JR'S Free Thought Pages
My metaphysical position is what philosophers refer to as external
realism. In brief, this view is the acceptance of an external reality that
is totally independent of any sentient being’s representations, beliefs,
thoughts, feelings, opinions, desires, language, discourse and so on. It is not
only an integral part of rationality and the scientific outlook, but of our
ability to survive - our capacity to cope with our environment. Why then, you
may ask, would anyone challenge external realism?
The answer to this question is complex and has a long
history going back to Berkeley, Hegel and even Plato and some of his
predecessors. More recent and contemporary challenges to external realism have
been promoted under the banner of idealism, constructionism, pragmatism,
instrumentalism, postmodernism, relativism, subjectivism and deconstructionism.
Some, including many New Age charlatans such as Wayne Dyer and the author of the
most recent rubbish in the best selling book The Secret, take their challenges so far as to claim that
reality is a matter of the will and the so-called real world is a
“social construct”. Others, including Plato and Kant do not deny the
existence of an external world, but claim we have no access to it with our
It is my belief that those who affirm some variant of antirealism are satisfying some deep psychological urge or “will to power” as Nietzsche would have it. It’s simply too inconvenient and stifling to be forced into slavery by a universe that is indifferent to our desires and motives. Instead, we may simply dispense with the real world and “construct” our own reality that is malleable to our will and completely within our control. The motivation comes not from something intellectual, but from some deep-seated repugnance to the notion that we humans with our consciousness, creativity and language capabilities should be at the mercy of an uncaring, inert physical universe.
An antirealist stance allows certain intellectuals in the humanities, for example, to put their disciplines on the same footing as science. They argue that since science is a mere social construct like all other human endeavors, it is not dealing with independent realities. But as Noam Chomsky has pointed out “there is a noticeable difference between Mathematics and Science on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. In the former, the factors of integrity tend to dominate significantly more over the factors of ideology”. It’s not so much that scientists are necessarily more honest, but that nature is a hard taskmaster and as Richard Feynman tells us, “nature cannot be fooled”. You can lie and distort the story of the Russian Revolution or deny the Holocaust and nothing of significance will ensue. But propose a false theory of Physics or a flawed proof in Mathematics, and it will be refuted tomorrow. But then Science and Mathematics appeal to the notion of a mind-independent external reality and a correspondence theory of truth whereby statements are true or false according the way things are in the world. Once this criterion is abandoned - anything goes - and the concepts reality and truth become mere slaves to our desires and personal preferences.
Antirealism manifests itself in more mundane ways in the media – taking on multifarious forms such as Astrology, 1-800 Psychics, self-help gurus, Televangelists and faith healers and New Age kooks. One such huckster is the self-appointed prophet Deepak Chopra who cleverly distorts quantum physics and repackages eastern mysticism, subsequently conflating the two and serving it up as a palliative to the yuppie prozac crowd.
It seems clear to me that there's a blatant dishonesty and bad faith in someone who denies something that is obviously true and who claims that reality is responsible to us and therefore can be manipulated or constructed out of sheer want, desire and tenacity of thought to suit our individual life purposes.