When I have conversations about the nature of reality, or truth, or existence, there’s a recurring theme of the assumption that reality, either in whole or in part, is external or objective.
This is all fine, except frequently people tend to treat this not as an assumption, but as an unquestioned fact. As in, there is a difficulty conceiving of the possibility of reality as anything but external.
This is reflected in the use of the word ‘truth’ (or reality, or existence, but let’s use ‘truth’ for now).
“Yes, we want to believe that God exists, but are we really believing the truth?”
“Is it true that light is kinda a wave?”
“We must discover the truth of this murder mystery.”
As is generally a good practice to figure out the meaning of words, we should watch what happens in our minds when we use this word. What sort of concepts are occurring within us when we say “Is it true that God exists?”
We usually handle truth like this: We imagine some sort of large reality around us as it is purely, untouched and unfiltered by our fallible brains skewed by millennia of evolution. And we imagine ourselves in this reality, as the fallible brain skewed by millennia of evolution. And our fallible brain holds an image of the pure world around us. It matches up in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t. If the images match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is true. If they don’t match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is false.
Of course the problem here is that both the pure world and our image of ourselves within the pure world are both taking place…. inside our image of the world. The idea of an external reality or independent truth in itself is only happening because we are imagining it happening.
We might try to explain this in terms of evolution and our brain (e.g., we evolved to simulate external reality) – but the trick is that no matter what sort of explanation we have to address our perception of truth, that explanation itself lies within our imagination and our subjective assumption that truth is external (e.g., the idea of evolution requires the assumption that an external world featuring evolution does exist). It is circular – you cannot argue for external existence without first assuming external existence.
One counterargument I’ve heard is the sensation of surprise. If truth itself occurs only within our own brains – if reality is entirely self-created, then how do we encounter things like prediction violation and the sense of false belief? As in – no matter how hard I believe that it’s going to rain tonight, my belief does not affect whether or not it rains, and maybe it doesn’t rain at all. If the concept of external truth is meaningless, then why do we run into the feeling that the world isn’t obedient to our expectations? Disobedience implies that there is something else to disobey us, doesn’t it?
In order to address this I want to move sideways a bit.
I think that the word ‘truth’ can be taboo’d and its meanings divided into two categories, both not invoking the use of any sort of idea of external reality.
One – that of internal consistency. Something is ‘true’ if one thing is compatible and non-contradictory with another thing. Math falls into this category. 2+2=4 is true (consistent). “If this, then that” statements fall into this category. Internal consistency makes no claims about objective reality, only about things like logic.
Belief operates off of internal consistency. I do not believe in God because the assumptions I would have to make to believe in God cannot coexist with a lot of other assumptions I have about the world. I naturally seek internally consistent explanations for any sorts of mysteries – if my breakfast vanishes off the table, I look for explanations that make sense with my worldview – am I on a prank show, am I dreaming, did I have a seizure? If I decide that I am on a prank show, I am not necessarily deciding that in “pure reality” there is a prank show, only that my interpretation of a prank show matches up with my interpretation of a missing breakfast. Our assumptions about external reality also exist because, ironically, external reality seems internally consistent.
The formation of belief systems and belief consistency and what makes one system more consistent than another is a great topic and one I’m planning on exploring deeper in another post.
Anyway – the second truth category is that of direct experience. This is a bit harder to explain because it’s easy for us to try to fit it into the first category, but try not to.
This is for ‘knowledge’ that cannot be inconsistent. It is for ‘truth’ which, in no possible interpretation or imagination, can be considered to hold inconsistency with another truth. This eliminates basically all statements (That is an apple pie, color is light waves hitting your eye, the earth spins around the sun) and leaves only experience, or qualia. I mean the sensation of looking at red, the feeling of the weight of your body, the sound of the hum of electricity.
“Color as a light wave” is not what I mean. If we can imagine color not as a light wave, then it is thus “possibly false” and no longer qualifies as an experience. I mean the direct experience of what it is to witness color before you. Even if you’re in a simulation, even if color is actually created by metaphysical crayons scribbling on a wall, even if you are dreaming, even if color isn’t real – in every scenario in which you can imagine falseness – you are still having the experience of color, right this second, regardless of the explanation.
Thus what our brains do when we think about “truth” can be substituted fully by two things – consistency, and experience.
Now back to the counterargument about prediction and surprise. Can we explain the sensation of surprise entirely within the terms of consistency and/or experience?
When I expect it to rain and then it doesn’t and I feel surprised, what is happening? In my subjective experience, this moment, I am imagining a prior version of myself that had a belief about the world (it will rain!), and I am holding a different belief than what I imagine my previous self had (It isn’t raining!). I am holding a contrast between those two, and I am experiencing the sensation of surprise.
This is all surprise is, deep down. Every interpretation of reality can be described in terms of a consistent explanation of the feeling of our mental framework right at this moment.
I am not saying that the assumption of an external truth is not deeply useful. It is by assuming a reality apart from ourselves that we can use things like object permanence, the sensation of meaningfulness, and long-term goals.
I am only trying to highlight that the assumption of an external reality is not an absolute axiom, is fundamentally nonsensical, and is an unsatisfactory answer to the question of what truth is. If we are looking to hold an elegant and fully consistent system of philosophy in our minds, we have to recognize when concepts have limited use – and external reality is one of them.