Showing posts with label solipsism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label solipsism. Show all posts

Friday, April 25, 2014

Essay on Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last week.  I took a more informal approach than my professor wanted, and my grade suffered for it.  However, I think it's appropriate for my blog.

In all honesty I think this part of philosophy is one of the main reasons many people dislike philosophy in general.  Imagine you're an ordinary student attending an ordinary college and you bump into a doctoral student who's sitting at the college coffee shop and you strike up a conversation.  This student is doing some sort of doctoral work in epistemology and is working on skepticism.  What student would enjoy being grilled with such questions as, "How do you know that's true?"  And, even after giving what a regular person would accept as a common sense answer to that question.  The philosopher asks, "Well, how do you know that's true?"  The student gives another different explanation of justification, to which the philosopher asks again, "How do you know that's true?"  After only a few times most regular people would give up, shaking his or her head walking away from such conversations wondering why some people are so wrong in the head.  Here's another tack.  When I asked my wife some questions about justification and epistemology, after pressing the idea a bit she finally gave up and responded, "people need to think less and go to the beach more."  (We live on a sub-tropical island in the South Pacific.)  Epistemology, especially justification and skepticism can eventually devolve into an infinite regress.  Now, these questions may make for interesting movie ideas like The Matrix and Inception, but it's more akin to irritating to an ordinary non-philosopher.  So, let's talk about three different approaches to skepticism and how/why justification is such a hard topic.

First, and oldest of these three is Plato's cave analogy from Book VII of The Republic.  During this book-long conversation Plato brings up an allegory of people that are chained in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows that are cast along the wall.  An interesting side note, different philosophers see this allegory differently.  I noticed this as I had just listened to The Republic audiobook and then heard a philosophy lecture.  The professor giving the lecture seemed to twist the idea and the people making the shadows into the villains.  The point as I understand Plato's meaning in the allegory is not we should be necessarily be skeptical of reality.  It seems more about how philosophers are the only ones that really explore the depths of reality and it's our responsibility to go back into the cave and teach those people what we've seen.  Yes, every part of The Republic is full of depth and meaning, but the people stuck in the cave and their misunderstanding of reality is not, in my opinion, the point of the allegory. (Plato, Book VII)

Then in chronological order, we come to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Specifically, Meditation I paragraph 2 stood out to me.  I think this bit is key,  “ … it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach …" and this, "… it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt."  Though it may seem like it and indeed people often take Descartes for a supreme skeptic, he is not setting out to cause people to doubt he’s merely searching for the only thing that he can really know for sure, without a doubt.  In this search for what can be known with epistemological certainty he says, we'll never reach the point where he could show everything to be false, nor does everything have to have some doubt, just the foundational ideas.  If the foundation is dubious the whole edifice can be considered faulty.  However, in the end, Descartes finds a foundation: I doubt, which is thinking, therefore I exist.  So despite all the doubting and tearing down of the edifice of knowledge, Descartes found the foundation and we can start from there. (Descartes, 1641)

Now we come to the 1999 pop culture treatment of skepticism.  Though not as deep as Descartes’ or Plato’s treatment of not being sure of what anyone knows, it’s still an interesting portrayal of skepticism.  How would it feel to be hooked up to some kind of super-computer?  It seems like it’d be impossible to know unless there were some way to break out.  There has to be someone there with the red pill offering answers to all our questions.  Despite the implausibility of a select few having the unexplainable ability to twist the matrix to their desires, including Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’ character) ability to twist reality and give himself god-like powers in the computer-world that is somehow controlling everyone else’s thoughts.  Though the movie does paint a rather interesting dystopian picture of what it would look like for computers to control everyone’s mind, it seems completely implausible to me.  Though of course, that’s just what the mind-controlling supercomputer would want me to think. (Wachowski, "The Matrix", 1999)

So, how can we escape these epistemological puzzles?  How can we prove that we’re not all in a deep Inception-like dream, or Plato’s cave, or haunted by Descartes’ evil demon? (Descartes, 1641, p. I 12)  Well, short answer is, we can’t.  Well, not enough that we could dispel all doubt and forever put to rest any metaphysical skepticism.  One challenge would be to ask the skeptic how one can live with complete doubt of everything at all times.  Also, the self-refutation of the claim that we’re in a computer, that doesn’t need proof that we’re in a computer.  In other words, prove to me that we are just brains in a vat or disembodied thoughts swimming through an intricate computer SIM world.  However, to me the best test for the metaphysical skeptic is to change something with your mind.  I’m not asking for a miracle.  I’m just saying that if all we consist of are brains floating around in a vats, we should be able, at least a small amount, to manipulate the world around us with only our minds.  I understand that to do so in front of a group of people would seem impossible because not only would one have to change their own mind’s perception of a thing, but everyone else’s as well at the same time.  However, in the privacy of one’s own room or even just one’s own mind, one should be able to change something simple.  Like the bending spoon scene in The Matrix, everyone, with practice should be able to convince oneself that “there is no spoon” and make it appear however he or she wanted.

Despite the character Cypher’s opinion that deception is better than the truth, I’m going to have to side with (well Morpheus and) Plato that it is much better to seek the truth and when one has at least caught a glimpse of it, pass it along so that everyone tries to unhook from the matrix or break the chains binding them in the cave.  Though we can never get to that point, it’s better to live as if that isn’t the case and seek out knowledge than to slog on or stick one’s head in the sand doubting that we even have heads.  Much like Professor Kreeft says of Aquinas building a huge philosophy on a single small foundational point. (Kreeft, 2009)  We can rest on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and build our epistemology from there.  Even if we’re just brains in vats, at least we’re somebodies.  Even without a body, our minds still exist.  If this is some elaborate dream someday we’ll wake up.  We should build our noetic structure a bit like this dome:

(Geodome, 2004) and have the foundation, though shaky it may seem, if rooted deeply in the foundation that no matter what parts of the dome are doubted the pile upon which it rests is immovable.

Once we’ve established that foundation let us add some depth to the foundation by placing it in God.  That’s not to say that we cannot or should not take the existence of God on faith.  But, if one is driving down the road looking at street signs one cannot live as if every one of them is a lie.  And there are so many signs that point to the existence of God.  So, though I may have, like everyone else, started life taking all knowledge through the evidence of authority; I have since grown up and matured and thought through my philosophy quite a bit.  I have come to a point where the foundation is firmly fixed on my own existence and that existence only makes sense with the existence of God.  On that foundation I build my beliefs.  If someone were to prove to me without a doubt that JFK was assassinated by conspiracy with two shooters; my geodesic dome of knowledge wouldn’t fall apart.  In fact I see this as a kind of synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism.  I really only hold one (or two) basic belief as my central belief.  This is how the coherentism system gets started, with at least one or two foundational beliefs upon which other are built.  My foundation doesn’t depend on my senses.  If anything, my foundation can be said to be the only possible guaranteed a priori knowledge, that is, that I exist.  If I don’t exist and I don’t know that I exist, how can I be asking myself if I exist?  Sure, it might be that my body doesn’t exist and my senses are all untrustworthy, but I most certainly exist and I can use deduction, induction, blind faith, gut feelings, and whatever I want to justify any belief above the foundation.  Each different justification has its own level of importance in the structure that is my belief system.  I can’t escape the question, “how do you know?” any more than any other thinking person, but I can justify what I know in many different ways and the more I defend something the more difficult it is to take it away.

If only everyone could hang out in places like this.

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Geodome -- Geodesic design software. (2004, November 11). Geodome -- Geodesic design software. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
Plato, The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave” Book VII, 514A1-518D8.
Wachowski, A. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures :.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 1: Intro and Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

I'm going to try something I've never done in this blog before.  That is, write a series of posts along the same vein.  This idea was sparked by a philosophy podcast from entitled "Discovering the Philosopher in You."  Well, the introductory podcast was very interesting, it's a series of lectures from a professor Colin McGinn about all the "big questions" in philosophy.  So, I've decided to write parallel blog entries for each of the lectures.  I downloaded the study guide as well, so I'm referencing that guide as well as the lectures. Without further ado, introduction and lecture one, Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

By way of introduction I'll mention that these lectures and parallel blog entries are not in chronological order.  That's intentional, as Prof McGinn says, because all of the questions in philosophy are ancient questions that can't be answered.  It's not like we're coming up with new issues for philosophers to ponder over all the time.  Though I would say that doesn't mean that new problems don't come up every so often, but I'd say that these new issues are just new twists of old problems. Some of these questions include, what the ultimate nature of the world is, what the self is, whether we have free will, how our minds relate to our bodies, whether we can really know anything, where ethical truth comes from, what the meaning of life is, and whether or not there is a God.  These are some of the topics that I'll be covering over the next fourteen (or so) entries.

One thing of note in the lecture is how Prof McGinn describes Plato's famous cave parable.  The way it reads in the Republic is pessimistic.  It's like someone has chained the poor people in the cave and are manipulating their perceptions by walking behind them with stick-borne puppets making shadows on the cave walls.  The way Prof McGinn describes it is much more optimistic, that they aren't chained and that the people casting the shadows are just passersby.  I don't know the reason for his oversight, perhaps it's not oversight and that's the way it's described in other platonic writings.  I don't really know, but I thought that minute mistake, if it was one, was interesting.

The skeptical questions of what do I really know, leads down a long path ending with solipsism, and the other minds problem.  If you don't want to read those links, I'll summarize those ideas, solipsism is the idea that nothing else exists other than your own mental state.  There's also a temporal version of solipsism where we cannot know for certain that there was anything in the past or that there will be anything in the future.  All we can know for sure (sort of) is that we are knowing something right now.  The other minds problem is related to solipsism though more specific.  It's the idea that one cannot know that anyone else's mind exists.  We see others' bodies and actions and assume that they are analogous to our own minds but we can't know for sure that they're not just cleverly devised automatons or robots.  The problems that the skeptics, like Descarte raise, are many and there aren't complete answers to all of their questions, and on the surface it may seem like madness that can neither be proven nor disproven.  Prof McGinn talks about an interesting problem that skepticism can bring with its questioning all knowledge.  I'll try to summarize his points.

Suppose you had $10,000 in the bank, then when you check your balance, you suddenly find, without reason or expenditure that you actually only have $.10.  How would that make you feel?  Consider knowledge in the same manner.  We think we know so much, we think we have an intellectual bank account with 10,000 pieces of knowledge and with just a few jabs from skeptics we find that we actually only know 1 thing.  As Descarte argued "I think therefore I am."  Doubting is thinking, which is an action that only something that exists can do, therefore I exist.  But, with solipsism and the skeptical issues that's all we can know for sure.  Prof McGinn seems to say that these skeptical issues are detrimental to a one's intellectual wellbeing.

My personal views on this problem are a bit contradictory.  I love to play around with skepticism, but it's just childish play to me.  Are you reading my blog?  How do you know you're reading my blog?  How do you know you're not dreaming?  (Maybe because in a dream the writing would be better, haha!?)  The Matrix brings a scifi twist to skepticism.  How do you know that you're not plugged into some supercomputer that's feeding you all you think you're sensing?  Can you trust your senses?  Are you sure you're seeing red as I'm seeing red, or are you just calling purple red because that's what you've always been told?  These are fun but silly to me.  On the deeper issue of skepticism intellectually bankrupting people, I don't really see how it changes things or people for that matter.  I mean think about it, what if right now, the only thing that you actually know and can know, is your current thoughts?  So what?  Are you going to behave differently?  I presume not.  Therefore, if not knowing anything that you thought you knew doesn't actually change your life why worry about it?  I certainly don't and I hope you don't either.