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Dorito, ergo sum

File: A tourist walks in front of the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis hill in Athens. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Today’s question: How do we know anything is real?

It’s maybe the oldest question there is — whether the world we perceive is an illusion. A toddler has no theory of mind and is a solipsist, and perhaps the child is right after all. “The Matrix” movies updated Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the evil demon of Descartes. Cosmologists debate the possible existence of a Mulitiverse, but if all possible combinations are possible in an infinite mega-universe, why would we presume to be highly improbable, flesh-and-blood, evolved sentient beings, rather than statistically more likely Boltzmann Brains? Or brains in vats?

Here’s the estimable Dennis Overbye in the Times:

A more haunting and subversive question you might want to ask after seeing “The Signal” is whether even we ourselves are here. Why do we think so? Why, as many physicists wonder these days, do we even think there is a “here”?

Okay, I’ll see the movie, but I have to confess that I don’t spend a heck of a lot of time worrying about the authenticity of this thing we call reality. If it’s all a glorious computer simulation or elaborate delirium, then it’s a very effective simulation/delirium and that’s good enough for me. If you enjoy your chips and salsa then surely it can’t be a big deal if it’s all an illusion generated by 0s and 1s. To channel Madame Secretary: “What DIFFERENCE does it make?” Fake or authentic, if it’s experientially identical then it’s like making a map of the world that is the same size as the world, and thus needs no longer be called a “map.”

Plato wouldn’t agree, of course. He imagined that, as a philosopher, he could liberate himself from the cave of human senses, and discern the true forms of reality, those higher truths of which the things we directly perceive are but dim shadows. Going back to Plato’s Republic, we read: “… in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.”

I am pretty sure this was his way of saying the usual rules don’t apply to me, I’m operating on a different intellectual plane here and that means I get to sleep late, etc. Excuses, excuses.

We need philosophers, but we also need someone to sweep out the cave and keep things orderly. Plato, pick up those dirty socks.





Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · June 27, 2014

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