Response to The Evil Demon

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By KurnDerak
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Doubt is one of the most useful tools in our quest to rationalize our experiences and discover what truths may be out there.  The problem, however, is determining what is an acceptable level of doubt and what is doubt gone wild.  A proposed demon that distorts our perceptions, thus causing us to believe that we are being logical when in fact we are quite illogical is an example of doubt that far exceeds reason.  Or is that just what the demon wants us to think?  As humans we desire to find comfort and certainty in our worldviews.  It is the assurance that we understand how things are that allows most people to get through the day instead of suffering through something like an existential crisis.  This is why solipsism and extreme doubt in our ability to know anything poses such a serious problem.  That is, until we are able to get a firm grasp on being able to counter the questions raised by such positions.

The position of solipsism, in simple terms, is that the self is the only thing that is certain to exist.  It can range from simply doubting that anything outside of one’s own consciousness exists to flat out denying that anything else exists.  The strongest aspect of solipsism is that it simply cannot be soundly refuted.  There seems to be a limitless supply of ways to bring doubt into what we know or what exists.  Perhaps only my brain exists in some sort of Matrix like simulation and every experience is a fabrication caused by a computer stimulating nerves.  Or, as the book uses in its example, there is a demon that distorts our perception of reality into thinking that basic concepts are true when they actually are not.  How then do we counter such claims if any refutation is simply met by new reasons to doubt?

The biggest strength of this line of thought is also what turns out to be its weakness.  The claims of solipsism not only are extremely difficult to refute but they are often equally difficult to substantiate.  They are essentially doubt without substance, questioning reality for the sake of questioning rather than with a foundation to base them on.  One could then just as reasonably ask if there were some divine power, for the sake of juxtaposing with the demon of doubt as it were, that actually helps us align with reality? This divine being would also hide all aspects of its existence, causing us to feel as though we rationalize on our own.  What if our ability to perceive is itself inferior to what is needed to even determine that 2+2=4, yet with the help of this divine entity we then understand this?  This may seem silly to ask as it adds in unnecessary steps to determining how we find something true and if we can rely on it, but it still plays on our doubt.  It is just as viable of a question as the demon, as well.  Yet it is also as baseless of a question, it would seem.  It needlessly complicates the issue and not only does not allow for some way to determine if this claim is true but includes aspects that would disallow us from distinguishing between this claim being true or false.

If we can neither determine if these claims are true or false, then where do we go from here?  Well, the most practical answer would be that we set aside or discard any claims that have no discernible way of determining their truth.  What use are statements about reality if there is no way for us to differentiate between them and something a person made up?  The best course of action, I propose, is to focus on what can be shown to be true.  What actually is true is of little value to us if we are unable to show that it is true.  If there is actually a demon distorting how we perceive reality what are we going to be able to do about it if we’re never able to demonstrate this somehow?  Thus far there is no way to distinguish between this claim being true and us as humans being able to accurately perceive reality and rationalize.  What we need is an internally consistent systems of knowledge, something we can build upon.  We do this by keeping that which can be shown to be true.  Even if we are wrong and there is a logic demon tricking us we’ll never know and will experience the world as though we got things right.

Possibly the simplest answer to this sort of problem is that of Occam’s Razor.  The questions about reality raised by many solipsists tend to needlessly complicate in order to bring doubt about our understandings.  So if we are unable to distinguish between the hypothesized scenario raised by a solipsist and the generally accepted explanation of reality then it is generally better to discard the solipsist’s scenario flat out.  We experience the world around us equally in both scenarios, and our lives play out precisely the same way.  It is just in the solipsist concepts that this book raises we add on extra details that claim what we perceive as true is not actually true.  The end result is essentially the same either way, we perceive 2+2 as equaling 4.  If we are correct and our logic works we have a basic principle of math that allows us a foundation to build skyscrapers of knowledge.  If we are incorrect we are deceived into thinking we have a foundation to build skyscrapers of knowledge without ever knowing it doesn’t work.  To us these two scenarios are indistinguishable to the participant.  The only way we’d ever know the difference is if some outside observer were to interact with us who was not influenced by this logic demon. Until such a time we can simply discard this notion as fascinating but ultimately not satisfactory.

Lastly what one might need to do is weigh the options available and determine which option should be accepted based on the pros and cons of each being true.  This is how I have personally worked through the question of whether or not we are just a brain in a jar experiencing some sort of Matrix like simulation.  For this I take the idea that I want to continue existing for granted, and so me continuing to exist is equal in both a simulation of reality and reality itself.  The issue becomes how do we treat others and truth.  In the simulation nothing really exists so it wouldn’t actually matter how we treat everything else.  No other person has feelings as they are just computer programs.  How we treat others doesn’t ultimately matter as they would cease to exist when the simulation ends and never existed before it began.  The same goes for how we treat the world around us.  Knowledge is whatever the simulation parameters determine it is.  At most we would determine how the simulation was set up and never know what reality outside of the simulation is.  Everything we know then disappears when the simulation ends.  In the end we really gain nothing by how we treat others or what we learn.  We also lose nothing based on these same things.  However, if reality is accurate to how we perceive it then there is much to gain and lose.  If other people really do exist how we treat them matters a lot.  We have much to gain based on how well we treat them and much to lose based on how poorly we treat them.  The same goes for knowledge.  If in the end we increase human knowledge that continues past our death we have plenty to gain by furthering our knowledge and plenty to lose should we not increase or even decrease it.
This sort of rationalization does not refute the concepts brought forth, but it also does not try to.  It simply points out that sometimes when given several ways of viewing the world around us we have to determine which one has unacceptable consequences were it to be true and we didn’t treat it as such.  If we treat the world as real and it is in fact a simulation we have not actually lost anything, but if we treat it as a simulation with no real ramifications outside of our own existence and it is real we have much to lose.
In an attempt to work on being a better amateur philosopher I am going to work my way through The Pig That Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher by Julian Baggini.  This will allow me the chance to think through and express many ideas that I already have but in a slightly more structured way as it will be responding to the concepts brought up in the book.
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