JR'S Free Thought Pages
Let’s Get Real
Mundus Vult Decepi
You can fool most of the people most of the time, but you cannot fool reality anytime…an Abe Lincoln update
By Johnny Reb, March 2022
Unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away – Philip K Dick
You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts – Daniel Patrick Moynihan
It’s a fundamental rule of logical discourse that first, the burden of proof for any claim always rests with the person making the claim and second, that any proposition that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Introductory remarks on gods, goblins, ghosts, anti-reality, a “simulated world”, “brains in vats” and other Intellectual Idiocies
The great poet T S Eliot (1888-1965) once said that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” and this perhaps explains the preponderance of religion, idealistic philosophy, reality avoidance and other forms of escapism. Religion, for example, has been in retreat for at least four centuries, due primarily to the Renaissance, Humanist Enlightenment and corrosive nature of the Scientific Revolution which continues unabated. But these contradictory effects effect on religious belief have been minimal as the vast majority of humanity still believe in the absurd comforts and palliatives of superstition, endless fairy tales of gods, ghosts, goblins and other supernatural non-entities and alterative “realities”.
The transcendental temptation, most exemplified in mainstream monotheisms and other supernatural/religious fantasies, have always been with us. But trans-humanism and other wild quasi-religious secular speculations related to our digitalized and computerized world are slowly encroaching on and even replacing religious faith.
In first year philosophy courses students will generally be exposed for the first time to an invaluable segment on logic and critical thinking. Attempts to introduce students to such courses in the public schools have been thwarted at every step by conservative powers in the community, particularly mainstream religions such as Christianity who shudder at the thought that their kids may come to question their inculcated superstitions - for which the evidence is zero.
Moreover, in most freshman philosophy courses the student will also be exposed to wild metaphysical hypotheses about what will include trite and oft-repeated thought experiments like Plato's Cave, Zhuangzi's dream of the butterfly, to question physical reality as we experience it and to decide whether it is real and true - or rather false or hallucinatory. One of the most common examples is the inane claims of Bishop Berkeley that physical reality does not exist- but not to fret since the Christian sky daddy is merely providing the illusion of physicality. So when you fall down a flight of stairs, the pain is not “real” because the fictitious deity is controlling everything, including the illusion of pain.
I can recall friends who took LSD back in the 1960s who claimed they had crossed over to another dimension of “reality”; one friend in particular wanted to kill himself on one of these “trips”. Perhaps in the days of the covid-19 plague if you fantasize about some decadent Caribbean cruise, you might instead consider saving thousands of dollars by dropping a couple of tabs of acid.
The often heard claim that everything is a simulation is logically incoherent. Conceptual difficulties notwithstanding, how can notions such as fake, simulation, virtual reality or counterfeit have any meaning without some accepted truths regarding phenomena such as the physically real, authentic and genuine. For example, without collapsing into incoherence and conceptual confusion, how can counterfeit money be conceived without acknowledging pre-existing genuine currency? In order to maintain logical consistency, anyone assuming an alternative simulacrum or virtual reality world would require REALITY as a major premise. Fake news assumes that there must be news that is true, although there’s precious little of the latter from our ass kissing sycophantic echo chamber corporate media.
Never confuse logical possibility with plausibility. If I claim the “logical possibility” that there is an invisible flying purple goblin in my garden fending off pests, would you not dismiss this carte blanche? Yet are not religiously inclined baseball players who point to the sky after hitting a home run equally stupid? Oddly when they strike out or fumble a routine double play ball, this “pointing to the heavens” behavior is strangely absent. Christians have been forecasting a dead man Jesus Christ’s return for over two millennia but still he’s a no-show. Is this any more delusional than the bat shit crazy lunatics predicting the resurrection of Elvis?
Further Philosophical Considerations
Notwithstanding conception of what it means to be “real”, there are two components to our awareness of the world, what we call perception: an objective reality independent of our beliefs and awareness and our capacity to comprehend or understand it. One is clearly dependent on the other, and they need to be explained in order. The first issue is whether there is a mind-independent reality at all as the idealist Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) claimed. Metaphysical idealism is the belief that there is no existence of anything that is not perceived and that apart from the contents of minds there are only conscious agents. This is similar to the idea that we live in a shadow world Platonic cave or simulation not unlike in the 1999 movie The Matrix. There is at least one circumstance in which we clearly do live in a simulation, when we’re dreaming. Here our imaginative brains create a simulacrum of reality which we cannot only see but at time even feel usually being aware that it’s not reality when we wake up. An important logical note arises in all this when one realizes that a simulation or fake can only be meaningful if one assumes an external reality that exists free of or unconnected to cognition, whether humans or any other thinking thing.
But there is a crucial difference between this dream state and real life. It’s that reality can be fatal; our hearts can stop or we can be ho it by a freight train. This is vital to understanding the two facets of perception. Our brains have evolved the extraordinary ability to model reality in experience, yet we perceive it differently from other living species, color being tone of the obvious features, which only occurs in some creatures’ minds. Birds, for example, can see in almost 360 degree vision and bats and dolphins probably perceive echo-location which we cannot effectively imagine. Not only that, but time passes at different rates for different creatures, which we can mimic with time-lapse or slow motion cinematography. However, all these means of perception are about keeping us and all these creatures alive. Therefore, the model in our minds must match external reality with some degree of accuracy. The model even predicts the future; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hit a tennis ball from our opponent.
One core attribute of both reality and its perception that’s rarely discussed is space and time. At the scale of our interaction with the world there are three spatial dimensions and one time dimension, so the models our brains create need to reflect that. The reason we can’t imagine a higher fourth dimensional space, even though we can represent it mathematically, is because we don’t live in it. One could take a position even more bizarre than the devout Bishop Berkley. Become a solipsist, the belief that, not only is there not an external world, but it is you and only you that exists.
The reader may want to consult Nathan J Robinson’s review of David Chalmers’ book Reality + in which he proposes the distinct plausibility that we live in a simulation as though we are merely an actor in a cosmic video game. There’s also an interesting interview with Chalmers in Issue 148 of Philosophy Now. The corporate oligarch and certified multi-billionaire asshole Elon Musk goes beyond Chalmers’ plausibility thesis; he actually thinks it’s highly probable we do live in a computer simulation. I wonder if Musk Ox believes that his hundreds of billions of dollars are “real?” Are starvation deaths of children born to the two billion parents who live on less than $2 a day “real”, or merely a simulacrum?
An historic clash of world views occurred in between two 18th-century philosophers, one a theologian, the Anglican Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) and empiricist curmudgeon Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). At the time, there was a heated argument over the nature of reality. Berkeley argued that what we know of reality is underwritten by the Christian god and limited to what the mind derives from our flawed senses. It is not that there is no reality external to us; it is just that we can’t know it in and of itself as Immanuel Kant had also argued. We can only be aware of reality, including all features of the material world such as solidity, as sensory impressions. This counter-intuitive position was perhaps misunderstood by worldly men like Johnson, who thought Berkeley was denying an external, material world – which in fact he may well have believed. Johnson famously told his friend and biographer James Boswell that “I refute him [Berkeley] thus” and kicked a stone.
Despite Johnson’s scorn, there is room to draw lessons from Berkeley’s insight. Almost all of us mingle belief with reality. That is, we assume that the ideas in our heads reflect reality faithfully. Most of the time the two do correspond well enough, at least at a mundane level, for us to get through our day. But the correspondence is not there all of the time, and this fact can get us into trouble. Yet, so powerful is the assumed melding of perception and reality that we rarely bother kicking the stone—which here stands in for seeking objective evidence of that apparent connection. Instead, we go with first impressions, automatically accept community or peer group judgments, or are committed to misleading ideologies. Having done so, confirmation bias sets in and we downgrade any suggestion that our views are inaccurate.
Musings and Recommendations
If one is interested in examples of these sorts of problems, there are a number of good books to consult. One classic is Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). Janis looks at such historical incidents as Kennedy’s decision to support the Bay of Pigs invasion and the false beliefs and conspiracies that contributed to the American in Vietnam. One should also take a look at Madeleine L. Van Hecke, Blind Spots (Prometheus Books, 2007), which takes up such topics as thoughtlessness, “my-side bias,” and “trapped by categories.” A recent book now in paperback by Irish physicist David Robert Grimes titled Good Thinking: Why Flawed Logic puts us all at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World is one of the best on logic and critical thought I’ve read in years. Check it out.
I’m sorry people, but reality is independent of what our defective brains believe or crave. Many of us likely hold beliefs that are false but surely anyone who cares about truth at all ought be skeptical, yet open minded to new ideas and concepts (but not to the point of having your brains fall out) and selective about what they believe. Plausibility, empirical efficacy and evidence are criteria that must be met, which are what all scientists hold to. Much of what we claim to know that has any chance of truth value stems from reliable authority such as science. In environments in which money talks and bullshit walks such as religion, politics and the market-driven corporate media, any chance of finding truth will be minimal.
As has been said by more than one poet and philosopher, it would seem most people can handle only so much reality- which partly accounts for the widespread irrational palliatives and delusions of religious belief, self-help gurus, pseudoscience and the paranormal. And there is no invisible man in the sky who cares about your love life or hemorrhoids. Deal with it.
Reality bites and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your ailments, petty needs and desires. Many people, disturbingly including those holding corporate and state power, have been convinced that reality is whatever one believes it to be. Consider, for example, the rising stock markets in the face of nothing but dismal news, including widespread social unrest and record unemployment.
Critical realism can save us from the transcendental temptations of religious superstition and postmodernist nightmares, thus restoring our contact with reality. Moreover, despite pragmatists such as Richard Rorty who peddle truth as utility we cannot manage without a concept of truth as correspondence. There is, as most of us thought all along even as innately empiricist children, a pre-existing external reality about which it is the project of science to inform us. Naturally we must be cautious about claims to objective reality, alert to misperceptions and ideological distortions. The world is of course a lot messier and more complex than the accounts of what even physicists would suggest. Even eyewitness accounts of a crime, for example, can be often mistaken or misremembered. This does not mean that such claims cannot plausibly be made accurately. A central plank of critical realism is that science can no longer be considered as just another myth or story.
The never ending chaos and grotesque immorality of late stage capitalism and its mundane banalities reflect quite flawlessly what passes for rational thought for millions of uncritical credulous minds.
The illogicality of contemporary postmodernist philosophy  combined with endless flows of anti-Enlightenment anti-scientific intellectual rubbish is explicitly exemplified in the imbecility of know- nothing buffoons and moral degenerates such as Donald Trump. It is also revealed in numerous paradoxes and exposures of long-standing mythologies regarding the ideology of capitalism. The truth is that real existing capitalism is anti-democratic, hierarchical, monopolistic and “socialism for the billionaire and multi-millionaire capitalist oligarchs and wealthy elites, but dog-eat-dog competition for everyone else, including the working classes, masses of poor, homeless and permanently unemployed”. Moreover it is deeply immoral, even by the standards of minimalist ethical principles such as the Golden Rule.
And consider what has been rightly described as “the dismal science”, by which I mean economics and what is referred to as “the economy”. Free markets, for example, are a sham. Faux free trade agreements such as NAFTA, for example, have nothing to do with free trade and are rather blank checks for corporate plunder and exploitation of labor.
The underlying dogma of capitalist economics and what we call “the economy”’ serve the wealthy and billionaire classes and entail essentially manipulated markets, rampant exploitation of resources and labor, systemic corruption and what have become unprecedented contrived inequalities. The novel virus Covid-19 pales in comparison to the globalized capitalist world order and plague called neo-liberalism. The three wealthiest Americans have more wealth than half the country’s population and it has been claimed that some 265 of the wealthiest people have more wealth than 7 billion people on this pathetic overpopulated dying planet with ecosystems circling the drain.
The notion that reason is a myth or mere superstition and is inferior to subjective or intuitive feelings and emotions, that observation and other empirical apparatuses of sensory perception: observation, facts, tests, hypotheses,, experimentation, causation, discovery, theory and the scientific enterprise are synonymous with the supernatural and no more reliable than religious faith or voodoo rituals - or that acts have no consequences or causal force – is ludicrous.
And to the high priests of finance who run our mafia money laundering and offshore tax haven banking systems and deeply immoral entities such as hedge funds and reverse mortgages; they are no better than the Christian scholastics of medieval theology in an era appropriately labeled The Dark Ages.
That’s essentially where we’re at today but with the technology to manage, control and spy on everyone, declaring those people such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden who reveal unpleasant truths such as the facts about our vile global dictatorship of capital and the never ending murderous dirty imperialist wars, as enemies of the state”.
As George Orwell wrote over seven decades ago, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.
"Mathematics and logic are the masters of reason, impervious to bullshit which spreads like an uncontrollable plague."
“2 + 2 = 5” , “All Crows are White” and “Heaven is Real”…..
 In their introduction to the take down of postmodernism in their book Intellectual Impostures (1999), Allan Sokal and Jean Bricmont write that “The goal of this book is to make a limited but original contribution to the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called ‘postmodernism’.” Later, and more directly, they say they wish to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.
Their book is directed not so much at individual philosophers and other academics such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Feyerabend, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, but at the very tone of voice adopted by cultural and academic intellectuals over the last three or four decades. They are accused of appropriating or denigrating the concepts of the natural sciences in their writings and lectures without ever understanding these concepts in the first place.
As the book explains, the problems are not so much that of what these authors write is not only arcane, obscurantist and confused, but utterly meaningless. Nevertheless, specialized scientific and mathematical concepts however are abundantly peppered throughout the text in order to impress the reader with a superficial display of erudition and profundity. The conclusions reached are not established by diligent explanation and attention to argument and evidence but simply pronounced with the implication that the reasoning is axiomatic and palpable. The result is that many big name academics get bigger names while the rest of us are none the wiser.
Anyone familiar with contemporary writings in the fields of social science, cultural criticism and continental philosophy will recognize the pompous, verbose, self-important and entirely humorless style that Sokal and Bricmont criticize. These postmodern authors often seem to adopt the passive aggressive attitude of the angry or insecure; the incessant use of convoluted jargon, constant name-dropping, appeals to emotion or intuition - not rationality.
The authors argue that just because skepticism about the real world is irrefutable, this is therefore no good reason to believe the existence of the real world is justified. Conversely just because empirical information rests on unproven assumptions is no reason for not following it. They make some interesting points, which are all the better for being uninhibited by the protocols of professional philosophy. One feels they are saying explicitly what is implicit but unstated in the works of many professional philosophers. They point out that radical skepticism or solipsism is self defeating – not least because no one could live even for a few hours in accordance with it. They also remark that scientific reasoning is not really very different from the way anybody would set about solving an everyday problem. They compare the reasoning of science with the methods of detecting crimes – both develop theories by gathering evidence and facts to support them.
However, while trying to bring out the similarity of science and everyday reasoning, the authors are strongly against the conflation of the everyday uses of words and specific technical senses. Prime targets in their sights here are terms like “uncertainty” and “relativity”, which are used by scientists and mathematicians in a technical manner, but then adopted by those who wish to invoke their everyday sense. Thus Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is trotted out to justify anarchist social and political theories and similarly Chaos Theory is assumed to prove that the world is fundamentally unknowable and chaotic rather than just complex.
A question which runs through the book, although expressly avoided, is perhaps the most philosophically important. How far can the social sciences achieve the same goals as the natural sciences? More bluntly are the social sciences “scientific” in any acceptable sense of the word? After reading the book, one is left with the nagging feeling that the wild world of human nature will never succumb to categorization and prediction. Perhaps simply mimicking the techniques of physics, biology and chemistry is not a productive way to proceed. The radical skeptical solution to this is to allow all systems of reasoning the same credibility as science is reduced to one “narrative” among many. Obviously, the problem with this is that it allows status to the most obscurantist and unpalatable ideas: creationist theory, religious faith, existence of deities and the supernatural, paranormal phenomena, racism and astrology, for example. They all must be allowed acceptability by the rigorous standards of scientific inquiry. However, it will still be necessary to evaluate and examine these hypotheses and to carry out rigorous standards of experimentation, argumentation and standards of scientific evidence.