A journey from nothing, back to something again.
We can only be aware of external physical reality using our minds, so how can we be sure that anything other than our minds and thoughts exist? In this article, I show how this seductive theory is less impressive than it initially appears.
We perceive the world using our senses and mind, but we don’t have any other method for verifying this data. We can ask someone else if they also see a cow in a field, and they might say yes, but all our information about that person is interpreted through our senses and mind, so that doesn’t improve the situation much. You can quite quickly get to a position where the only thing you can be sure about existing is your own personal experience. This is what I’d like to label as ‘Mind Exceptionalism’, treating the mind as separate from everything else.
In philosophy, proponents of idealism believe that the only thing that exists is your mind and its thoughts. For a lot of my life, I haven’t been quite an idealist, but I have certainly been skeptical that anyone could prove to me that external physical reality (outside of my mind) exists. While that remains true, I no longer think this is a particularly relevant, important or meaningful statement.
If you haven’t been down this particular rabbit hole then suggesting that one might need to defend the basic principle that reality exists probably sounds a bit silly. Indeed, there are some compelling arguments that reality is really there.
- Continuity. If I leave a room it’s generally still there when I come back.
- Other people. Other people seem to be experiencing a similar physical reality to mine. If I ask them if they can see a cow in a field, they do a pretty convincing job of agreeing that they do. This trick works on any human, as long as I have Google Translate on hand to find the right word for ‘cow’, they have eyes, untampered brain function, and they’re not an argumentative philosopher.
- Scientific process. The vast majority of science takes the assumption of an external physical reality really existing and then gets quite a lot done thanks to this assumption. Scientists can recommend not jumping out of a third-floor window and are able to produce some reliable evidence about gravity and the fragility of the human body to prove it. There appear to be reliable physical laws we can measure, which show consistency and which maintain over repeated experiments. Of course, sophisticated scientific theories reveal all sorts of illusions, confusions and complications, but the basic assumption that tangible physical reality is ‘there’, underlies it all.
Everything we have learnt in neuroscience has been the discovery of the physical encoding of mental processes. We’re getting better and better at explaining how the activity of neurons in human brains leads to human behaviour, and so far nothing suggests that we won’t form a complete physical explanation one day.
Yes, our senses are our window into reality, but perception tools don’t need to be existentially significant. A Sony camera left alone in a forest can ‘see’ an image of the trees. If it had a mind it might well come to the conclusion that Sony-ism is the correct philosophy, i.e. all that can be known is that it is a Sony camera, and all the things it records are only Sony-perceptions of an ultimately unknowable reality. The only reason we decide that our Minds might come first and reality second is because we happen to be minds. An alien arriving on earth to observe the human race would find this a very weird and self-involved argument.
We don’t need to put our ‘selves’ outside of reality. It’s far more interesting to put ourselves in it. Why not just fit our minds into the same structure as the one we use on a day-to-day basis to understand external physical reality? Then we can discover why it is that sometimes people’s sensory perceptions are off the mark. We can discover why people experience reality in the ways that they do. We can learn about all the incredible biological processes developed over millions of years of evolution which finally led me to be able to write this article.
It is true that I cannot ‘prove’ that reality isn’t all a figment of my imagination. But there’s a lot of things I can’t prove. I can’t prove that reality isn’t a figment of my Spanish tutor’s imagination, or that reality isn’t all ultimately explainable by the Christian God. I also can’t prove that I’m not an eight-legged fairy, with magical wires made of Italian spaghetti inserted into my mind, to make me perceive all that I do. I would contest that while interesting, none of these makes for a very useful theory of reality. They don’t get me anywhere and I can come up with thousands of more equally ‘possible’ but highly implausible theories.
On the other hand, belief in an external physical reality has allowed us to make all the advances and discoveries science has made since history began. Treating our minds in the same way we treat everything else in science is a much more simple, elegant and consistent approach. Humans are explainable, analysable and physical animals. We have no evidence to suggest otherwise, and plenty of evolutionary theory and neuroscience to suggest this is an accurate view of humanity. It’s time to start treating Mind Exceptionalism the same way we treat arguments for God Exceptionalism — these are interesting ideas which by definition are impossible to disprove, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to take them seriously.