Friday, January 21, 2005

On Reality

"No opinion matters finally; except your own" said the man who thought he was a rabbit.
- G.K. Chesterton, Platitudes Undone

Last night, I heard a rather sophistic argument for philosophical relativism. A friend of mine told me that since people have various opinions on most topics, and since human authority cannot be infallible, reality must be impossible to attain, and thus reality has to be dependent upon the individual (or, in a broader sense, upon the majority). The argument is flawed in various ways. First, it contradicts itself by being both a philosophical argument and an argument against philosophy. In short, it is a claim against all claims, a theory against theory-making. If reality is necessarily subjective, if the search for reality (i.e. philosophy) is thus quite futile, then this very claim "reality is subjective" must also be futile because it must also be subjective. But if the claim "reality is subjective" is subjective, then there must be certain forms of reality that is not subjective. Ergo, a contradiction.

Secondly, the notion that reality cannot be attained by our mind is against reason. We think because we want to find reality. We reason out because we know there is something in reasoning out. To deny the objectivity of reality is to contradict all thought; one might as well stop thinking.

Thirdly, to abandon the idea of objectivity as impossible is utterly useless. What could we possibly benefit from maintaining an agnostic stance on everything? Some might say that relativism will at least lessen quarrels that sometimes turn into wars due to difference in belief, but peace due to mental laziness and mental cowardice is no peace at all; it is a rout, a retreat. More importantly, to define reality as subjective does not in any way equate to promoting peace, as it would excuse the violent as well as the cowardly. Nietzsche might be too timid to fight, but Hitler was Nietzschean.

Fourthly, this agnostic claim is flawed simply because it is plain wrong. The fact that we have senses proves that we at least have the ability to approximate reality. This approximation of reality must itself be real, albeit incomplete, because it already is useful (all the scientific accomplishments we have had is testimony to this). Other than our senses, we also have our reasoning skills as well as our ability to explore and experiment. These allow us to make our approximation of reality even closer to perfection. As long as we utilize these three tools, our reason, our senses and our creativity (not to mention our conscience), there really is no sense in maintaining a relativist point of view.

As usual, my verbosity has made me say too much just to prove a point. Let me just conclude by suggesting a quicker rebuttal, that is, if you're still reading this. If you ever encounter a person who explicitly doubts objective reality (e.g. existentialists, Hindus, "liberal philosophers", self-proclaimed rabbits, etc.), throw something at him, ideally something soft, like a pillow. When he asks why you did it, ask him why he's so sure you did it, if reality is impossible to attain. That ought to bring him back to his senses.