The Second Philosophy: Of Reality and Illusion

Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.

~ Zhuangzi

The world is more than just a mere illusion wrought by the minds of men. Even if reality is a persistent illusion, the persistent aspects of reality are the factors that make the external world more than just a fantasy. We know that the external environment of the world persists even as the internal minds of men that view it perish. This is because there are certain concepts that always hold a certain degree of permanence independent of an individual’s senses, experiences and perceptions. These concepts are the foundations of reality itself.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

~ Albert Einstein

In order to know what is true and certain, the mind must first turn around and reexamine everything and anything that can be vulnerable to skepticism. Whether it is beliefs, ideas, dogmas or opinions, the mind must reconsider these preconceptions to determine their degree of permanence and recurrence in the world. Anything that cannot firmly stand on its own two feet must be first discarded as an illegitimate presumption lest it be taken as a false premise of which the foundation of an individual’s world view (Weltanschauung) is laid.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

~ Carl Gustav Jung

As one proceeds to overturn all earlier acquired beliefs and make collapse the foundations of all perceived reality, one would realize that there certain things that cannot be doubted. The philosopher Descartes stated that if everything can be subject to doubt, would not doubt itself be undoubtable? If I can doubt, this would show that I am thinking and thus I exists. Hence the phrase: “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum). Descartes went on further and rationalized that because he is a part of the universe, his own existence would also prove the existence of the universe and of reality itself.

“I think, therefore I am.”

~ Descartes

Archimedes looked for only one firm and immovable point in order to move the whole earth. To understand what reality is, one must find premises that are absolutely true under all circumstances. In the material world, there are fundamental units that cannot be doubted like space, time, numbers and velocity. One plus one would always equal to two under all circumstances. The mind cannot conceive a reality without the presence of these fundamental units.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

~ Archimedes

Even if we step into another dream every time we awake from sleep, an independent reality persists as a constant and unchanging truth. Through imagination, we are able to conceive things or events that defy the laws of nature and physics. But even in doing so, all products of our imagination are but a combination of matter and ideas taken from a persistent and independent reality. For example, the ancient imaginary creatures of mythology are but the combination of ideas taken from reality. The Minotaur is but the combination of a bull and a man, while a mermaid, the combination of a fish and a woman.

For anything to exist in its entirety, it must be for the observing mind both a cause and effect or an action and reaction. All things ranging from the mind and matter must therefore be understood not as a stand alone structure but as a sum of its relations with all other things known to the mind. It is these relations that give meaning (raison d’être) to the existence of all things. Thus, it is impossible to understand or to imagine something that is absolutely independent of everything in existence.

“All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone. Everything is in relation to everything else.”

~ Buddha

Even the relationship between the society and the individual falls into the boundaries of cause and effect. Every individual is the product of society and is chained to a reality set by his immediate environment. From the other end, society itself would not exist without the individuals that give meaning to its existence. When relations are concerned, a book is only a book when it is treated and perceived like a book. Should a book fail to be read by a human being who understands the language used in its construction, the book degrades or degenerates into a mere object or matter and thus no longer being perceived as a book. It is the human being, the creator of languages and its written forms that the book must exist for. Without humans, all books would lose their very meaning of existence.

The very sounds of our heartbeats show that we are the bounded by the flow of time and an independent reality. Like a clockwork toy edging closer to its end, the steady rhythm of our hearts prove that we are both alive and moving closer to our deaths. The mind cannot conceive the absence of its own existence. Whether we like it or not, we will inevitably find food when we are hungry and sleep when we are sleepy. Even in committing suicide must one first acknowledge that one exists before being able to die.

“What do we know?”

~ Montaigne

In the simple formula with which Montaigne summarized his conclusion, the question is: what do we know (Que sais-je)? The implied answer is: very little. Knowledge can only show the truth with the existence of an independent and observable reality. Without reality, all knowledge would break down and become meaningless. If one calms his mind and reexamines all previously acquired knowledge, both taught and caught, almost everything in the world can be subject to doubt. How then can we prove that reality itself is not an illusion? How can we prove that we exist in the flesh? It therefore an imperative that one who seeks knowledge must doubt everything that can be doubted and reconstruct reality from principles that hold true under all circumstances.

2 Responses to “The Second Philosophy: Of Reality and Illusion”
  1. Doraz says:

    I enjoyed this one!

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