I received a magic set for Christmas one year, and child me was thrilled about the prospect of learning magic. However, to my dismay, the few tricks I did learn weren’t sufficiently magical enough to teach me magic. One trick allowed me to disappear a magic wand. The wand was connected to an elastic band, which was connected to the back of my coat. The trick had me wave the wand around and, when ready, release it allowing the elastic to pull the wand up my sleeve and away from view. It was a fun gimmick, but knowing this didn’t help me understand professional magicians at all; they didn’t wear coats. As a teen my peers were quick to point out that magic was ‘fake’; a conclusion supported by this magic set which was filled with squishy foam balls, weirdly printed cards, and invisible plastic sheets that nobody was falling for. Everything was just something pretending to be something else, the only people who would fall for this were people who were just dumb enough to believe it. With physics, I found that each revelation helped reveal the next revelation. Learning small things gradually made it easier to understand bigger things later. However, magic is different. No matter how many tricks I knew, none of them made it easier to understand how other tricks were done. Worse, the knowledge I gained about some tricks actually made it easier to fall for others. Whenever I saw a professional disappear something I couldn’t help looking for the elastic band which made it that much easier to miss whatever else they had in store. My problem, as a child, is that I viewed magic as I viewed everything else: as a puzzle to be solved. Yet magic, unlike physics, isn’t a puzzle so much as it is an art. While a physicist is interested in learning about the immutable universe. A magician is an expert in something infinitely fluid: our flawed perceptions. Magic is the art of demonstrating the difference between physical reality and perceived reality. A great magician is someone who can create a perceived reality that is incompatible with the real world; they can make us experience the impossible.
During my Master’s degree, I had a conversation with my apartment neighbour that has stuck with me ever since. Part of my own learning process is attempting to explain new ideas to other people1. If I can successfully explain an idea to someone else, then that means I myself adequately understand it, at least to the level of the explanation. Now, I had just been exposed to Post Modernism and was drunkenly trying to explain to my neighbour that most of the world we, as humans, exist in is not really real in any objective sense. Our politics, social structures, and even how we perceive our own bodies are social constructs and are not direct products of the laws of physics. They can change, they can be different, and we could and have changed these concepts to suit our needs or the needs of those powerful enough to enact these changes; one cannot simply derive what will be in fashion next season from the laws of physics. However, at the time I may have pushed the concept a little bit too far because of a slightly confused question that came next. “Surely you can’t be arguing that this table”, he puts his beer down on the table beside us, “doesn’t exist”. I’m not sure I answered the question adequately and the conversation moved on.
Yet, does a table exist? Is it real in the same sense that magic is not? In some sense yes, but in another no. A table, as opposed to any other chunk of wood, is indeed a social construct. Humans invented aesthetics, and humans invented furniture. Somebody made a conscious decision to cut and carve wood into that particular arrangement and somebody else made a conscious decision to leave it in a location so that it would be useful to hold a beer. Yet, in another sense, it isn’t. It is still a material object, if I lift it up it is subject to gravity, I can’t walk through it because it takes up space. If all of the humans in the world collectively decided that it no longer existed, such a decision would accomplish nothing as the material object that we call a table would still be there. There is a part of the table that is collectively made up, but another part that is objectively real. If I remove one molecule at a time from a table, it is we humans that decide when it ceases to be a table, but it is only after the last molecule is removed that it ceases to be real.
Western philosophy arguably began with the realization that the things we think we know probably aren’t as certain as we believe them to be. Socrates’ main contribution to philosophy, through the writings of Plato, is his annoying ability to question anything offered to him as fact.
Scene: a court of law
Socrates: Alas, I am charged with corrupting the youth and being impius, but I cannot defend myself for I do not know what piety is? Good friend Euthyphro, you are smart. What is piety?Plato’s Euthyphro (comically paraphrased)2.
Euthyphro: Piety is doing that which is pleasing to the Gods.
Socrates: But there are many gods who are frequently in conflict. What if they disagree about what pleases them?
Euthyphro: Well they do agree that it is right to punish a murderer.
Socrates: But aren’t there people arguing that some people who admit to such a crime shouldn’t be punished?
Euthyphro: Well they aren’t arguing that murder isn’t bad, they are arguing about who did it and when.
Socrates: Do the Gods participate in this argument?
Every explanation requires us to use words and phrases that themselves need to be explained and can be questioned. In this way, knowledge never bottoms out, everything we think we know is based on other things that we think we know. There is no way of proving that the cat I see outside my windows is actually a cat and not a pile of leaves that looks distinctly like a cat. Yet, Socrates is responding to another invention the Greeks left us: absolute knowledge. The idea is that some things we know are universally and absolutely true. Mathematics only works if some things, like \(1+1=2\), are absolutely and unquestionably true. Deciding on what is absolutely true and what isn’t is no small feat. It is no exaggeration to say that billions of words have been spilled onto pages for thousands of years trying to sort this distinction out. In the 1600’s french mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, thought he could fix this by imposing mathematical rigour on top of classical philosophy. He wanted to create an unquestionable axiomatic foundation for philosophy by searching for philosophical concepts that were as ‘clear and distinct’ as simple mathematical truths. He believed that if he could discover even one statement that the most stubborn of skeptics could not question, then he could use logic and mathematics to build the rest of reality. His discovered statement was the famous ‘cogito, ergo sum’: I think therefore I am.
Then without doubt I exist also if [a demon] deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.Descartes3
Even if everything I see is faked by a magician, I can still know for certain that the magician must be deceiving something; therefore, I exist. From this conclusion, Descartes further concludes that everything he conceives of must come from something and that his perceptions are necessarily less perfect forms of that something. Thus, he rationalizes that the world, and eventually God, also exist.
While he may be correct that it is difficult to doubt one’s own existence, simply stating that ‘I exist’ doesn’t actually say all that much as it doesn’t answer the more important question: what is ‘I’? What properties do ‘I’ have? Am ‘I’ a singular entity, or am ‘I’ merely a higher-level product of other processes? You might view me as a thing in the same way you view a table as a thing, but do ants? Would an alien recognize me as an individual, or just as one of the organs of the true dominant species of our planet: cars. There is much discussion about what Descartes’ ‘I’ really means; however, what is more interesting to me is the assumption that ‘I’ means anything at all. Descartes’ meditations reads like a mathematical dissertation: first, he assumes that X exists, then he shows that Y also exists. These statements alone are empty in the sense that they bring forward nothing more than exactly what they are stating. A point is an empty mathematical object, it has no length, no width, and only exists as an object in relation to other points: we can measure the distance between two points, but only as a comparison with a separate set of two points4. Nothing about a single point is measurable. In the same way Descartes’ ‘I’ is a single point, it exists and has no properties except its relation to other points that exist. Descartes might claim that ‘I’ can think, but without explaining what ‘thinking’ really is he is merely assigning an empty attribute to an empty object. It is left to the reader to fill in the gaps around what ‘I’ really is, and it is these shared contributions that make the argument both coherent and convincing: all sense perceptions must come from somewhere (assuming a separation between ‘I’ and the external world), those somethings are more perfect forms of the perceptions we receive (assuming that ‘perfection’ is a measurable quantity), therefore there must be a most perfect object (assuming that ‘perfection’ can be ranked), therefore God exists. Once we accept that ‘I’ is meaningless without a definition of what it means to be, it suddenly becomes less impossible to doubt the absolute existence of a self.
If we leave the western tradition for a bit, we come across a disagreement characteristic of the eastern philosophical tradition involving the Buddhist and Hindu conceptualization of the ‘self’. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation. If we collect good karma our reincarnated selves will be rewarded, but if we collect bad karma our reincarnated selves will be punished. However, the ‘self’ in their eyes is fundamentally different than the Greek and Christian self, or soul, that we have been talking about. Unlike the western soul, which views itself as the real ‘I’ that merely inhabits a mortal body, the Hindu self, or ‘Ātman’ is merely one piece of a greater divine self known as ‘Brahman‘. It is this Ātman that is engaged in the perpetual cycle of death and resurrection and not, as westerners commonly assume, a singular western immortal soul that keeps getting attached to new bodies.
Buddhism disagrees, while it is true that we are indeed trapped in this perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, it is possible, and desirable, to escape it by eliminating our attachments to the world and becoming ‘nothing’. When asked, ‘what is destroyed when someone achieves nothingness’, the Buddhist response is to ‘remain silent’ because to even attempt to answer such a question would be to admit that there was something to destroy in the first place. To the Buddhist, the word ‘self’ is an empty term, filled with human understanding, but devoid of any universal or physical meaning. We are nothing more than a fold in an unmade bed sheet. When someone makes the bed, the fold ceases to exist. The fold by itself is empty, it isn’t an object separate from the sheet and exists only in relation to the sheet, but the chaos that created the fold still needed to be fixed, and once fixed, the fold is gone; the fold was not destroyed, it just never existed as a singular entity.
To an eastern philosopher, the existence of ‘self’ isn’t obvious or indubitable. The nature of that self is very much in debate and that debate creates a philosophical foundation very different than the western tradition which assumes a special and independent soul as its default view. From which such ideas as liberty, freedom, and independence flow naturally and appear prominently. Of course, it is possible to take a dissenting view, but the burden of proof inevitably falls on whoever disagrees. It takes more effort to argue against a human soul than it does to argue for it.
Now, the Buddhists don’t outright reject a conventional notion of a human self, in fact, the details of what it means to be human are very much up for debate, they just reject an objective reality based on human experience: unlike Descartes. Buddhist philosophy makes an important distinction between two types of truths or Dharmas.
The first truth is the conventional, or concealing truth or reality; the second is the ultimate truth or reality; the second is the ultimate truth or reality. Conventional truth is the realm of persons, objects, dogs, cats, trees, tables, and hard currency. Conventionally, objects exist, endure, and have a whole range of fascinating properties. But ultimately, they are empty. They exist only as impermanent, conventional designations…
The ultimate truth is what appears on careful analysis, or to those who have cultivated their cognitive powers to the point where they apprehend things spontaneously as empty. When things appear in this way, they appear nondeceptively.William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield5
I may not agree with what the Buddhists classify as objective reality, they are a religion, of course, and as such, they believe absolutely that they have a connection to an ultimate reality that the rest of us lack. But I find the distinction between objective and conventional reality useful, especially when considering how forgetting about such distinctions can lead us to errors.
Descartes begins by aggressively purging himself of all conventional wisdom by doubting everything that his senses tell him. From there he infers that he himself must exist because nothing could convince him otherwise. Yet, he has only proven the existence of an empty ‘self’. He has yet to prove anything about this ‘self’. To the Hindus, the self is a small piece of a much greater object, to the Christians, the self is a separate independent and immortal object, and to the Buddhists, the self is nothing at all. Of course, Descartes was from a Christian tradition and thus the ‘self’ he proved just defaults to the Christian self. His next ‘proof’ invokes a similarly Christian understanding of perfection, and thus his attempt at deriving the fundamentals of philosophy has already derailed.
Imagine a woman born blind. Her understanding of the world from birth excludes sight; however, she hears about it from her friends and family and soon becomes obsessed with the concept. She enters university to study sight, and over time she becomes the world’s foremost expert on sight. During her research, she discovers the definitive theory of sight and is soon able to predict with 100% accuracy the outcomes of all sight-related experiments. Her knowledge grows so significantly that she is even able to accurately predict the exact path electricity will take through any particular brain given a specified sight. However, no matter how much structural knowledge she gains about sight, she has no way of understanding or predicting what it would feel like to actually see. Sure she could predict how her own neurons will react, and she could also structurally identify what effect it would have on her life. However, regardless of any prediction, when she actually uses her knowledge to fix her eyes allowing her to see for the first time, something new will be created inside of her. All of her empty structural knowledge will be filled for the first time with subjective experience. Philosophers have given this new experience a name: qualia.
I first heard this metaphor during a discussion on artificial intelligence in a philosophy of computing class. John Searle uses qualia in his theoretical “Chinese room experiment”6 to demonstrate why computers can never be thought of as thinking beings. A man sits inside a room with only a book for company. Every once in a while a sheet of paper is passed underneath the door containing strange symbols. The man finds in his book direction on how to transform these symbols into other symbols. He follows the instructions and creates a new sheet of paper with different symbols and pushes it back under the door. To the lady who wrote the input, the room has perfectly translated a work of classical Chinese literature into English; however, the man inside has only performed an empty ritual and has no understanding of the Chinese language. Searle argues that computers are the same as that man. They may be able to perform transformations, but they don’t have a subjective understanding of the transformations they enact and thus cannot think. This conclusion assumes that books, or the room itself, do not have subjective experiences and introduces a human into the picture to demonstrate this point.
Central to the Christian understanding of ‘self’ is that most objects do not have one, books and rooms are inanimate and do not contain an immortal soul. Yet, drawing a line between the things that have subjective experiences and the things that do not, is not an easy task, and heavily relies on our definition of self. Christian theologians still argue about when the soul enters a body, or at what age children become responsible for their actions. If our immortal soul is to be judged in the afterlife, it is vital that we understand what it will be judged for. In a different work, Descartes claimed that “there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as our own.”7 He justified this statement by pointing out that some of our capabilities, specifically language, are absent in beasts. Yet, this style of argument is reminiscent of similar arguments that have been used to revoke personhood from women, children, black folk, queer folk, Jewish folk, nature itself, and literally anything else that challenges whatever narrative the powerful want to push. If a soul is what gives us value, then defining who has one is equivalent to defining what has value.
Yet, all of these questions are only questions if we assume a Christian understanding of the self. If instead, we start by assuming that everything has a self then the reasoning falls apart as its emptiness is revealed. Searle’s argument assumes that the book itself has no self and therefore no qualia, but why is that our default? Why is it so easy to argue that a room, containing a book which can fully comprehend the intricacies of the Chinese language, has no subjective reality? Why does not being ‘human’ exclude Searle’s room from participating in conventional reality? The answer is now obvious, it is because all of these terms are empty. They only mean things because we fill them with meaning. We are confusing our conventional reality with objective reality. Conventionally, only humans have souls; therefore objectively, computers can’t think. Yet, the words ‘thinking’ and ‘souls’ are like the table; the laws of physics don’t require us to agree on what they really are.
So does a table exist? Yes, conventionally a table exists and to argue otherwise is complete foolishness, but tables don’t have to exist. It is totally reasonable to assume that a human could live and die without ever seeing, inventing, or even conceptualizing a table. We created it, we didn’t have to, but we did.
This fact is where magicians draw their power. They only need to draw attention to places where conventional reality and objective reality disagree to create the impossible. They move objects in one, without moving them in the other. Their job is to show us a table and make us see an elephant.
Like an elephant that appears
Through the power of a magician’s mantra —
Only the percept appears,
The elephant is completely non-existant.
The imagined nature is the elephant;Vasubandhu8
The other-dependent nature is the visual percept;
The non-existence of the elephant therein
Is explained to be the consummate.
The classical Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu explains that there are three natures when a magician makes an elephant appear. There is the appearance of the elephant, which is our conventional reality. There is the non-existence of the elephant which is the objective reality, and finally, there is the visual percept, the thing we see, its objective reality is just as real as the elephant’s non-existence, yet it creates in us a truth of the conventional reality that is not true of the objective reality. It is the point of disagreement between the two. A magician’s job is to show us that everything we see, hear, touch, and experience is fake. The magic is in making that fakeness feel wonderful.
If I’m making one argument today, it is that if we are to move forward in our understanding of truth, then it is important for us to realize that we are talking about two entirely different, yet equally important, things. One objective, fixed, and eternal, and a second that is relative, infinite, and distinctly personal. The nature of truth changes depending on which truth we are talking about, and we are doing ourselves no favours by confusing one for the other.
- Hence this blog.
- Plato. “Euthyphro” Project Gutenburg, Feb 1, 1999, Link
- Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Human Knowledge Classical and Contemporary Approaches. Edited by Paul K. Moser and Arnold Vander Nat, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2003, pp 118.
- You really need three points before anything interesting starts happening.
- William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield, “Introduction.” Buddhist Philosophy Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Searle, John, “Minds, Brains and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 1980, Link
- qtd. in Lurz, Robert, “Animal Minds.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Link
- Vasubandhu, “Treatise on the Three Natures.” Translated by Jay L Garfield. Buddhist Philosophy Essential Readings, Edited by William Edelglass and Jay L Garfield. Oxford University Press, 2009.