Escaping the Universe

Descartes left us with a peculiar problem. By questioning whether we can really prove anything that we think we know, he introduced scepticism and the possibility of doubt about our very existence. He took our knowledge back to nothing and started to rebuild his beliefs on the famous, indubitable statement, "I think, therefore I am". Whilst this statement is certainly a strong and somewhat unequivocal starting point, the rest of his argument, with which he reconstructs reality, has long seemed unsatisfactory and many philosophers, it would seem, have indeed had difficulty in truly dispelling successfully the sceptical outlook that Descartes presented into modern thought.

We are left, then, with a huge gulf between "I think therefore I am," a proof that I exist, and proving that anything else I know or experience is really real. This is akin to knowing whether or not we are in the Matrix, to cite a contemporary example, Descartes uses the idea of being deceived by an evil demon. Scepticism requires us to prove that we are not in some kind of Matrix and that is actually a lot harder than it might seem. Not being able to do so actually leaves us with a whole bunch of problems, not least ethical ones on how to treat others outside ourselves who we can't even prove to be real. Scepticism dumps us down into a black hole which seems inescapable, because we can't know anything at all!

On one level this seems patently absurd and would be a rather unhelpful way of looking at life. Defending yourself for a heinous crime in court by claiming that this existence isn't real and asking the jury to prove that it was in order to justify punishing you for it, would only get you locked up in an insane asylum. That doesn't, however, take away from the forcefulness of the sceptical viewpoint and thus both ethics and epistemology (the study of what and how we can know) is an important area for continued philosophical enquiry.

Plato's story of the Cave is another famous example that follows similar lines. In it he uses the analogy of a group of people stuck in a cave where their entire understanding of reality is the shadows cast by the happenings of the outside world on the cave wall. One day someone escapes and goes out and sees the real world in all its glory. He comes back to the cave to release the others, trying to convince them of the truth, but they tell him he is mad and can't be persuaded to leave! Something similar happens in the Matrix. It is the people from outside the Matrix who release Neo and show him the real world, so I wonder if we are ever to prove whether or not we are in some kind of Matrix, we would need to get outside of this existence, or escape the universe and look back in, to somehow see the bigger picture.

This idea might seem pretty wacky, but it is not as totally alien as it might seem, in fact I would hazard to suggest that this kind of idea underpins all the world's religions. Buddhism, for the most part, does, on a simplistic level, claim that this life is illusionary; Greek mythology speaks of the realm of the God's, Mount Olympus, that exists above and outside the realm humans inhabit; Judaism, Islam and Christianity all speak of a heaven and an afterlife, they talk of an existence that is outside, an escape, from this universe.

One can quite quickly draw parallels between the sceptic's outlook and the ideas imbedded in these western religions. Belief in the spiritual, supernatural, and metaphysical implies that there is a reality above and beyond our own that is also both powerful and able to interact both malevolently and benevolently in our existence. Perhaps we are not essentially in a Matrix, but we are in a universe/existence, that has been created by and influenced by a power that exists outside of this universe. Maybe we are not being directly deceived by an evil demon, but these religions would have us believe that the ultimate reality is not this life, rather it is the one inhabited by the higher power that created us and to which we will ascend to when we die. It is difficult to see how the religious outlook does not have underlying its beliefs the principle that this life is an elaborate illusion, partly due to the suggestion that it is what happens in the "afterlife" that is more important.

So the sceptic might have something in common with someone who is religious. A sceptic is entertaining the possibility of this life not being real, in an abstract way those who are religious actively believe this life is not real. In fact though, they couldn't be more different as the sceptic must be just as sceptical, if not more so, of belief in a religion, when he can find just as little evidence to support the thesis. The sceptic is appealing to reason and the leap of faith must seem pretty foreign, despite the sceptic's questioning of whether we can believe anything at all. But in a way both outlooks have a peculiar effect on ethics.

An extreme example would be Islamic Fundamentalism, whose suicide attacks are justified by an ethics that exists outside this life. Their unwavering belief that what they are doing is God's will and that they will be richly rewarded in heaven, justifies the killing of innocents, something that seems horrifying and inexcusable to the rest of us. As we have already discussed extreme scepticism could also lead to a breakdown of reasonable ethics where anything is justified, because I can't prove this life isn't an illusion or provide a substantial reason for not being entirely selfish in my outlook. This hardly seems anymore rational.

Perhaps there is a middle way. Escaping the universe seems a pretty desperate and unrealistic measure in order to understand our existence and prove either the religious outlook or that we are not in the Matrix. We must, then, find a justification for our understanding of ethics and a defeat of scepticism that is rational, reasonable and provable within this universe, and doesn't appeal to outside influences. This after all is perhaps just what scepticism challenges us to do. It keeps us honest, tells us that there are no easy answers, challenges us not to blindly accept anything, and is that annoying child that continually asks "why? why? why?"! As a basis for ethics scepticism would seem irrational and totally useless as a model of how to live, but in our quest for knowledge and understanding it is an indispensible tool that raises important questions that we need to answer. Escaping the universe, maybe not, but trying to escape from reason would seem just as fool hardy.

November 2008

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