Do States of Reality Matter in the Pursuit of Knowledge?
The basis for anything we know to be true in the world is highly contingent, if not soundly linked, to the fundamental idea that the world itself is really in existence or tangibly ‘there.’ The grounds for any truthful thing, concept, or even a single proposition are based in the conception that the world in which these things are being uttered is real and exists. By ‘real,’ it is meant the thing, concept, or proposition in question is in no way or form influenced by a false reality. Further, by a ‘false reality,’ any sense of being that is not in fact fully accurate or real can be inferred; given for example a computer simulation or a dream world. So simply put, if one is to know anything in the world is true or even real, one must first know if they exist in a real world and not some instance of a false reality.
It is important to know if one is existing in a real world and not instead a false reality for a number of reasons. First, if one is consciously or even sub-consciously living in a false reality outside any possible real world, any or all truths which can or may be drawn about anything internal or external to the individual would be by default, false. This proposition can be exemplified through an instance of an individual dreaming. In a supposed state of dreaming, an individual may see or experience the world around them as being truthful or real. In a dream world, hypothetically one in which the individual does not fully understand they are even dreaming, the individual can and may accept everything around them as being true and simply an extension of a real world. To an individual, blue may be green, up may be down, and night may be day. To the supposed dreamer, these would not be accurate examples of a world defined by false reality, but all truths which may be held without question or any further interrogation. To an individual in a world of true and accurate reality who may be looking on, these examples may seem to be obviously false and without question not real, but for the other individual, these examples characterize the truthful and accurate reality as they currently know and believe to exist. So if a false reality may and decisively does seem real to the individual living and existing in the false reality, does this create new truths for that individual? Simply put, these new truths are not truths at all and still remain as false depictions of knowledge of an all-encompassing world. This is where the first problem truly arises; if experiences and everything known whilst existing in a world of false reality are inherently false, but this state of being in a world of false reality may not be consciously known or accurately perceived, how can an individual have any knowledge at all or any accurate perceptions of an internal or external world?
Secondly and as an extension of the first point, if an individual exists solely in a false reality such as that of a dream state, will that individual maintain a sense of freedom of free will or autonomy and the ability to soundly reason or make judgments of the individuals self or any extension of an external world. As is basic to individual free will and autonomy, the ability to make full reasoned judgments of an internal or external world is paramount to a state of full individual and human existence. The ability to reason what a color actually is, if up is really up, or if day is really day and not night is explicitly tied to this existence. Although in a dream state an individual may perceive the ability to make these sound reasoning’s, if the dream state is really just a simple false reality, this ability is acutely called into question. It is called into question because of the fundamental question of if this reality does not truly exist, does the ability to make reasoned judgments about it exist? If this fundamental ability does not exist, individuals may not truly hold a sense of basic free will or autonomy. Without a sense of basic free will or autonomy, it can be further extrapolated that the individual cannot make sound reasoning’s or judgments about anything and thus cannot hold the possibility of drawing or having any true knowledge of the world or universe at all. Without this basic possibility of drawing or ever having true knowledge the basic human identity of the individual can arguably begin to greatly diminish. As knowledge of the world is inexplicitly tied to knowledge of the individual self, the existence of an individual in an artificial reality or dream state can be further tied to diminishing of any existence at all.
The question of knowledge being possible and all dilemmas which are inherently and subsequently tied to it was first pondered by Rene Descartes in his work, Mediations on First Philosophy. In the first mediation, after retreating into absolute solace and solitude, Descartes seeks to ponder everything he knows and holds to be true and to question the foundational aspects and principles of these things in themselves. In very simple terms, Descartes observes his current state of sitting down next to a fire, wearing a winter gown, and holding onto a piece of paper with his hands. It is these simple observations which Descartes begins to question. As a product of mere sensual observations and experiences, Descartes states these things must be true. His hands must be his hands and that paper must be in his hands because he sees them there and he experiences and feels them as being truthfully there. He then ponders however if these things can in fact be true if he is in actuality sleeping. In a supposed dream state, those things would be there still, but they would be purely imagined and simply an accurate likeness or recreation of something real. In a state of dreaming as Descartes even writes, an individual may experiences all the same things that were or could be experienced in a real world. Simply knowing the piece of paper is being grasped by his hand is not enough to accurately conclude it is actually there. (Descartes, 1993)
Although mentioned briefly, Descartes likens the questioning the existence of simple truths such as holding a paper to the state of existence of an insane individual. He describes this state of insanity as an individual who, “steadfastly insist they are kings when they are utter paupers, or that they are arrayed in purple robes when they are naked.” (Descartes, 1993) Simply, the insane individual is one who thinks something is true when it utterly is not or to think something is truly there when in fact it is not. As is a dream state, this type of mental insanity can be related to an existence in a false reality; a reality devoid or true reason or knowledge. This brief and simple comparison holds many real world applications and accuracies when trying to describe the problems and dilemmas stemming from an individual existing in a dream world or similar false reality. First is the assumption that a severely ‘insane’ individual may not intrinsically realize or know they are insane. As can be theorized, an insane individual or one whose experiential reality is morphed by a mental condition may not realize their own condition or current state. If for that insane individual an external voice in their head is deemed normal or if certain visual hallucinations are accepted as fact, there would not be a question regarding what is real and what is not. For that individual, their reality is ‘real’ and reality of all others, a reality that can be considered as truth, is false or fake. Even if a doctor or fellow citizen was to attempt to make aware this situation to a specific individual, how would that individual truly know if this instance is real or if it’s just another fake reality or hallucination stemming from their prior condition. This acceptance of a fake reality as being real or accurate will in itself inhibit that individual’s ability to pursue and maintain any form of true knowledge. Further one must ask the question, if the insane individual lives in a believed false reality whereas what they experience or perceive is believed to be true when it is in fact not, can that individual ever properly form a self of autonomous identity which is so closely linked to a free will. If the individual is bound by this false reality from their insanity, can anything they experience be an extension of free will? Likened to Descartes dream state, if one is currently dreaming and living in this false reality, do they truly have autonomy and free will and is it possible to have knowledge of anything at all?
The shortfalls of a dream state reality being an accurate portrayal of knowledge are linked to questions regarding if individual senses or experiences can be truly be used as the basis for human and individual knowledge. Plato first examined this in his work, Theaetetus. When questioned by Socrates, Theaetetus depicts knowledge as being akin to basic perception. From this empirical stance, knowledge would be gained from an individual experiencing the external world through their five basic senses. One may say they know an individual because they recognize their face, voice, or other physical characteristics. Like the rest of the world however, Socrates states everything is constantly in flux. Given a perpetual state of change and motion, it may be consequentially impossible to draw knowledge from these senses and experiences alone. As noted in Theaetetus, if an individual where to observe someone approaching and draw the conclusion they know who it is based on their memory of past observations, this individual may turn out to be someone else entirely when more closely observed. What at one instance may have been considered knowledge, could fail in the next instance. Just like a state of dreaming or even insanity, an experience based solely on senses could ultimately fail to stand up against further introspection or basic reality. (Plato, 1992)
This approach is also further questioned by Barry Stroud in his work, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. In chapter one, Stroud questions if the current state of existence in a dream world or false reality inhibits the ability to gain knowledge of the external world. Stroud discusses this in relation to two points, the ability of the real world to affect a dream world and the ability to experiences things in a dream state which are also real experiences in the non-dream world. The first point, Stroud gives the example of hearing a shutter slam shut in a dream because a shutter was actually slammed shut in the real world. Although this dreamed experience may be the direct result of a real world example, how can it be possible for an individual, especially an individual who is currently dreaming, to accurately distinguish between the two? For the dreaming individual, the shutter slamming shut may only exist in that current false reality, but that doesn’t mean it does not also simultaneously exist in the real world. The second point can be exemplified and illustrated through nearly all dreams. Back to Descartes, if an individual dreams he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand, it may also be true he is also in actuality sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand, albeitalso asleep. If these things are true in the real world, they can arguably be said to be true as well in the dream state. These points fall susceptible to the original point of an individual possibility not knowing if they are currently dreaming or are in fact in a lived reality. Even if certain things in a dream world may actually be true or as a direct result of true things or occurrences, it is the inability to distinguish between the two which creates a problem. (Stroud, 1984)
It is important to look into whether there is any possible knowledge that can be said to be true, even and especially from within a dream state. As well, it is important to determine if the differentiation between the internal and external may allow for the possibility for certain types of knowledge, regardless of state of reality. Internal knowledge can be said to stem from within the individual; from a sense of consciousness or basic sentience. As Descartes states in his mediations, “I am, I exist.” This direct and simple proposition can possibility entail the existence of the self and thus some sense of internal knowledge of the self. By simply proposing and stating, “I am,” it directly justifies a basic level of internal knowledge that the speaker exists and has a sense of being. Descartes uses this as a foundational element when attempting to decide if there is any knowledge at all or if it is possible to know if one is dreaming or not. Since he states this proposition and proposes its universal truth across any medium, including a false reality dream state, it can be said that knowledge may be possible even from within a dream state. If this is true, it may in fact be said that a state of reality may not matter for basic senses of self-identity, being, or knowledge as a whole. (Descartes, 1993)
External knowledge however, may be far more difficult to quantify or even prove, especially in regards to a possibly unknown state of reality or existence. As Stroud relates it in his work on philosophical skepticism, G.E. Moore states the proof for the external world and knowledge thereof can exist within the proposition, “this is a hand, this is another hand, thus we can have knowledge of that around us.” Based on this statement, by being able to first observe a hand, then by being able to verbally state the hands existence, it gives proof of the hand and thus knowledge of the external world. This statement as proof of the external world draws certain levels of skepticism however. First, this proof entails the requirement that the senses and by part, individual experiences, are enough to successfully conclude a proof. By seeing and knowing his hand is there, Moore uses a visual experience to differentiate between what is real and there and what is not. This concept would be open to criticism by Plato in Theaetetus. By the simple basis of sensual experiences often being misleading or wrong all together, it may be difficult to solely use these as grounds for a successful proof. If this proposition can possibly be argued against if not disproved altogether, it leaves the ability to possibly ascertain if knowledge of the external world exists open and uncertain. (Stroud, 1984)
When it is asked if one can ever know if they exist in a dream world or the real world, Stroud and others might first ponder the question of whether or not it truly matters or makes a difference in everyday individual life. Stroud, like other similar philosophers, can be placed and categorized within the ideological faction of ordinary language philosophy. Ordinary language philosophers seek to ask questions based upon the motives of a regular individual. In theory, if it is a problem an ordinary non-philosopher may have or ask, then we should ask it. This seeks to counter abstract philosophical lines of questioning such as a majority of metaphysical work. To Stroud and others alike, questions regarding things such as free will or basic senses of being are not of common use or even pondered by an ordinary individual so should not pondered and questioned as importantly as other questions. Following suit, questions regarding states of reality such as whether an individual is dreaming or not dreaming may also be considered above the grasp of the ordinary individual. As such, these questions may not entirely be of immediate importance. If this is held to be true or accurate, whether or not an individual is dreaming or not may not truly matter. In consideration of the ordinary individual, a personal identity and existence may not be coherently or consciously tied to whether or not their state of reality is true or not. As such, it begs the question of whether or not a state of reality truly matters when attempting to draw universal truths or knowledge from the internal or external world.
Regardless of states of reality and in connection with ordinary language philosophy, it may be possible for knowledge to always exist. This existence can be arguably seen in certain universal truths. For example, a square must always have four sides and one plus one must always equal two. Although this argument can fall susceptible to a linguistic sense of language not being universal in itself, if language is kept constant and a square is always considered to be by principle a square and the number one is always considered by principle to be the number one, these truths remain true. It can be argued that even in a dream whereas up is down and blue is red; a square will still always have four sides. If a square in a dream had five sides, it would by its very own principles not be a square at all, it would be a pentagon. Not all considered universal truths will hold up to this argument though. Certain natural laws which are held as universal constants in a real state may not be held to be the same in a dream world. Principles of gravity may be an example and instance of this. In the real world, gravity is held as a fact and its basis as a natural and universal law is used across nearly all genres of science. In a dream world, this principle of gravity may be flipped upside down or dissolved altogether. In a dream world, an individual may be able to fly and this may be accepted as a universal truth or principle in that given state. Although not all universal truths can transcend across specific realities, there are still some such as the aforementioned examples which can. Given this and the existence of universally transcend truths, it may be argued these are the grounds for knowing if anything in the world is real or not, regardless of states of reality.
It seems it may be impossible for an individual to truly be able to distinguish between being and presently existing in a dream state or a real state. Although it can be argued the existence and presence of particular universal truths may be the grounds or deciding factor, an individual who exists in a dream state may not ever know these universal truths are in fact universal truths. In addition, it can be called into question whether or not being able to distinguish states of reality is really the needed basis for any sense of identity or knowledge. Even if an individual is in a perpetual state of dreaming, they would still exist in that state as if it was a true reality after all. Further, without individual senses or personal experiences being able to be the fundamental basis for knowledge, the hope of distinguishing between states is increasingly diminished. This being said, since an individual may never be able to tell what is truly real and what truly isn’t, it can’t be further said that an accurate distinction is necessary in order to draw any form of true knowledge. This means the grounds and possibilities for knowledge must exist in both and in-between states of reality and not solely contingent on one or the other being true or false.
Descartes, R. (1993). Meditations on First Philosophy: Third Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. .
Plato. (1992). Theaetetus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Stroud, B. (1984). The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.