Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Appeal to Authority

Suppose that you suddenly meet God. You are whisked away from your saddle on your horse or from your seat at your desk where you were reading your books or painting your watercolors or plotting your revenge or doing your whatever, and (let’s imagine a traditional Christian scenario, familiar to many Westerners and, thanks to Hollywood film and television, familiar to many non-Westerners) you are now standing in a vast white cloudy space before an enormous ivory throne upon which giant male God lounges regally and erectly, wearing a long gleaming white robe and long white hair and a long white beard with white mustaches. (God is barefoot. We don’t care what skin pigmentation God has. If you prefer, say that his is the same as yours.)

God proceeds to tell you, without moving his lips, in his booming voice that seems to echo right inside your head, the true nature of existence. He tells you that you live in a physical universe with matter and minds and everything is as you perceive it to be. Do you then have certain knowledge that your senses perceive true reality? What if God tells you that the universe you perceive is an electronic simulation, that in fact your consciousness is the only consciousness that exists and that he himself is but a representative manifestation of the simulator? Do you then know for certain that you are the only consciousness in existence, that all other seemingly conscious entities are unthinking sprites? What if God tells you that you are bleeding to death in a bathtub, and that in the last instant of your life, you have imagined a whole alternate life for yourself, with years and years of imagined events and imagined people, a life that led to you riding on horseback before being whisked away to meet him, and that you are even now only imagining him? Are you then certain that your life is a dream?

Whatever the god tells you is irrelevant; all scenarios (a Boltzmann brain floating in space, a brain in a vat, an immaterial mind trapped by Descartes’ demon, an electronic mind in the virtual reality of a simulated universe, a housecat hallucinating as you starve to death in an abandoned house, a human dreaming in the instant your neck is breaking at the end of a rope, a figment of someone else’s dream, a butterfly’s dream, exactly as you currently believe yourself to be, something unthinkable) are equally uncertain, because the existence of the god himself is uncertain, even when confronted with sensory and extra-sensory perceptions of the god-creature. The entirety of what is knowable by your consciousness is that your consciousness exists in this present moment.

For an answer to the question of what is the nature of existence, there can be no appeal to authority, because the existence of any authority (any god, any oracle, any wise man, any philosopher, any theorist, any scientist, any prophet, any truth-possessor, any writer, any demon) is and can only be uncertain. The nature of existence, whatever it may be, is unknowable. This is acatalepsy, or knowledgelessness. This is the inescapable state of any consciousness:

No comments: