Sunday, December 08, 2019

Let’s discuss the realism of subjective reality

Mar 15. 2019
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Re: “Physics confirms that ‘objective reality’ is a grand illusion,” Have Your Say, March 15.

In terms of style and content, it looks to me as if Michael Setter has found himself a pen name (“The Realist”). As a pen-name guy myself, I ought to applaud this development, but the verbal fog that envelops the end of this letter dims my enthusiasm.

The MIT Technology Review can boldly state “There is no such thing as objective reality” as much as it wants, but it hits a brick wall as soon as it runs into the anecdote about Dr Johnson kicking a rock and declaring, “Thus I refute Berkeley!” (Berkeley was the idealist philosopher who, like the MIT journal, did not believe in an objective reality.)

If there is no such thing as an objective reality, logic suggests that we are left with either no reality at all or only subjective reality. If there is no reality at all, where does that leave us? Are we then unreal, figments of our own non-existent imaginations? And if there is only subjective reality, since there is an infinite number of living beings, each presumably with its own subjective reality, that gives us a universe with an infinite number of subjective realities, each of which will cease to exist with the death of its owner. It’s enough to make a pedant’s head spin.

If, as the Realist contends, God “is not located in the objective position of existence”, ie, is not an objective reality, but is only a subjective reality, since there are infinite subjects and infinite subjective realities, this would give us an infinite number of gods. This might please the Realist, but it certainly won’t please Bangkok Atheist (can we call him Athe?), who doesn’t want even one.

Incidentally, it is unfair for the Realist to expect Athe to have read the Avadhut Gita and other religious books he cites, just as it would be unfair to expect the Realist to have read all the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and the other New Atheists. People tend to read books that reinforce their own pre-existing beliefs.

As with at least one of Setter’s letters, the Realist ends his with a flurry of verbal fog: “The truth is revealed in the feeling of being, not in the thought-bound mind.” Sounds very grand, but it translates as: “We find truth through what we feel, not through what we think.” This implies that feeling is superior to thinking, emotion is superior to reason and is not recommended for anybody who has a functioning brain. 

Finally, what is this appeal to truth? If everything is subjective, truth must be subjective too, and hence is hardly to be revered. The Realist’s entire letter suggests solipsism, the belief that only I and my experience exist and the rest of you are only figments of my imagination. Sounds great, until Dr Johnson kicks that rock. 

Ye Olde Pedant

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