Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is Reality? Using Cognitive Surgery

Q: How does everyone else around me know that this world is real? I don't have a clue, all I see is images. But everyone in the streets knows that this world is real. What makes them know more than me?

The existential angst demonstrated in this real question I answered in another forum is common and becoming more common every day. The belief that existence exists because our consciousness creates existence takes two forms:

A:Those "images" you see are called "cognoscendi." Those are objects of cognition, according to multiple dictionaries of philosophy.

If you have objects of cognition, you have cognition. Why do you think they are merely images? If you mean "images" as visual sensations of things which may not be what they appear to be, you are not alone in your estimation of them. But whether they are what they appear to be, the fact that they are images of something means that something exists that is more than just the image you perceive.

Kant had this problem, and solved it by inventing what he named "noumena." Noumena (plural of noumenon), Kant thought, are the "real" reality behind the images. But why should there be something behind the curtain?

You can't have cognition of things that don't exist unless you are mentally ill, and Kant knew this, so we are not discussing mental illness. We are discussing how people evaluate the things they perceive.

You may wrongly identify them once in a while. Someone who hears voices or "sees things" is identifying the objects of his cognition wrongly. You might also mistake one thing for another. We've all done this.

Otherwise, if you have cognition, it is cognition of real objects, meaning the objects exist, that the "image" is an image of "something". As to whether or not the images are the "real reality," that is a matter of metaphysics, and you are quite free to believe the metaphysic of your choice. You can believe the metaphysics that leave you feeling insecure and fearful, and as if you know nothing, as you have suggested that you feel.

Or you can accept the metaphysics that allow you to feel that you do indeed have the faculty of knowledge, that knowledge is knowable, and that you are a person of capability who is walking through a real world.

Why should the "images" of your perception be something other than what you identify it to be? Why do you fear that there is something "behind" what you perceive? Science will break down the physics of every object in existence if man has enough time in the universe to do so. Every time physics reveals something previously unknown about any object, it is like peeling the layers of an onion.

Will you be satisfied that things are what you perceive them to be when physics finally gets to the inside layer? No, because there is no "inside layer." The more we know about anything, the more there is to discover. Every answer creates more questions. That is the nature of man's mind.

It is the nature of man's mind and not the nature of the universe, because it is man's nature to discover. There ought to be nothing to fear in the discovery that the wizard behind the curtain is merely a man. That is the purpose in the doctrine of naturalism---to prove that all things are natural, and not as Kant would have us believe, unknowable. Noumena are absolutely unknowable, and your fear is that you cannot know what "everyone in the streets" seems to know.

You already know what "everyone in the streets" knows, and that is the world is something to be known, not something that is unknowable. But you must accept that the "images" are merely man's means of dealing with the world, and that what science ultimately shows us about the inside layers of the onion do not change the fact that a table is a table, and that a rose by any other name is still a rose.

We all, everyone of us, is constantly doing "cognitive surgery" on reality; in other words, each of us is constantly re-evaluation the things we think we know--when it is appropriate to re-evaluate them. But you cannot re-evaluate what you fail to accept in the first place because you will never accept any re-evaluation. You will still consider your perceptions and your thoughts about them to be about "images" instead of about the reality of acceptance.

You can remain in existential angst, unaccepting of the metaphysics that says your mind is capable and reliable; or you breath a sigh of relief in the knowledge that the only difference between you and the average Joe is that Joe knows the world changes, that he can accept change, and that for now, the images he sees are the images that make the world go 'round.

The choice is yours.

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