consciousnessbrgridSo, for whatever reason, lately I have been doing more than my recommended daily allowance of ontological heavy lifting. I’m working my way through “Why Does the World Exist” by Jim Holt, I’ve been watching all of Rick Roderick‘s old philosophy lectures, I’ve been sifting through the Rupert Sheldrake videos on YouTube (I’m not particularly interested in his psychic research, though it does seem nicely constructed) … and just the other day, my dad sent me a link to a series of YouTube videos called “The Holographic Universe” by some guy named Stephen Davis who is apparently riffing off Michael Talbot’s old work (which I read in 1991 and found really nifty.) I’m not overly impressed by the Stephen Davis videos (they are exceptionally repetitive and condescending) but they have pointed me in the direction of a bunch of new research that I wasn’t aware of.

Anyway, all of this had led me to this philosophical question: Is there any way for me, within this information-based universe we seem to inhabit, to design an experiment that would allow me to verify your existence? (By you, of course, I mean you, right there, sitting reading this on your computer or smartphone or whatever.)

At the end of the day, I don’t care if I can prove that my own existence is real. My subjective experience is “real enough”. But I’m afraid the matter of your existence has not been resolved to my satisfaction. If everyone and everything I interact with could possibly be a function of my observing it (thus collapsing the waveform and bringing it into existence) then what does that mean for you? Do you exist when I’m not looking at you? Personally, I don’t think you do. Out of sight, out of mind. But I’m sure you have some strong feelings in the opposite direction. But are those feelings objectively real and located within some objectively real part of you? Or are they my subjective projection of what I assume someone in your position must feel? I know this all gets pretty esoteric pretty fast, so I return to my original question … is there any way for me to ever know, from within my subjective experience, whether anyone or anything else has any objective existence? 

This reminds me of Einstein’s glass-elevator thought experiment, where he deduced that, without an objective frame of reference, he could never determine whether he was hurtling through space at the speed of light or just standing still. So I think the answer must be that no, I can never verify your objective existence, because that would collapse some larger quantum waveform. Determining for once and for all whether you had objective existence or were just an extremely sophisticated NPC in my subjective reality would … I don’t know, either make you more real or more dead. Or maybe kill us both. I’m in no hurry to attempt the experiment, are you?

One other argument for your reality (I’m sure you’re glad to hear this) is that, if you didn’t have some kind of objective reality, then some part of me would already “know” everything you were going to tell me. Thus, you could never surprise me. But, in real life, surprises do happen—and thus, you must have some kind of objective existence independent from mine, QED. But scientific experiments have shown that the human brain subconsciously knows what information is coming at it well in advance of the actual conscious awareness of that information. So while one’s conscious mind may be surprised, one’s unconscious mind seems to be already in on things. Additionally, think about dreams. Haven’t you ever been surprised in a dream? Haven’t you ever had dreams take plot twists that you didn’t expect and were delighted and/or appalled by? So where did that “dream-twist” come from? Your subconscious mind created it then served it up for your conscious mind to gasp at. Couldn’t it be exactly the same with our waking interactions?

The only dim light I see leading me out of this cave comes from the “many universes” theory, in which you inhabit your own independent reality and I inhabit my own. Our realities are totally separate, we’re in two little bubbles. In my reality, you do collapse back into the quantum foam and cease to exist when I’m not interacting with you. And in your universe, I don’t exist when you’re not interacting with me. But why on earth should these bubbles connect at all? Why should they have any features similar enough for the two of us to have any interactions? I mean, in your bubble you also have “trees” and “computers” or else we couldn’t be interacting. So why do “trees” and “computers” transcend both of our bubbles? Where would such commonalities come from?

Maybe I need to lay off the metaphysical everclear. I’m sure it’s not doing my existential liver one bit of good.

5 Responses to Are *you* real?

  1. As a friend said to me when I was teen contemplating my dreams that everyone was an illusion I was experiencing, nothing would change one way or the other even if that is that is case, we’d all still be here doing what we do.

    • M.K. Hobson says:

      But I don’t think that’s true. If I knew for a fact that you were merely an “NPC” in my life, then what ethical restraints would I have on my behavior toward you? That would put you on the level of one of those random bystanders one runs over with one’s car in Grand Theft Auto, and I would have no ethical responsibility to preserve or care for you. The fact that we believe others have an objective reality external to our own is the only possible basis for ethics.

  2. Bruce Cohen says:

    Seems like a version of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley would serve. I can sneak up behind you sometime when you’re not looking and kick you (gently) in the shin.

    • M.K. Hobson says:

      Yeah, when I was talking about this stuff with my daughter, and I said “prove you’re real” she punched me in the arm and said “There. I proved it.” 😉

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