[This article was revised on 18.09.2017 to correct several research errors]
How do we know what is real?
Simple. We look, we touch, and we taste, and so forth. We use our senses.
We have more than five senses; new senses are discovered every day. There are literally hundreds, each working in coordination with another in order to compile an approximate image of the world around us.
And that word – approximate – is particularly important here. For our senses have their limitations, can only ever be approximately true. Not only this, they can quite easily be deceived because of illusions.
And our body, and its ability to detect and process information, isn’t perfect. We are imperfect beings.
But it is acknowledged by most that reality exists, and that it exists independently of human consciousness (realism).
Why? Convenience, sanity, reason.
“Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality […] Reason is man’s tool of knowledge, the faculty that enables him to perceive the facts of reality,” Ayn Rand on Objectivism.
The validity of statements can be founded on reason alone. One famous example being “all bachelors live alone”. This statement does not need qualifying with evidence because it is understood that the word bachelor equates to ‘a person who lives alone’; it is self-evident (or a apriori, as it is known in epistemology – the philosophy of human knowledge).
However, these kinds of statements do not objectively prove that anything actually exists, and there is an obvious difference between grammatical fidelity and metaphysics.
I do not believe that reason alone can determine reality for, as mentioned above, our senses are imperfect and individual perception of reality varies. (Have a chat with a sufferer of schizophrenia).
So, how can we know what true objectifiable reality is?
It is a phenomena known universally as the egocentric predicament, a term coined by Ralph Barton Perry in ‘A Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods’ (1910).
Charles Sanders Pierce and Martin Heidegger, among others, later adapted this into the philosophy of phenomenology.
Where phenomenology is a study of things that exist to us from a subjective, first person point of view, the egocentric predicament argues that the material world is “quite unknown to us, and that what we call outer objects are nothing but mere representations of our sensibility,” (Kant, 1781).
Kant explains that humans construct knowledge – and a greater sense of the world, time, and space – through sheer reason and impressions; but argues that it is a “fallacious presupposition” to state that consciousness and reality are separate.
In other words: it is, due to our subjective experience of the world, impossible to ascertain whether or not reality as an objectifiable certainty actually exists – at least independently of the mind.
We will never gaze beyond the veil, never know the truth.
The human mind – your mind – is all that you possess. No matter where information is drawn from, your mind ultimately processes it. And, as mentioned above, the mind is unreliable, only ever approximate.
The world that you know and can perceive – which Charles-Sanders Pierce called the phaneron – is filtered through a veil. True unfiltered reality can never be known.
No technology can help, for the information received from said technology is also filtered by our minds.
So could those suffering from physiatric conditions or under the influence of certain substances like mescaline actually catch a glimpse beyond the veil, or do these examples merely show, again, the limits of human senses?
How should I know? Like you, I’m only human. And humans aren’t perfect.
But it is an area that continues to fascinate me. I wonder: would true reality even be worth seeing? In The Matrix, the real world is infinitely worse than the fantasy people are led to believe. If I was a part of the matrix, I think I would rather live in blissful ignorance than be awoken to harsh reality.
The matrix is real – to the minds of those trapped within it. And as reality is determined by our mind, who is to say that the fantasy has any less credence than the reality?
We as a species put too much emphasis on truth (this post is one such example!), even if it is detrimental.
Though I seek knowledge, I would rather live in ignorance of such a benighted reality.