Is there an external reality? By Miguel Catalán

This post is also available in: Spanish

Until now we’ve talked about communication between humans. What happens when we question nature and it resists our efforts?

Humankind has long suspected that the world we see, the nature we live in and we sometimes question, is not real. At the same time, there’s a common childhood fantasy in which the child sees him or herself as the only real being; she thinks here parents are actors and there’s nothing authentic, except for herself. And that idea that God or Nature are lying to us has been transferred to cultural formulas, such as the Deception of the senses (when our sight or hearing render erroneous or confusing reports about our surroundings) or the World Theater. In this second case, the world would be a stage and we, its actors. Humans would be representing certain predefined roles but, since we’re not aware of it, we keep acting with the utmost seriousness, like children when they’re playing. The idea that God is truthful, one of the arguments people use as a criterion for the truth of our world, is relatively new. From the origin of written civilization, from Mesopotamia, we find gods which enjoy cheating humans. In Greece they had the same perception. Gods, in the words of Homer, plan the evils of men just so that, later, there may be something to sing about. It happens with Hector, who believes his brother is coming to help him from the walls of Troy and then he realizes it’s just a ghost, sent by an enemy god to confound him. Yahveh is also a God which deceives, inherited later by Islam. In the Christian orb, William of Ockham and the Bishop Berkeley imagined the world as a universal delusion of the senses, caused by God. Descartes elaborates on that idea of an omnipotent, albeit evil God, who deceives us by making us believe in a perceivable reality. Mostly in the first part of the Meditations…, he suggest that what we see may be nothing but a farce created by some numinous force, which he calls “the evil daemon” to cover his back, even though he’s actually thinking about God. It’s the same suspicion Heraclitus already had: he saw Zeus as a “cosmic child” playing with his toys, which are us. Bierce, much later, would put it this way: we are the joke. In this sense, from what we do, especially as children, how we test them, how we are capable of chopping off a fly’s wings to see how it behaves, we’ve conceived the idea that maybe men, who are executioners when young, are transformed as adults into victims of a step-mother nature or a cruel God. The world would be thus a cosmic laboratory or a torture chamber shaped as a labyrinth, into which we are thrown. The existentialists formulate this notion, that we have been thrown into the world from who knows where, and we have no option but to start walking, because the world has the shape of a path. We are viatores or walkers, thrown into space and time, in the middle of the vial of some kind of labyrinth which keeps offering us ways out which later turn to be illusory, apparent exits which makes us hope everything will turn out fine. It’s this illusion which would produce the Kantian ideal and the generally enlightened notion of the progress in history. In a way, Kant suggests that, in order to keep on living, we have to think there has to be a progress in history. But, after all, this progress doesn’t seem to exist. The terrifying XX century has reinforced the idea that every drama has already happened before and that what we do is repeat the same generation after generation, from jealousy to abuse of power. Schopenhauer described this feeling very well when he said that the drama of life is suited for only one performance. The elderly, who have already seen two or three generations go by, have a feeling of being fed up, of déjà vu: “I know this, I’ve already seen it”, because it’s a play they already know by heart. The feeling of being in some kind of theatrical tour where the towns changes, but not the set-up for the face, reappears in Miguel de Unamuno, when in Niebla the main character of the novel shows up at Unamuno’s office in Salamanca and asks the writer to get rid of him, because he doesn’t want to go on living. Unamuno answers something like: “You’re one of my characters and you’ll die when I tell you to.” Unamuno compares himself with God. The author would be, thus, a literary God; and God, the author par excellence. “We will day”, says Unamuno, “when God decides and you will die when I decide.” This idea of metaphysical falsehood has a lot to do with religious doctrines of salvation. All of the Hindu religious thought, for example, stems from the idea that humankind cannot see the reality of things because it is hidden by the veil of Maya, a veil of appearances created by the goddess Mara or some other sorcerer god. The idea of the world being a simulation keeps appearing and reappearing throughout history, even in our time, with the so-called “virtual reality.”

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