Am I a figment of your imagination?

Keywords: reality, solipsism, modelism, arrogance, rudeness, philosophical foundations

I have been somewhat distressed by how many people I’ve talked to that claim, “We create reality.” This is a very dangerous idea as well as being, quite frankly, rude.

I wish I could recall what science fiction story I read (so that I could give credit) where a philosophical bartender was discussing Descartes. The main idea was that Descartes was trying to figure out if there is anything that he could be absolutely positive about; is there some single indisputable fact? After thinking about it, Descartes realized that, if nothing else, he was thinking! And thus his famous phrase. Although they might be considered assumptions rather than facts, I argue that the following three statements are necessary to engage in any exploration of reality. So, here is my philosophical foundation – the starting point of moving beyond doubt.

  1. Cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am),
  2. Something exists besides self (objective reality),
  3. Sensory perceptions interpret, rather than capture, reality (modelism).

To deny the first statement is to contradict yourself: an “I” has to exist in order to implement the action of denial. Although it is possible to get into discussions about what each of the words (“I”, “think”, “therefore”, “am”) mean, at this philosophical level, to do so is to go down a rabbit hole. Denying this statement leaves no room for further discussion of anything.

The second statement points out the fallacy of “We create reality.” I make a distinction between “subjective” and “objective” reality. We each create our own subjective reality, but no one creates objective reality. Although there are many definitions of objective reality, it is most fundamentally something that exists beyond me (although it includes me as well.) This is in contrast to my perceptions – my model; my subjective reality – of me and not me (the third statement.)

Solipsism is the belief that you are the only thing that exists and that everything else is a figment of your imagination. (There are other, less strict, definitions, but this is the one I’m using.) It is rightly said that there is no valid argument against solipsism; any argument might just be me making it up.  At the deepest level denying solipsism has to be an assumption. My argument against solipsism is that it hurts to try to walk through walls. (Another way of saying this is that objective reality is that which kicks back when you kick it.) If you truly create reality, why hurt yourself? Why limit yourself?

The statement “We create reality” is a contradiction. There can only be one solipsist – only one person that creates reality. The moment you say “we” you have acknowledged that there is something other than yourself. To claim solipsism is also to claim godhood – which is, perhaps, the epitome of arrogance. It is also rude to tell me that I am a figment of your imagination. If you are unwilling to acknowledge my existence – separate from yours – then there is no reason for me to talk to you. Please go have a nice conversation with yourself.

Importantly, claiming solipsism or, in general, denying the existence of a reality outside your self is dangerous. It is dangerous to yourself in that you will hurt yourself walking into walls. But you can also cause great harm by ignoring the reality of how your actions (not your imagination) affect other people.

The third statement mostly follows from the second. If there is something other than myself, I cannot incorporate that other something into myself (else it is no longer other.) It is important to codify this phenomenological reality because it is a very key concept. Exploring reality is only done through the perceptions of physical senses. What I do with these perceptions is create a model of reality; I do not create reality itself. The essence of doubt is realizing that there is always a disconnect between my subjective model and objective reality – they are never exactly the same. My (and I think many people’s) purpose in exploring reality is to make my subjective model as close to objective reality as I can.

But to have even a modicum of success in making our subjective reality close to objective reality, we cannot do it alone. To think that you can is again, perhaps, the epitome of arrogance. This is where “consensus reality” comes in. In order to communicate with other people there has to be a common ground of understanding. This is the group version of subjective reality. Or better yet, in order to leave the word “reality” to mean “objective reality”, let us call these objects “subjective models” and “group consensus models.” Major forms of group models are cultural and scientific. Cultural models are those that we share with the people we grew up with and with the people around us. These are sometimes called “world views”. I include religious views in this category. There isn’t much question that the world view of a Hindu living in poverty in India is significantly different from a rich Christian living in the western world. Science is an attempt to go beyond cultural models. By prodding objective reality – by testing it in consistent and reproducible ways – science gradually and continuously makes its model closer to reality.

Of course, it is important to remember that any individual’s subjective version of a group consensus model is never identical to anyone else’s. But this level of doubt and self-awareness doesn’t preclude us from acting. It just means we need to be cautious and that we can only, ever, do the best we can based on incomplete models.

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