Cogito Ergo Nihil

How probably nothing is real

Posted 03 Feb 2017    Edited 05 Feb 2017

This one time, I was living six thousand miles from home. One morning right before waking up, I had this dream: I was back home in my kitchen. I walked toward the fridge then turned back to the counter and saw my neighbor there, sitting on the barstool. I was like, "Oh, hey." And I remember thinking, "How did I get back home? Was I not in Italy yesterday?"

One second after feeling this thought, I disregarded it. I just accepted that I was now home. I started to walk around the rest of my house and I remember the detail of everything I saw was vivid as heck. I was back home in my mind.

I didn't get far past the kitchen and I woke up. Back in Italy. It felt weird: sucked from Sugar City, Idaho and spat to Oristano, Sardegna - in a blink.

I didn't know it at the time, but that dream was big. The jolt from seeming reality to the realization that it was all an illusion set my mind to doubting at the deepest level. I didn't start questioning my existence right away (a full-time Mormon mission [which is what I was doing] is not the most convenient setting for doubt), but soon after finishing that up, I got to thinkin':

How is your acceptance of "reality" different than your acceptance of the dream? Are you not convinced by the persistence alone of your experience that it is real? What if what you think is the real world is just a dream from which you have not yet woken? Also, have you not experienced things that disrupt the consistency of your experience, but that you shrug off in favor of a logical worldview (much like you did with your inexplicable teleportation across the globe in the dream)?

So, yeah, I've asked those questions. I've tried not to let my fear of their answers get in the way of really considering them seriously. In a nutshell, here's what I think:

Memory Can't Be Trusted

In a press release on her 2012 study, Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, said:

A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event -- it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.

Even more troubling, though, than memory distortion through access is the documented reality of memory creation through implant (think Christopher Nolan's Inception).

In the journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Elizabeth F. Loftus, PhD, wrote a paper called Memory Distortion and False Memory Creation. It deals with the documented phenomena of memory in terms of their implications in legal settings, especially the use of psychoanalytically-accessed memories of abuse victims as testimony. The article is amazing and contains a lot of case studies that illustrate how we can "remember" events that never happened.

Here's one of the really interesting examples from Loftus's paper, where she describes the effect of "suggesting" to individuals that they experienced events that were simply fabricated by researchers:

In a ... study by Hyman et al., three ... False events were chosen. Such unusual events as attending a wedding reception and accidentally spilling a punch bowl on the parents of the bride or having to evacuate a grocery store when the overhead sprinkler systems erroneously activated. In this study, the experimental demands were intensified somewhat by, for example, pressures for more complete recall. Altogether subjects remembered something about 89 percent of the true events during the first interview. Somewhat higher percentages were remembered during the second (93%) and third (95%) interviews. As for the false events, ... no subject recalled these during the first interview, but 25 percent did so by the third interview. For example, one subject had no recall of the wedding "accident," stating "I have no clue. I have never heard that one before." By the second interview, the subject said: " was an outdoor wedding and I think we were running around and knocked something over like the punch bowl or something and um made a big mess and of course got yelled at for it."

Because so much of our experience of reality depends on memory, these effects go a long way in undermining the confidence we can have in reality.

There is Absolutely No Way to Verify Reality

There's this idea that I fully accept called the fallibility of the senses. It basically says, "You know how sometimes you think you saw something, and it turned out that it wasn't really there? Or you know how you thought you heard someone you knew, and it turned out to be a stranger? Has your mind ever played tricks on you? Yeah, that means that you really can't trust your senses." And the real quandary we're in as humans (and animals, too, I guess) is that everything we know is gathered through our senses. We rely completely on our crappy systems of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste for all "knowledge."

For some reason, I think we view those experiences of being fooled by our senses as exceptions to the rule that they generally function well. I view it like this, though: Imagine you have a set of calipers.

These are the only calipers you have ever used, and you have no way of getting a different pair. There is a problem with these calipers, though; they always give a measurement that is ten millimeters shorter than the true measurement. Since you are stuck with these specific calipers, you are doomed to never know a true measurement. Maybe if you had dozens of calipers, most of which returned accurate readings, you could afford some doubt in that crappy pair. But since that bad set is all you have, the best you can do is trust it and be wrong every time.

Our senses are kinda like those calipers, in my opinion. They may or may not be giving us good information, but we are stuck with them. There is no option to try another set and compare our results. We are doomed to see the world through only our own lenses forever.

The problem of the fallibility of the senses, though, goes beyond the fact that they give us "wrong measurements" about absolute values in our environment. The problem is that our senses can create experiences that are not tied to environmental absolutes at all. That is scary. That means that there may not exist an absolute anything. It may be that the illusion is the only thing there.


I didn't know about this until recently, but there was this French philosopher named René Descartes, who basically said all of this same stuff four hundred years ago.

Descartes is the one who famously stated, "I think, therefore I am." He actually wasn't the first guy to say this, but he is the one to whom we attribute it.

This brings me to the next point

"I Think, Therefore I Am" Doesn't Mean Anything to Me

Descartes's basic approach to thinking and reasoning was to allow himself to doubt everything to the extreme. He decided that this would lead him to find aspects of life and experience that were beyond doubt. One of his great revelations was the undoubtable truth of his own existence. He figured, "Doubting my own existence is totally illogical. If I doubt myself, that means that I must exist to even be here to do the verb of doubting - I think, therefore I am - cogito ergo sum."

My problem with Descartes's reasoning is maybe the fact that it is based on reasoning. How can you divorce your concept of what is logical from any other aspect of your subjective, unprovable experience?

A philosopher I really admire and agree with a lot more than Descartes on this issue is Sextus Empiricus. According to Michael Frede's interpretation of Empiricus's philosophy (as explained in Empiricus's Wikipedia article):

...Sextus does allow beliefs, so long as they are not derived by reason, philosophy or speculation; a skeptic may, for example, accept common opinions in the skeptic's society. The important difference between the skeptic and the dogmatist is that the skeptic does not hold his beliefs as a result of rigorous philosophical investigation. In Against the Ethicists, Sextus in fact directly says that "the skeptic does not conduct his life according to philosophical theory (so far as regards this he is inactive), but as regards the non-philosophical regulation of life he is capable of desiring some things and avoiding others" (xi, 165). Thus, on this interpretation (and as per Sextus' own words), the skeptic may well entertain the belief that God does or does not exist or that virtue is good. But he may not believe that such claims are true on the basis of reasons.

I'd say that I accept this line of thought. I don't feel like I view life as a worthless endeavor, I just can't find any reason behind my beliefs or thoughts or anything. They're just there.

I definitely reject that just because Descartes observes himself thinking does that mean that Descartes is. I don't see how his observation of his own thoughts proves to anyone (or even to himself) that he is.

If you think that this is absurd, you are in good company. Here's Noam Chomsky's take on skepticism:

I know this is probably really pretentious, but I totally disagree with Chomsky here. I admit that having an opinion that says, "Opinions and things that have opinions, like everything else, are maybe not even real" contradicts logic and is absurd. I'm just saying that despite the absurdity and contradiction, that's how I think.

My Belief Exists in Regimes

A regime, as it is discussed in the mechanical sciences, is a class of behaviors that are observable within certain boundary conditions. For example, in fluid mechanics, a flow regime is a set of conditions in which a flow behaves according to certain patterns and equations, but once the conditions of the flow get outside of the regime, the behavior radically changes and new equations are required to predict its behavior.

There are examples of this is in supersonic aircraft. In terms of sonic properties, flow mainly exists in two distinct regimes: subsonic and supersonic. when a pilot is flying at subsonic speeds (speeds lower than the speed of sound) she will report certain correlations in the flight properties. Like, the faster she goes, she'll observe a greater drag factor and chatter on the components of the aircraft. But, once she crosses into the supersonic regime (once she breaks the sound barrier), the conditions and trends change.

All of a sudden, even though she is going faster than she was before, chatter and drag actually become significantly weaker because she's crossed into a new regime with different rules. Supersonic flows actually become relatively less draggy as flow speed increases.

I think the workings of my mind operate in regimes as well. When i'm talking to the cashier at a gas station to pay for my fuel, I'll just say, "Hi, I need to pay for gas at pump 4" instead of saying, "Hi, I realize that this may be completely absurd because money has no real value beyond the value we mistakenly assign to it, and we are only accountable to God in the end, but I'd like to pay for the gas on pump 4" or, perhaps even more extremely, "Hi, this gas station is not real, and you're not real, and probably I am not real, either, but here's some money for the gas on pump 4."

Instead, when I am with people, I am like normal. I talk about things and even think about things in the conventional sense of their reality and existence. But, when I really think about my life and all of the things I have experienced, I realize that the physically provable, observable aspects of it do not matter much. At the beginning of this entry, I mentioned the "disruptions" that I've experienced to the otherwise normal progression of the movie of my life. Some of these experiences are very sacred, and I keep them mostly to myself. I have, though, seen and heard and felt things that transcend normal experience.

These mystic experiences are as real to me as anything I've ever observed in the traditional sense. So, when I really have time to think and be mindful, I operate at this regime. I accept the reality of God in my life. I have this real hope and expectation that my life is guided with purpose and that I will be able to witness miraculous events if I am prepared for them. I try to let my thoughts and feelings in this regime have the greatest amount of influence on my decisions and stuff. I feel best when I feed this part of my mind.

Really, really deep down, though, in my core, I feel like there's this complete skepticism; to the point of doubting, as discussed previously, my own existence and all reality. This is really the only certainty I've ever felt for sure: that I am not sure. In the spirit of quantifying, I feel like there's only about a 50% chance that anything is real at all.

Within that 50%, I have a rich set of experience and feeling and belief, so I hope that life is real and I am real and things are real, but I don't know how I could ever prove that to myself. I hope to achieve greater certainty one day, but, for now, it's not there.

Although I accept that it may all be illusory, I am still happy. I've read a lot of stuff that says that a nihilist (one who recognizes the meaninglessness of all things) has only one possible existence: a life of despair. So, I guess i'm not a nihilist because I don't feel that despair, but I honestly feel that I accept the possibility of absolute nihilism: that all things are valueless / all things are not.

Cogito Ergo Nihil