Questioning the appearance/ reality distinction

Milly asked:

Examine the view that our understanding of the universe is enhanced by our ability to distinguish appearance and reality.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, right? Raj, who joined the class at the beginning of term looks a bit of a dimwit. He sits at the back of the class, never asks questions and his conversation consists mostly of monosyllables. Wrong! Turns out that Raj has an IQ of 187 (and you can continue the story from there).

It’s a truism that knowledge and understanding are advanced by questioning our preliminary judgements or the way things first appear to us. Looks can be deceptive. On the other hand, your initial judgement can be absolutely on target. That happens too. Human beings have a remarkable ability to suss things out swiftly, a valuable survival trait gifted to us by evolution. With people, especially. You can be right in your initial impression then subsequently get taken in by a web of lies because you didn’t trust your ‘intuition’.

The ability to distinguish appearance and reality is not confined to human beings. Mimicry as a method of self-defence is a widespread feature of the animal and insect worlds, which has led to an evolutionary arms race between the resourcefulness of the mimics and the ability of predators to see through the mimicry.

To the best of my knowledge, however, non-human animals do not have any ‘understanding of the universe’, so let’s put that aside.

Histories of Western philosophy identify the Presocratic philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes as the first thinkers to question whether the world really is as it appears. Anaximenes held the remarkable view that every object in the universe is more or less compressed air. Despite appearances, you and I are compressed air. The chair you are sitting on is nothing but compressed air, and so on.

The Presocratics were the first thinkers to propose theories to explain the world and how it came to be the way it is. Up to that time, cosmogony, or accounts of how the universe came into being, was basically make-believe.

Here’s an example: once upon a time there was a male and a female god, who had sex and as a result the female god hatched a giant egg which cracked open revealing a fully formed world. — Dumb, right? However, as the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes noted, the best theories of the time were ultimately not much more than guesswork. Human beings can never know what is really real, he thought. We entertain one another with more or less rational ‘accounts’ of the cosmos.

Fast forward 2500 years and we now have ways of testing at least some of these accounts. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted the bending of light by large gravitational fields, a prediction that was first confirmed in 1919. On the other hand, M-theory or ‘string theory’ as it’s known is still waiting a practical test and may never be capable of being verified or falsified.

So what?

So far so good — for science, anyway. Most theories are testable, and the ones that aren’t still provide a useful occupation for theoretical physicists who don’t like to bother with finicky experiments and are happy with just a whiteboard and coloured markers. (They are much cheaper to run than the ones who insist on having time on the Large Hadron Collider, so universities love them.)

In metaphysics, on the other hand, the appearance-reality distinction has proved catastrophic. Over the centuries, philosophers have proposed ever more elaborate ‘theories of everything’ or accounts of ‘ultimate reality’ — from Berkeley to Leibniz to Kant to Schopenhauer, Fichte and Hegel — none of which commands any credence except as an historical curiosity. As a result, metaphysics has become what exactly Kant feared, writing in 1781 in his Preface to the First Edition of Critique of Pure Reason:

“Time was when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences; and if the will be taken for the deed, the pre-eminent importance of her accepted tasks gives her every right to this title of honour. Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken, she mourns like Hecuba: Modo maxima rerum, tot generis natisque potens — nunc trahor exul, inops.” [‘Greatest of all things by birth and power, now I am exiled and destitute.’]

Kant is as much to blame as any Western philosopher, with his hopelessly obscure theory of ‘Phenomena and Noumena’, which Hegel rejected only to replace it with an even more fantastical theory, according to which — despite all appearance to the contrary — ‘the Real is Rational and the Rational is the Real.’

Today, the term ‘metaphysics’ in English-speaking philosophy is largely used as a label for anything but the serious attempt to give an account of ultimate reality.

However, I happen to believe that it is possible to give an account of ultimate reality without invoking the appearance-reality distinction. If you want to know how, well that’s something I’m currently working on but you can start by looking at my blog Metaphysical Journal.

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