Archives for posts with tag: skepticism

Reality can be boiled down to a simple equation: perception + experience. What we receive via our senses is interpreted by the knowledge we have gained by our experiences, and this outcome is what we call reality.

If, for example, I existed during the era of the Roman Empire, I would perceive the sun arcing across the sky, and the experiences of my upbringing would inform me that it was Apollo in his chariot. If I had never experienced anything to tell me differently, then that is how I would view reality. It’s not that I’m dumb or wrong, it’s that my reality is shaped by the things I have learned and by the things that I see (touch, taste, etc.) I wouldn’t believe Apollo was the sun if I never saw the sun nor felt its warmth in the first place, after all.

There is also the weight of the perception versus the weight of the experiences. Copernicus, to stick with the sun analogy, would have grown up under the pretense of a geocentric universe. However, his observations towards the stars overcame his learned experiences, and perception won out, creating the very first experience of a heliocentric universe.

The only reason we look on the Roman version of me as ridiculous for believing that the sun is the god Apollo is because our species has the collective experience of the Copernican revolution. It is shared in our media, literature, dialogues concerning the universe, etc. and so our experiences regarding the reality of the sun are quite weighty.

For example, if today I saw the sun blip from one part of the sky to another, seemingly teleporting across the horizon, the weight of my experiences would override my perception. I would assume I had fallen asleep, and woken up at a different time of day, or that it was a trick of the light that caused me to misperceive the solar blip. I would interpret these perceptions, and therefore reality, in such a way that would make sense with regard to the experiences I had accumulated over my lifetime. I would discount my perceptions as false, and carry on as if they had never happened, leaving reality unaltered.

However, if new experiences availed themselves to me, for example if I learned that others than myself had seen the blip, if it made the newspapers the next day, scientists were exclaiming bafflement, etc. then the weight of my original perception would increase and reality would shift to accommodate these new experiences.

One might argue that this subjective reality works only on an individual scale, and when joined into a collective, such as through peer-reviewing, or replicability, this would give a glimpse into a more objective reality. However, I would disagree and say that a collection of subjects is still subjective. The addition of new perceptions and a greater amount of experiences still falls within my original definition.

New ideas are frequently met with derision and ridicule because of that very same collective agreement of experiences among a society that dictate what we call reality. Copernicus and Galileo were keenly aware of that distrust of new versions of reality, even though today we dismiss those who condemned them as ignorant. Was it because the Church was afraid of losing its tenuous monopoly on the truth, or was it for the same reasons that today we would mock and scorn someone who adamantly claimed that leprechauns existed? Even potentially lock them up in the loony bin? Is it because there necessarily cannot be leprechauns, or is it because humanity has never had a weighty enough experience of leprechauns in order to accept them into our collective reality?

Even if you disagree with me, and believe that not only is there some kind of ultimate, objective reality, but human beings can access it (outside of our sensory perceptions and our experiences, (?)somehow(?)) then that is only because the experiences in your life have given such weight to that “objective” view of reality that your perception of my ideas does not hold up against them.

 

Skepticism is the belief that nothing can be defined as true, including the belief that nothing can be defined as true. The authentic skeptic questions even their own dogma.

I’ve basically already wrote this, but I feel as though I need to go a bit more in-depth into the subject, because I believe it to be important. Plus, that previous post focused more on experiential uncertainty, such as whether or not there is a God, or if Paul is a dick or actually a pretty cool dude, whereas now I hope to question more assumed knowledge, such as whether or not a table is solid.

This all stemmed from a dinner, sitting around the dining room table, discussing whether or not the table we were all sitting around was solid. Everyone asserted that it was, save for myself who suggested maybe there was more to it than how we all perceived it to be. For example, the table was wood, and someone who is accustomed to working with steel might not think it was all that solid. Or a Hindu might not believe there is a table at all, but an illusion to blind us to the ultimate reality. A Buddhist might see it as a transient object, and with its inevitable deterioration, would claim it to be empty, rather than a solid object. Or even someone taking hallucinogenic drugs might see it as fluid, and before you dismiss this as hogwash, remember that there are shamans who believe that drugs are a way of opening up the mind to reveal the true nature of things. These are but a few of the infinite ways of looking at a dining room table.

Yes, the popular opinion was that the table was solid, but if we adhered strictly to commonly-held beliefs, Copernicus would never have changed the way we look at the solar system.

Of course, we can’t prove that a table isn’t solid, as each different belief set has a way around simply knocking on it with your knuckle to check its durability. Does this lack of proof mean that those views are simply irrelevant? Should we, the knowledgeable ones, ignore the viewpoints that disagree with what is so clear to us? It seems just as likely that any arguments we make about the solidity of the table to those who view it otherwise would sound just as ignorant.

Skepticism was founded as a school of Greek philosophy from the mind of Pyrrho. As with all the early Greek schools, the premise was to divine a system of thought that would allow for an upstanding way of living. Skeptics believed that to doubt everything meant to have an open mind to all ways of thinking. Sextus Empiricus, a scholar in the Greek school, gave arguments both for and against the existence of God, as well as attempted to disprove death. This universal agnosticism, in turn, would theoretically make you less of an asshole. Certainty is the enemy of compromise. Why would you bend on something that you’re certain of, after all?

There is a common philosophical methodology called reductionism. It’s where you cast aside all presuppositions until you have one, irrefutable fact about life. Then if you’re so inclined, you can build your philosophy from there. “I think, therefore I am” is one such example. Descartes chucked out the entire material world as possibly untrue, because you know what? We could be living in the Matrix with our brains hooked up to a bunch of wires that feed information to our senses. Descartes is suggesting that even if the material world doesn’t exist, there is still the brain in that gooey pod thing being fed information. Because I am thinking, there at least has to be some form of me somewhere to think. Now is Descartes right even on that assertion? Maybe we’re a mindless void being filled with alien television shows. How can we judge the validity of any claim?

And there are a lot of claims in this world of ours. There is a God. There is no God. Nobody loves me. Everybody loves me. Paul is a nice guy. Oh wait no, Paul is a dick. Pretty much all of our observations make some kind of claim towards the truth, and there must be a truth, right? Paul has to either be a dick, or  he’s not. These are two contradictory statements, and they can’t both be true. (Note: we’re going to live in a world of black and white here. There is no middle ground where Paul is just an okay guy. He’s either a gigantic prick or a saint, k?)

Say you’re walking down the street, and you see Paul coming down the opposite way. As soon as he sees you, Paul flips you the bird, turns and runs away forever. Heartbroken at realizing that Paul is a turd, you rush home crying to write about it in your diary. It seems the truth is that Paul is a dick.

Next day, you meet up with Paul’s nameless friend, who explains to you that Paul was actually flipping off some guy right behind you, who was about to stab you until he saw Paul’s judgmental middle finger, and spared your life out of shame. As it turns out, Paul saved you from certain doom, and it looks like Paul is a saint after all. The truth comes out for realz this time.

Now, what would happen if Paul’s nameless friend was hit by a bus and was brutally killed before they got around to telling you about this simple misunderstanding? The truth, for you, would still be that Paul is a dick. In your mind, this truth is unshakable. Your whole worldview revolves around the fact that Paul is a douchebag worth hours of indignant rage. You never figured out that other truth, and so your version of reality doesn’t line up with objective events. How many truth claims do you think don’t line up? Reality is experience combined with perception, and both of those things are heavily biased and flawed in many other ways, so I expect there are quite a few.

Now I can imagine you pushing up your thick-rimmed glasses with your index fingers, ahem-ing a couple of times, and nasally explaining to me that science and math prove that there can be an observable truth. 2 + 2 is always 4, and no amount of philosophical bullshit can disprove that. Except math and science aren’t truths, they are definitions. They are a creation of humanity used to observe our universe. 2 + 2 = 4 because one day a long time ago, some Greek dude named Pythagoras had two rocks, and then added another two rocks, and went like, “holy fucking shit, I now have four rocks!” Saying math proves truths is like saying language proves truths. Pointing at a spot on a colour wheel and exclaiming gleefully, “that’s green!” only proves that you have eyeballs and a concept of language and colour, nothing more. The scientific analogy here would be rubbing two sticks to make fire and witnessing the birth of Tom Hank’s movie Castaway. You understand the concept of combustion, congratulations. Science doesn’t make any kind of claim towards the universe, it just tries to define ones that already exist.

It’s easy to say, “Well objectively, Paul is a nice guy. You just were living a lie while you thought of him as a complete asshole.” And maybe that’s true. But how would you ever know? Everything that you had experienced pointed towards Paul being a dick. And the only reason to think that Paul is a saint is because of some claim that the nameless friend made, and what the hell do they know?  Have you ever been so sure of something, only to have some new piece of information come up and explode in your face like a hot load? What if you never got that hot load to the face? Can we as people ever make any claim to an objective truth?

There is a saying in regards to free will that goes something like this, “Even if there is no free will, we must act as if there is.” What this means is that if we are bound by God’s will, or we are part of some great destiny, or we are slaves to our biological impulses, for one thing, we would never be aware of it. We can’t know if our actions are our own, or if we’re being driven by some other force. But we have to act as if we are responsible for our actions in order for society to function, regardless of the truth.

What I’m suggesting is that, yeah, maybe there is some objective reality out there filled with all the truths you could ever want. Maybe we might even catch a glimpse of it every now and then. But there is no way of ever being able to tell what is the truth and what isn’t. If people lived under the rule of “maybe there is no truth” instead of the hard-lined, “I own the truth, fuck you”, society would function just a little better. Maybe you’d treat Paul like he was an okay guy, instead of like he was either a dick or a saint. I’m not saying throw all your beliefs out the window and live in a world filled with crippling doubt, but simply be aware that maybe things aren’t quite the way you think them to be.