Saturday, July 20, 2013


The question has been around forever - "Does reality exist?" In other words, is there a world outside of our own thoughts?

Here today, gone tomorrow, but what happens to the world when we are gone? Does the merry earth continue to turn, the sun to rise, and the comedy and drama of life itself go on? To the self-absorbed, it doesn't matter. As for the old man, he hopes so.

Rene Descartes' simple declaration, "I think therefore I am," got enlightened philosphers asking the question anew. (Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates raised the question several times.) Descartes' original phrase was in French, "Je pense, donc je suis.", and appeared in his Discourse on the Method (1637). The phrase translated into Latin, becoming the familiar, "Cogito ergo sum."

The brevity of the Latin phrase has made the idea popular in W3estern Civilization classes in university campuses across the country. Of course, what Descartes meant by the five French words and the lesser three Latin ones, is what makes for a college course on philosophy.

So, if we take Descartes at face value, I exist because I am a thoughtful (and hopefully kind and caring) human being. But, what of the negative logical complement?

"I no think, no am I." I don't exist without thought. Of course, logicians would argue that Descartes only speaks to the individual, that the world goes on because there are other thoughtful individuals out there carrying on. And they might be right. But Descartes observed correctly that one can not vouch for others, only himself. Logicians themselves are illusions of rationality in an irrational reality.

The French were of course not the only ones to raise the question. Anyone of sane mind in any culture wonders from time to time whether this crazy world is real.

Across the English Channel, George Berkeley (1685 – 1753, titled Bishop Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne), advanced the theory he called "immaterialism", denying the existence of matter and suggesting that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas, and cannot exist without being perceived. As all graduates of western civilization classes know, Berkley was plagarizing in toto this idea from Socrates. Today, Berkley would be kicked out of university.

I have always loved Samuel Johnson's response to Bishop Berkley's suggestion. The reply is reported by Boswell in The Life of Johnson (1791). The argument is short and I reproduce it in its entirety:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Woody Allen made a joke of the question, “I hate reality but it's still the best place to get a good steak.”

All of this leaves the old man observing that some questions exist simply for the sake of argument (and college credit). Reality is a tough nut to crack. As with the day the World Trade Center was attacked by Al Qaeda, one wishes it all a dream. The same holding true for all natural calamities, epidemics, disease, personal difficulties, and death.

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