I was earlier today reading Bertrand Russell‘s “The Problems of Philosophy,” and it got me thinking about why firsthand experience can be so compelling, in the case of people who see ghosts, think they have been abducted by aliens, or make causal connections between an alleged cure for an illness and the apparent recovery from said illness.
But undisciplined first hand experience can fool us if we know not our limits. We can fool ourselves into believing absolutely things that are simply not true when rigorously examined.
But even though sometimes misleading, experience is normally quite reliable. The fallacy is in thinking it more so than it really is, in thinking it infallible.
First, without a good background knowledge of how our senses and the sensory processing of our brains, and our thinking about those perceptions, can go astray, we can easily confuse the thing perceived for the thing itself, that what we see is what is, as it is, an idea known as naive realism.
There’s the possibility that we could be hallucinating, dreaming, or at least witnessing a sensory illusion based on a misperception of something real.
This can seem compelling, since even though it’s conceivable to doubt the reality of the computer monitor in front of me as I sit at my desk, what is indisputable to me is the fact that the seeming of a computer monitor and the images on it, and the visual, auditory, and tactile sensations of other objects I note in my room, are being perceived by someone or something.
And they appear relatively constant, not randomly moving about unless some agency picks them up or knocks them over.
Partly because of this quality of realism, personal experience, no matter what’s going on in the mind of the one experiencing, has a quality of seeming certainty, an absolutely compelling quality, at times a stark vividness, that just demands assent, and this is the meaning behind the phrase, “seeing is believing.”
If you don’t have reason to think otherwise, that is.
Whether the one doing the perceiving is a literal self, the “I” in “I think, therefore I am,” perhaps the mind of a dreaming god, or a bank of intelligent computers on Mars running a simulation of the mind of a hypothetical human being on Earth sitting before a computer, viewing the monitor, and typing this post into a browser window, the identity of the one doing the perceiving is open to the possibility, however remote, of doubt.
But to be useful as a path to knowledge, doubt should be rational, and not all that is conceivably dubious is rationally so.
I find it much simpler a way of explaining my perceptions, those that seem to have any evident correspondence with something external to myself after cross-checking with other senses, or independent verification by the testimony of another, as being real because of the simple fact that most of the time, I’m given no adequate reason to doubt them.
I can’t prove indisputably that I’m not a brain in a jar, or that I’m not living in the Matrix, or that I’m not the only person in the universe creating everything I see with my thoughts, but I’ve no reason at all to believe any of these things as a result of my accumulated experience and personal knowledge base, nothing irregular in most of my perceptions that serves as an obvious red flag, as is often the case upon waking from a dream, of a feeling of anything amiss that says, “D00d! Wake up! This ain’t real!”
Not even the slightest reason, save the occasional spurious perception that I’m well-acquainted with and recognize for what it is rather easily.
Even when lacking the ability to absolutely prove the world is real, and not the dream of myself, or that of a titan or sleeping god, or a Martian computer network, The notion of a real world with things in it that exist apart from my awareness of them, with characteristics that nonetheless imprint themselves rather consistently upon those perceptions over time, such as the continued existence of this computer, or my cats, when I turn my gaze from them or leave the room and return to find them much the same, is just such a useful and elegant hypothesis, that it seems foolish to deny it merely because such denial is possible.