An eight year old’s question about the external world

Joanna asked:


I am Joanna and I am 8. My mum found this site for me because I really want to know how I can be sure that everything is actually real and that the things I can see and hear and touch and smell and taste are not just me imagining everything? And how do I know that my mum is real (even though she helped with the typing) and that I am even real? Thank you for helping me with this question because it is making it hard for me to get to sleep at night.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Joanna thank you for you question. I’m going to divide my answer into two parts, thinking that everything might not be real and feeling that everything might not be real.

1. Thinking that everything might be unreal. There is no proof that the world is real. This isn’t because we haven’t found a proof. We wouldn’t even know what a proof of reality would look like. The world around us is our reality and we have to accept it as our reality.

You have to remember that words like ‘real’, ‘unreal’, ‘pretend’ and ‘imaginary’ are just words made up by people so that we can talk to each other about things that interest us. You need to remind yourself how these words are used. Here are two things you can do to remind yourself of the difference between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’.

Pretend you have a small ball in your hand. Throw it into the air and catch it. Do this several times. This will show you what catching an imaginary, pretend or unreal ball is like. Then get a real ball and throw that in the air and catch it. Do this several times. Now you will know what catching a real ball is like and how different it is to catching an imaginary ball.

Now go into a room in your house so that you are on your own and pretend that your mother is in the room with you. Pretend your mother bakes a cake and give you some of it with a cup of tea. Of course pretend mothers don’t really bake cakes or talk to you or give you pocket money. Only real mothers can do that. If you stay in that room for a long time you will start to feel very hungry and maybe lonely as well. Imaginary or unreal food can’t stop you from being hungry. You need real food to do that.

2. Feeling that everything might be unreal or feeling that you are unreal.
At some time in their life everyone can feel that the world is unreal and it is this feeling that can keep you awake at night. Even if you think the world is real you can still feel that it isn’t.

Feeling that the world is not real can be like feeling that there is a fog or a glass wall between you and the world. It can seem that you can’t really reach out and touch things. When you look in a mirror your own reflection can seem strange. This feeling is usually caused by worry. We have something that is making us worried or fearful but we have forgotten what it is. So the worry and the fear attaches itself to everything. It stops us sleeping, it makes it seem as though the world and other people are far away and unreal.

So if you sometimes feel that the world is unreal what you should do is try to work out if there is anything worrying you about your life or yourself or if there is anything happening at school. If there is anything you are not happy with, talk to your mother about it or ask us about it. In most cases feelings that the world is unreal will go away by themselves.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I am writing this to Joanna’s mum, rather than Johanna.

No child should lose a moment’s sleep over the problems of philosophy. There are enough things to trouble the sleep of a young person without adding conundrums like the problem of the external world to the mix. For example, the images of chaos, death and destruction one sees on the TV news most evenings.

I’m all for letting kids grapple with logic puzzles and the kinds of question that stimulate inquiry and an awareness of concepts. There is a time for considering the deeper questions, and it isn’t the age of eight.

The problem is, you can’t control or censor ideas which come in from every direction, including shows like the Simpsons and Futurama. Unless you live in a world without TV, you are bound to come across someone asking the question (jokingly or not) how I know that I am not dreaming or imagining all this.

The question isn’t ‘how can I be sure’, if you think about it. Because you are sure, all the time. If you weren’t, you woudn’t bit into a bar of chocolate in case it was some poisonous substance made to look and smell like chocolate. You wouldn’t get into a lift or the bath, or sit on a chair, or walk or stand still. We act, every minute of every day, on the basis of certainty, and when there are reasons for doubt we are aware of that too, and know the kinds of steps one would take to resolve that doubt.

If the question isn’t how you can be sure, then what is it? I suggest the question, the properly philosophical question, is how you have the right to be sure. There are times when one asks this. For example, ‘I’m sure the bus will be along soon.’ How do you know? What right do you have to say this? There are other times when all one can say is that I am sure and I don’t need to prove anything.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything which relates specifically to the problem of the external world. I do happen to think that this is a deep problem, and it doesn’t have an easy solution. It’s not a pseudo-problem as some philosophers have argued. For me, however, the question isn’t so much ‘how I know’ there is something out there but rather what that ‘something’ is, or ultimately is. I don’t know what people mean when they talk about ‘the world’ or ‘things’. I don’t know what I mean when I talk about ‘myself’, or my ‘mind’ or ‘imagination’. It’s all up for grabs.

When she’s older, those are questions Joanna might enjoy pondering if she keeps up her interest in philosophy.


Answer by Craig Skinner

Well done Joanna for guessing right.

It’s true, your world isn’t real. And that goes for your mum and for you too.

You and your world are a pretend world that I run as a program on my supercomputer, a kind of computer game. It’s really interesting to see how it all works out from how I started it off plus the rules I put in the programme. Now that the programme has produced (pretend) people, including clever ones like you, it’s getting interesting. I’m sorry that the pretend people and animals sometimes have a really bad time. I’m trying to sort this, but it’s difficult to do without making it boring for me (and for you).

It’s a shame you find it hard to get to sleep. I’ll try to help. First of all, I wont be deleting you or switching off the world. I’ve been running it for millions of your years, find it a lot of fun, and it costs very little to run. Secondly, don’t worry that you’ve found out the truth. I wont delete you for this. You’re not the first – maybe you’ll meet some others. But mostly, other pretend people don’t believe you when you tell them. It’s no good showing them this email. They’ll just say it’s a joke. Naturally I have to hack into your pretend computer systems to reply to your question, and I use the false identity of a pretend person.

Keep trying to figure things out. And even though you and your mum are not real, she still loves you.


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