Naïve Realism: Part Two

Let’s continue from last day. (Read Part One)

I’m trying to convince you that the physical world doesn’t actually take up any space. (For some reason I must think that this is important.)

Remember the blind artist Esref Armagan? His understanding of shape and dimension is not grounded in any kind of visual experience. He has never known any kind of visual experience. He knows that large objects take longer to physically feel than small objects. That is how he knows whether an object is large or small. When he moves his hands along an object, say a massive oak table, what he experiences is a physical tactile sensation that lasts for a certain length of time.

That is not how sighted people experience the world, even when they have their eyes closed. It is extremely difficult for a sighted person to close his or her eyes, to feel the shape and size of an object, like a table, and not at the same time imagine the object.

What I am suggesting is that without visual experience we would not and in fact, could not arrive at the conclusion that objects were extended in space.

I’m getting the sense that this post is going to be confusing. I’ll try not to ramble. I’ll try to be concise. But I can’t promise that I’ll succeed. Okay let’s face it - I will not succeed, but I’ll try anyway.

Let’s continue by noticing a simple truth: Subjective experience happens to a subject, not an object.

That is to say, when you taste strawberry ice cream, it is you who experience the taste, not the ice cream. The ice cream isn’t sitting in your freezer before you eat it experiencing itself. It isn’t thinking and feeling to itself, “Wow I am so delicious, yum...bliss....sigh.....[wonderful sensations]!”

When we listen to Beethoven, the sound waves are not experiencing themselves as great music, but rather it is you and me having the subjective experience. (Of course, the term ‘subjective experience’ is redundant because all experience is subjective by definition. But I’ll continue to use the term in order to reinforce that very point.)

When you look at a red fire truck, the colour red is experienced by you, not by the red fire truck. The experience of red doesn’t actually exist ‘out there’ in the physical world. A certain wave length of light that corresponds to the experience of red may exist ‘out there’, but not the experience itself.

Now, in exactly the same way, the experience of size doesn’t exist ‘out there' in the external world. (And therefore the idea of ‘out there’ is ultimately meaningless.)

We don’t assume that certain light waves are in any way ‘red’.

Neither should we assume that objective space is in any way spacious.

See the parallel?

Maybe I should just repeat something for you:

The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!

Here’s another question: When we close our eyes and imagine the physical objective world ‘out there’ devoid of all experiences, in a strictly scientific and objective way, what do we imagine? Perhaps we imagine a basic 3 dimensional space stripped of everything that we think of as a subjective experience, . . . no colours, no tastes, etc. Perhaps we see a kind of changing black and white geometrical collection of atoms floating before us in our mind’s eye.

But if we are going to picture the world correctly, and strip it of all subjective experience, we must also strip it of visual experience.

It is often overlooked that the visual experience of space is indeed an experience. But of course it is, and being an experience, it only exists in our minds. Just as a mirror’s depth is only an illusion, so too is the world’s physical size. That just happens to be the way our brains represent things.

But it certainly seems like the world takes up space. Not only can we see the spaciousness of the world with our eyes, but we can also walk about in it. Doesn’t the fact that we can walk through the world prove that it has size? No. We can dream of walking through our house, it doesn’t mean that the house in our dream actually occupies space.

Does this mean that the objective world doesn’t exist? No, it does exist! It just doesn’t take up any space.

Let’s use an analogy here to help us understand this more deeply.

Suppose on your computer’s monitor is a picture of a sunset. The monitor’s picture (by analogy: your visual subjective experience) has a certain size, we can measure the screen’s sun, perhaps it is 5 millimetres in diameter. But the program (by analogy: objective reality) to which the monitor’s picture corresponds, the sequence of 0's and 1's in the computer, does not have size. (At least virtually no size – let’s just say it has no size for the sake of the analogy.)

Turning off the monitor (by analogy: closing your eyes) does not mean that the computer program (by analogy: the objective world) will cease to exist.

Regardless of whether the monitor is on or off the computer program will never take up any space.

Regardless of whether your eyes are open or closed, objective space does not and cannot take up any space.


Am I saying that we are all living in the Matrix!? No. I am saying that no matter what the objective world is, it cannot actually have any size, because size is a subjective experience. And yet, objective reality can still exist and certainly does seem to exist independent of our experience of it.

Believing that the objective world actually takes up space, ‘out there,’ is part of a particular world view known to philosophers as Naïve Realism. This false belief helps to create the illusion that we are separated from each other and from the world as a whole. If we truly understood that the physical 3-dimensional world doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in the way that we assume it does, then it might help us to understand that we also do not exist ‘in here’, the way we think we do. If there is no ‘outer’, then certainly there cannot really be any ‘inner’.

It is not that only the inner exists - or for that matter only the outer exists - but rather that there is ultimately neither outer nor inner.

This reminds me of a saying attributed to Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas:

“For when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, ... [abridged]... then will you enter the Kingdom."


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