28 June, 2011

What Does it Mean to Believe in Reality?

I tend to say things like "I believe in reality and nothing else." Possibly seeing the world "reality" as a potential chink in the armour of my belief system, someone asked me recently to define what I mean by it. You know, it's a hard question, and I can only think of long answers to it.

Basically, like Samuel Johnson, I'm a rock kicker, not a solipsist (that Occam's Razor thing again). Once you take the step of believing in an external reality, it seems the sensible thing is to accept what your senses tell you. After that, to know more than what you personally experience, you need to start accepting what other people tell you they have seen and felt. And the only way to separate true from bogus (or mistaken) accounts, is to rely on the scientific method. Observations need to be replicable, theories need to be clearly and transparently related to observation by solid argumentation, and experiment must always trump theory (when enough evidence exists). On top of that, coherence and mutual support among theories is nice to have too.

Within the vast arena of our ignorance and the tiny capacity of our intellect, this leaves much to wonder and marvel at in the world. So much, in fact, that I wonder why anyone needs magic at all. When, from what we know and the arguments that sustain it, we can suppose that the whole universe might be a holographic projection from the surface of a cosmic sphere, one hardly needs the rather mundane imaginings of religious fantasists to excite one's sense of wonder.

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