The nature of reality

Mukul Sharma writes

Real is really difficult to pin down. Take the act of reading this page of The Economic Times for example. There’s something so rock solid and reassuring about the experience that it’s not only taken for granted as being authentic in existence but never once questioned because to do so would seem almost like a breach of faith. An act of irrationality.

Mentally abnormal behaviour. The same goes for everything that precedes the act of reading this page of The Economic Times. Or, for that matter, everything that comes after. Life happens so realistically around us all the time that we go about conducting its business without ever giving it a second thought.

Unfortunately, this convenient fiction blows up in our face every night when we fall asleep and dream…


Zhuangzi, said one night he dreamt he was a carefree butterfly flying happily. After he woke, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Zhuangzi who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming it was Zhuangzi.

If you think you have heard this before, you are probably right. If you think this is a great topic for a water-cooler conversation, you are right. But if you think this is unimportant, or irrelevant, you are wrong. I will explain why.

Most people don’t “get” philosophy. Part of it is their fault, part of it isn’t. But the fact is, philosophy is a critical part of everyone’s life – without philosophy, one cannot live. Even if one hasn’t consciously adopted a particular philosophy, one is following “some” philosophy – a default one that is a strange mix of religion and various other societal norms. Philosophy consists of four main branches – metaphysics (which deals with the nature of reality/ existence), epistemology (which deals with the theory and sources of knowledge), ethics (which deals with the “right” way to live) and politics (which deals with man’s interactions with society). There is a fifth branch – aesthetics (the theory of art) – which is important, but not “as” important.

As I said, even if people don’t consciously adopt a particular philosophy, they are working on the basis of a default one – generally religion. Philosophy emerged out of man’s need to explain the world around him – the need to know the hows and whys. And religion – whatever its nature – was one of the first attempts at providing a complete system. For example, in most religions, the universe is created by God and so are all lifeforms, faith is how people gain “higher” knowledge – you need to believe, commandments and duties provide man with a moral code, and the State is organized on religious lines. Thus metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics are taken care of. The trouble begins when scientific discoveries clash with the religious views, and when philosophers move beyond the simplistic system-building of religion. You have at least one perpetual war – reason vs. faith. And that shows no signs of ending thousands of years after it first began.

The four branches – how are they related? Why should you care about metaphysics when all you are interested in is politics? If you look at philosophy as a pyramid, metaphysics is the base, epistemology depends on metaphysics, ethics on the previous two levels and politics on the three below it. People are quite comfortable with ethics and politics and the relation between them, but how metaphysics and epistemology influence them is not always clear. So let me give a couple of examples.

You regularly visit a palmist who “reads” the lines on you palm and “predicts” your future. How is this significant – what has philosophy got to do with it? The innocuous act of visiting a palmist suggests that you believe in determinism – the theory that everything in life – in the universe is predetermined. Which means that you have no free will. The consequences of such an idea are devastating – it means, again, that anything that you do, or “choose” not to do has already been predetermined for you. The determinism is metaphysical in nature. And it has a fallout both in ethics as well as politics. Assume X goes and kills Y. Since everything in life is determined, such a murder too is predetermined. And the question has to be asked if X is responsible for the murder and whether he should be punished – after all, you cannot punish someone for something that is already predetermined. There are many arguments and types of determinism, but this is the essence of ignoring the metaphysical problems of palmistry. Thus your view on metaphysics will deeply affect your ethical and political choices regardless of whether you choose to think in those terms.

Now epistemology cannot work in isolation – without a theory on metaphysics. So assume for a moment that your metaphysics is based on maya – an illusion – what you perceive doesn’t exist; what exists, you don’t perceive. And you see a dog biting a child. The question is, how do you know that a dog bit a child, and not vice versa? Or that the entire episode only happened in your mind? See where such beliefs lead you? No ethics or politics can stand on such flimsy bases. But that is what philosophers have tried to do over the years – leaving man in a state where he exists in an illusory world and has no way of making sense of it. Since everything is an illusion, and you cannot trust your mind, you need to “believe” some said; others trashed both the mind as well as reality.

Now Sharma’s dream problem. The question is how do you know you are awake, or in a dream? And how does this affect anything? Rene Descartes, the 17th century mathematician-philosopher, had similar doubts; actually he had many doubts. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Historically, there are two distinct dream-related skeptical doubts. The one doubt undermines the judgment that one is presently awake—call this the ‘Now Dreaming Doubt’. The other doubt undermines the judgment that one is ever awake (i.e., in the way normally supposed)—call this the ‘Always Dreaming Doubt’. A textual case can be made on behalf of both formulations being raised in the Meditations. Though it will not be my aim to make this textual case, we will consider both formulations.

Both kinds of dream doubt appeal to some version of the thesis that the experiences we take as dreams are (at their best) qualitatively similar to what we take as waking—call this the ‘Similarity Thesis’. The Similarity Thesis may be formulated in a variety of strengths. A strong Similarity Thesis might contend that some dreams are phenomenally indistinguishable from waking, even subsequent to waking-up; a weaker thesis might contend merely that dreams seem similar to waking while having them, but not upon waking.


The two dreaming doubts are parasitic on the same Similarity Thesis, though their sceptical consequences differ. The Now Dreaming Doubt raises the universal possibility of delusion: for any one of my sensory experiences, it is possible (for all I Know) that the experience is delusive. The Always Dreaming Doubt raises the possibility of universal delusion: it is possible (for all I Know) that all my sensory experiences are delusions (say, from a God’s-eye perspective). In either case, dreaming related doubts are supposed to help clarify that external sense, per se, is incapable of grounding Knowledge of external things.

Essentially, by doubting whether you are conscious at all, a doubt can be raised on whether what you perceive is something real – thus you can never be sure of any knowledge (and this is even before meeting Doubting Descartes’ “evil genius”). The metaphysical and epistemological mumbo-jumbo differs from that of maya, but the effect is the same. It renders knowledge and the mind useless.

Once philosophers “prove” that existence doesn’t exist, or that even if it does, the mind is incapable of knowing anything about it, the field is now open for “any” ethical and political theory that they may want to impose either based on “faith” or on “duty.” That is why it is important to guard against philosophers and philosophies that deny an objective reality and claim that the mind is impotent.

The philosopher G.E.Moore wrote a paper in 1925 on “A Defence of Common Sense” which was in a sense a criticism of the leaps of faith one had to take while reading some crazy philosophers who denied anything and everything-

I begin, then, with my list of truisms, every one of which (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty, to be true. The propositions to be included in this list are the following:

There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since, though not without undergoing changes; it was, for instance, much smaller when it was born, and for some time afterwards, than it is now. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and, at every moment since it was born, there have also existed many other things, having shape and size in three dimensions (in the same familiar sense in which it has), from which it has been at various distances (in the familiar sense in which it is now at a distance both from that mantelpiece and from that bookcase, and at a greater distance from the bookcase than it is from the mantelpiece); also there have (very often, at all events) existed some other things of this kind with which it was in contact (in the familiar sense in which it is now in contact with the pen I am holding in my right hand and with some of the clothes I am wearing). Among the things which have, in this sense, formed part of its environment (i.e. have been either in contact with it, or at some distance from it, however great) there have, at every moment since its birth, been large numbers of other living human bodies, each of which has, like it, (a) at some time been born, (b) continued to exist from some time after birth, (c) been, at every moment of its life after birth, either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and many of these bodies have already died and ceased to exist. But the earth had existed also for many years before my body was born; and for many of these years, also, large numbers of human bodies had, at every moment, been alive upon it; and many of these bodies had died and ceased to exist before it was born. Finally (to come to a different class of propositions), I am a human being, and I have, at different times since my body was born, had many different experiences, of each of many different kinds: e.g. I have often perceived both my own body and other things which formed part of its environment, including other human bodies; I have not only perceived things of this kind, but have also observed facts about them, such as, for instance, the fact which I am now observing, that that mantelpiece is at present nearer to my body than that bookcase; I have been aware of other facts, which I was not at the time observing, such as, for instance, the fact, of which I am now aware, that my body existed yesterday and was then also for some time nearer to that mantelpiece than to that bookcase; I have had expectations with regard to the future, and many beliefs of other kinds, both true and false; I have thought of imaginary things and persons and incidents, in the reality of which I did not believe; I have had dreams; and I have had feelings of many different kinds. And, just as my body has been the body of a human being, namely myself, who has, during his lifetime, had many experiences of each of these (and other) different kinds; so, in the case of very many of the other human bodies which have lived upon the earth, each has been the body of a different human being, who has, during the lifetime of that body, had many different experiences of each of these (and other) different kinds.

The very fact that most of the above sounds childish is proof of the kind of theories philosophers have spun over the years. The theories and the philosophers I will leave for another day. Till that time, my answer to the Zhuangzis of the world is – “Let me chop off the index finger of your right hand. If you are dreaming, the finger will still be there when you wake up. If you are awake, the fact that you are awake will be confirmed and a finger is a small price to pay for such profound knowledge.”

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  • Konservo  On April 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    There is a fifth branch – aesthetics (the theory of art) – which is important, but not “as” important.

    “Aesthetics” is not “the theory of art,” rather, it is (1) the study of “sense perception” (this is the true meaning of “aisthese”) (2) the study of “taste/judgment” this is an improper use of the word and is jargon made popular by A.G. Baumgarten. However, even though the term is now confused, even Baumgarten’s usage extends to “natural” entities, it is not limited to “art.”

    “Let me chop off the index finger of your right hand. If you are dreaming, the finger will still be there when you wake up. If you are awake, the fact that you are awake will be confirmed and a finger is a small price to pay for such profound knowledge.”

    That would not confirm anything. There is no reason to believe that the consequences of a dreamt action would not influence the course of future dreaming, just as the consequences of a real action influence the course of reality. In other words, I could cut off a finger, go to sleep, experience a dream with all 10 digits, and then wake up with the finger still severed. But, on the other hand, I could dream about cutting off a finger, wake up with all 10 digits, fall asleep the next night and have a dream in which my finger has been severed.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 10, 2009 at 10:38 pm

      # “‘Aesthetics’ is not ‘the theory of art'”
      You are right. I make it sound as if it is a study of art. I meant definition (2) – that’s how I know of it. As defined by COED, aesthetics is “the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.”

      # “That would not confirm anything.”
      I am not referring to a philosophical confirmation. The question is very simple – will you allow someone to “chop off the index finger of your right hand?” What is, is – a common sense view of the world.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On April 14, 2009 at 12:05 am

    interesting! and very obvious. i always knew that my system of beliefs had a name and now i know what there called. the theories you quoted sounds familiar to me. do you watch “miraclenet”? “god tv” maybe? words are enough to mesmerize many even when they don’t mean anything. no wonder these motivational speakers aka philosophers have a fan following. time to redefine who are worthy enough to be called philosophers. it’s beginning to sound like a joke.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 2:08 am

      # do you watch “miraclenet”? “god tv” maybe?”
      No. Most channels are full of religious mumbo jumbo of all kinds though – the religion is irrelevant, everyone preaches the same nonsense – something that cannot be practiced at all in real life. A philosophy that is based on an impossibility – “higher consciousness” etc etc – is no philosophy at all but pure quackery.

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