What is reality? In a divided America, maybe philosophers can tell us

Jim Beckerman
NorthJersey.com

What, COVID-19 actually exists?

Wildfires aren't started by space lasers?

Next thing, you'll be saying the sky isn't green and the grass isn't blue.

"Reality is the idea that there is a world out there, independent of what we think of it," said Kevin Olbrys, assistant professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Bergen Community College in Paramus.

Reality. There's a quaint idea.

Especially in 2021 America — a country where half of us believe one person won the election, and the other half believe someone else did. And each has their own facts to back them up.

This sounds like a job for … Ontology Man.  

You know. Ontology. "The branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being." Remember that? From Philosophy 101.

What — you never took a philosophy class?

Not practical? Not relevant? The most useless major of all — not excepting English? Remember how you pitied the eggheads who spent good tuition money on a philosophy degree? "What did the philosophy major say?" you joked. Answer: "Want some fries with that?"

"The Thinker" by  Auguste Rodin

Time, in 2021, to sing a different tune.

Calling all philosophers! Light the bat-signal! Send up a flare! The superhero we need, in a divided America, is someone who can prove to us what's real and what isn't.

Of course, being philosophers, they're likely to be philosophical about it.

"There is no magic wand we can wave, where the truth is highlighted in green, and the rest just vanishes," Olbrys said.

Kevin Olbrys teaches philosophy at Bergen Community College

Yet the truth, as they used to say on "The X-Files," is out there. "I think if we use the right techniques and methods, we can still get a more objective understanding of reality," he said. 

You may have heard the story of the philosophy professor who asked his students, for a final exam, to write an essay proving that the chair they were sitting on didn't exist.

Most scribbled away earnestly for hours. All but one student — who jotted down two words, handed in his paper, and got an A+.

"What chair?" he wrote.

The question of whether objective reality exists — outside of our own minds and perceptions — is philosophy's greatest riddle. And it may, now, be America's biggest problem.

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Some, like René Descartes, tied themselves in knots over this. Eventually he concluded that, at least, he existed, because he was aware of his own existence. "I think, therefore I am," he famously wrote in 1637.

Getting real

Is reality just a matter of perception? And is what we collectively call "real" just a sort of agreement, for mutual convenience? 

If so, we are free to agree on anything we want — that the earth is flat, that the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, that lizard people control one of America's two political parties. This is the nightmare world that George Orwell foresaw in "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

A scene from the George Orwell-adapted film, '1984.'

"Nothing exists except through human consciousness," says O'Brien, the mouthpiece for the all-powerful dictator, Big Brother.

"We control matter because we control the mind," he says. "Reality is inside the skull. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to."

Such thinking is actually pretty easy to discredit, says Peter Dlugos, also a professor of philosophy and religion at BCC.

"If you think reality is a matter of opinion, and that stepping out of a two-story building won't harm you, you're welcome to try," he said.

Peter Dlugos, professor of philosophy

The physical world, he says, has opinions about your opinions.

"The problem is, if we think it's all just a matter of opinion, or all opinions are equal, then we have to make decisions on things, the success of which depend on the facts," Dlugos said. "Like COVID. Like those people on their deathbed saying, 'Oh, my God, I was so wrong.' " 

Such come-to-Jesus moments — like the Jan. 6 rioters who now realize they were "misled" — may be sad, and instructive. But in the meantime, such people can cause a lot of damage: walking around without masks, or breaking into the Capitol and beating people to death with fire extinguishers.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

What's needed, says Pete Mandik, chair of the Philosophy Department of William Paterson University in Wayne, is more rigorous mental techniques for arriving at truth.

"There is a kind of method," Mandik said. "The Carl Sagan version is, 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.' If your neighbor tells you he saw Elvis at the CVS, he better have extraordinary evidence. It can't be just a guy with brunette hair from across the store."

Back in the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume, author of "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion," had his own version of this.

 "He asks: What should we make of claims about miraculous events?" Mandik said.

"A man comes to you and says someone rose from the dead, or had their blindness cured. You have to ask yourself, what's more likely — that this claim is true, or that the person that's telling it is a deceiver? Or deceived?" 

Two words, going back 2,500 years, explain a lot of what is going on in America right now.

Mythos and logos. Myth and reason. Two different ways of understanding the world. Each valid in its own context.

Mythos: A god driving a chariot across the sky causes the sun to rise and set. How do we know? Because we choose to believe it. And it's a lovely story.

Logos: The Earth turning on its axis causes the sun to rise and set. How do we know? Because we study astronomy, and do experiments with pendulums.

Since the 18th century — the so-called "Age of Reason" — the logos way of understanding the world has dominated, among thinking people. But now, in the 21st century — spurred on by social media — mythos is on the march.

"I feel like people have reverted to this mythos approach, where story and narrative are dominant," Dlugos said.

Unfortunately, one byproduct of myth-based knowledge is that the less we know, the more dogmatically we know it.

"We do what we can at all costs to preserve the narrative," Dlugos said. "When there was a drought in the ancient world, the notion was that it was because the gods were displeased. So you would offer a sacrifice. If that didn't work, often the conclusion was that the sacrifice wasn't done correctly. When you want to preserve a theory, and reality tells you the theory is wrong, you just invent new theories."

As do, for instance, the end-of-the-world cultists who claim — when the world doesn't end on the day they predicted — that they simply calculated wrong.

Or the QAnon followers who were surprised — but not dissuaded — when Jan. 6 didn't end, as forecast, with Donald Trump executing all the Democrats. They had just misunderstood. It would happen later.

"We often lead with our emotions and use reason to back it up," Dlugos said.

Greece is the word

Back around 450 B.C., in ancient Athens, they had their own problems with "alternative facts." True, they didn't have Twitter. But they did have sophists — from which we get the word "sophistry."

These were philosophers who made themselves available, for a fee, to statesmen and nobility. Reality, they held, had no independent existence — it was whatever you could get people to believe. And they taught the rhetorical tools to persuade. Handy, then as now, for a political career.

That, Plato tell us, is something that his teacher Socrates had no patience with.

Tourists take pictures in front of the Athens Academy adorned with sculputures depicting ancient greek philosophers , Plato (L) and Sokrates (R) on June 10, 2016.

"Plato writes this dialogue where [sophists] are cads, cocky, overconfident, and they employ this rhetorical technique," Olbrys said. "And the counterpoint is Socrates, who really wants them to slow down and care about the truth, rather than caring about convincing others of their narrative. It's a great moment in the history of philosophy.

"Now we have the question: Is there objective reality? And how can we get to it, when it seems some people can use speech to pull us away from it?"

Is there objective reality? Plato thought so. But it can be arrived at only through epistemic inquiry.

Epistemic: Another big word. From epistemology. The branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge and knowing. 

Such inquiry requires fearless commitment to truth. The metaphor Plato uses in his "Republic," famously, is a cave.

Imagine, he says, that we're all in a cave — chained so that we cannot move, looking at shadows created by moving figures behind us and projected on the wall by the light of a fire. 

We are unable to turn around to see the figures making the shadows. So to us, the shadows are reality. 

Only, of course, they're not. It is only by breaking the chains — that is, our own prejudices, preconceptions, baseless ideas — that we can turn around and see what's really real.

"The parable tells the story of a philosopher wandering around trying to convince people to stop looking at the shadows, and of course they don't," Olbrys said.

We need, in short, to get into the habit of breaking our mental chains. Not so easy, in ancient Athens. And not so easy now.

"I think one of the things we can do is construct a good epistemic character," Olbrys said. "It's like a good moral character. What does a good person do? They're kind; they're good to other people."

A truth-seeker, too, has a particular set of traits. "Open-mindedness is a good epistemic virtue," he said. "Thoroughness. The willingness to look at the facts. A willingness to entertain multiple points of view.

"The opposite of that is someone who is dogmatic. Careless in their search for information. Someone who is gullible." 

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1