In our everyday life, such questions probably don’t seem that important. And, for all practical purposes, ontological questions of existence are not that important in our daily lives as human beings. Nonetheless, in those rare moments when we are able to ponder on the important questions of our own existence, what it means to exist, and what it means to experience something, we are often presented with a number of problems for which there seems no true answer.
This problem, for which philosophers over the last 2,000+ years have wondered themselves, can be called a problem of reality. By reality, I mean how do we perceive things as “real,” what does it mean to be real, and how does the human being fit into this world? These questions may not seem important at all to the average human being for whom life is a constant struggle just to get by, but they are questions that human beings have asked themselves and their peers in those few moments of inquiry into deep philosophical problems. Ultimately, it seems even though life is one challenge after another, their is always an inner desire to ask questions beyond our daily routine. Whether or not the answers exist is another issue altogether.
When we say something is real, we often imply that it’s existence is objectively true. That means, this event, act, affair, account, object, or proposition exists independent of our own intuitions, thoughts, affection towards, or beliefs about it. Commonly, these are called facts. However, how real these beliefs are is contingent, and only a small portion of our known beliefs can be said to exhibit properties that would designate them as demonstrably, universally, and objectively “true.”
When human beings make claims of reality, they are attempting to look at things objectively. However, objectivity should best be viewed as one possible perception on a continuum of all possible perceptions. Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions, explains how human beings are unique creatures with the possibility of answering difficult questions and positing different beliefs according to this continuum (ranging from the subjective to the objective). My point here, is that where does one draw the line into the realm of objective truth when one is a subjective being?
My problem here can be summarized in the following way: human claims of knowledge are grounded in experience. This is at least the best possible way for how we offer any type of explanation for a claim of fact. We utilize standard methodology for making conclusive claims of fact – such as the scientific method. The scientific method, by its definition, is an inductive and based on grounds of observation (rather than inference, which is employed in logic and math). Thus, when we make claims of fact in reference to science, we never do so definitely or absolutely; but rather, within a realm of probability. Universal replication of verified results lends itself towards a greater probability of being true. However, science has taught us that all claims can (at some point or another) change and hence, because they are dependent upon observable, empirical claims, cannot ever be taken as conclusive knowledge about the observed objects.
Likewise, this is exactly how we generate claims (although not as standardized or formal) in our daily experiences. The problem then is that what we take as existing in reality, is only based on probability, and not conclusively or definitely true. Truth is a peculiar and evasive entity. Often, we are tempted by it and subjectively grounded in our own humanity to try and seek it out. Though how justified we are in such claims is another matter for which we must account for here.
If our everyday experience can only be said to rely upon sense impressions, and then from here we can regard this type of experience as “inductive experience,” whereas what we claim as knowledge is only true as a probability, we then can move towards the second portion of our problem — the problem of perception on a continuum between subjectivism and objectivism.
Subjectivism takes an internal perception of reality dependent upon the subject and his experiences. Conversely, objectivism is detached from any given agent-dependency and makes no use of individual or series of experiences dictated by relative perception. However, as human beings with at least some potential for observation and generation of categorical taxonomies of sense impressions, we can imagine different conclusion according to Nagel’s perception continuum. For instance, Nagel himself demonstrates that differing positions to traditional philosophical problems (does life have meaning, is there a free-will, the mind/body problem, etc.) are dependent upon which type of perception one holds when attempting to resolve these problems. However, practical problems emerge in defining which one is the case.
If one looks towards subjectivism as the “correct” perception, then one must ignore certain accepted facts about one’s own existence. If I think of myself in the most purely subjective form, that I the only thing I can determinately conclude as existing is myself – whereas I question the reality of everything (and one) around me as mere illusions, I am essentially deluding myself into denying certain highly probable facts. These assumptions are illusions in themselves, which are neither defensible nor remotely plausible. Likewise, problems exist when one views himself from the opposite end of the continuum. To consider oneself from the most extreme objective point of view, one’s life (and every constitutive experience within it) becomes relatively meaningless. The individual now becomes a composition of molecules organized in one meaningless order in a vast and infinite universe. This presents us with a number of practical problems, but is nonetheless a valid form of perception.
How then, can we reconcile these two contrasting perceptions that are available to use as human beings amongst a spectrum of all possible perspectives? The answer, I believe, is not so simple. In fact we have no means of telling which perception of our existence and reality is more “correct” than the others. Furthermore, in our theoretical sense, reason tells us absolutely nothing at all. We have no means of generating any sort of theoretical knowledge whether or not the objectivist or the solipsist is more justified than the other. However, to one cannot also deny the possibility that there may indeed exist a definitively “correct” perception in order to explain life’s existential reality. In other words, we are stuck.
That is why such questions, although we may have tendencies towards looking into them, are ultimately irrelevant and trivial. To posit any response to the types of questions that may be inferred from problems of reality is to commit dogmatism. This dogmatism is an unjustified belief and theoretically unfounded. Likewise, in our practical sense, this ignorance plays no real significance for our behavior. Regardless of what the truth may be, its consequences are relatively insignificant. Thus, reality is in itself a problem that human beings cannot generate any knowledge definitively. We are confused about our own reality and our own position in it. Even more troubling, is that there’s nothing we can do about it. From the perspective of the inquiring human mind, this is frustrating.
If this is true, then we really have no reason to believe that our own inquiries are good for us at all, and in fact we could probably do away with philosophical inquiry altogether. As it is, I doubt any such resignation from the abstract would have any meaningful consequences on humanity in general. And thus, to rekindle the sentiments of the great skeptical mind, David Hume; philosophical inquiry into the unknowable is a dubious task — and even more, a depressing one at that!