why construct a world with extraneous irritating noises? Why does the fly drone, the mosquito buzz, the radio emit static, the dog grunt? If the world is a construct of consciousness or an interpretation imposed by culture, why at this level of annoying detail? If the constructed world needs flies (for the construct of the ecosystem, or whatever) why do they have to buzz? Female mosquitoes don’t, and they perform their (irritating) ecosystem role quite nicely.
The response could be that this level of fine detail is required for a constructed world in which all properties are not essential. Fine. But why are some of these non-essential properties annoying, in these minor ways? Maybe it is part of the law-like fabric of the constructed world that cold wind leads to runny noses, but why is the feel of the runny nose so unpleasant? Why should we feel the sting in our eyes from tree pollen?
Besides annoying, yet unpredictable sensations, there are other features of the world that tell against external world scepticism. Who would invent prime-time TV, if the world was a construct? Rap music? Political campaigns? If the world were my construct, I sure as hell would not have come up with these. If the world is a culturally-constructed interpretation, then since culture is so diverse, and since I am clearly not part of the mainstream, why can’t I, through my elitist subcultural construct of the world, interpret and construct these things away?
So my argument thus far is that world cannot be merely a construct of my own consciousness because I could not, nor would not, construct it to the level of annoying detail that it constantly displays. This doesn’t mean that it could not be someone else’s construct: someone powerful but nasty, say, like Descartes’ Evil Deceiver.
Suppose, then, that the world is constructed by the ED. All the detail is explained by the ED’s (divine) powers, and all the irritation by the evil part. But then, wouldn’t the world be worse? Wouldn’t female mosquitoes, and not just male, buzz? Wouldn’t male mosquitoes suck blood as well? Wouldn’t radio have more static, music worse than rap have come along, and all dogs smell like they have been in the garbage? The fact is that we find the world only moderately irritating, and a truly evil ED would have made it worse, to live up to his billing.
Thus, the world could only be the construct of only a moderately irritating deceiver. But such a moderately irritating deceiver would not be one to pull off a hyperbolic Cartesian-style deception, which would be not merely irritating but greatly distressing. (Although the MID might be the appropriate source of the interminable sceptical challenge). Hence, if the world had been a deceptive creation of an evil deceiver it would have been worse, and if a moderately irritating deceiver had been in charge, he would not have been evil enough to pull off the grand deception of the construction of an illusory world. So, the world as we find it is neither the product of an evil deceiver nor of a moderately irritating deceiver.
Thus, because it annoys, the external world is real.
1. It is up to the reader to work out how much of this is serious.
© Susan Feldman 1996
Susan Feldman is Assistant Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania