"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wrestling With Reality–How Do I Know The Oak Tree Really Exists?

Albert Peters named his son Berkeley after the philosopher Bishop Berkeley, famous for “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise?”. The Bishop called his theory "immaterialism" and according to it denied the existence of material substance; but instead contended that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived.

Image result for images bishop berkeley

Albert had first heard of this idea in a philosophy course at Yale taught by the famous metaphysician Paul Weiss.  “Metaphysics”, Weiss said in his opening lecture, “is the philosophy of what is; not what’s what”, always getting the snickering response he expected from every class every year.  That was the only joke Weiss ever told, and for one semester he insisted (not ‘adumbrated’, his favorite word to describe the shadows on Plato’s cave and other faintly-perceived or referential ideas) that by the end of the three months the class know how to determine the fundamental nature of reality and being. A tall order even for Yale juniors few of whom had any clue about what constituted reality except for poontang and drinking. Yet Weiss took it all seriously; and although he wished he could drop the “If a tree…” reference because it was so obvious and titillating for twenty-year olds, he knew that it concisely summarized Berkeley’s philosophy.

Image result for image paul weiss philosopher

Albert Peters was one of the few students who actually took metaphysics to heart.  The rest of the class were philosophy majors who had backed into the concentration because they were at odds-and-ends at the end of sophomore year and were advised by the Dean of Students that once one had decided on the Liberal Arts it really didn’t matter what you majored in.  No one was going to look that far down your resume anyway.  Yale would be enough.

Metaphysics was a natural for Albert because of his religious upbringing.  Although Catholicism was mostly about sin and the importance of avoiding it; and he had to sit through Father Murphy’s harangues about adultery, impure thoughts, and the fires of Hell which awaited all sexual deviants. One Jesuit priest, however, saw that Albert was interested in more than just the catechism; and he gave him sections of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Augustine’s Confessions to read.  Neither of these philosophers were easy reads, so Father James took it upon himself to provide explanation and annotation for young Albert. “How do we know that we exist?”, Albert had asked the priest. “And for that matter, how do we know that anything exists?”.


Father James quickly found the answer in Augustine who simply rejected the epistemological criticisms mounted by the Academic skeptics. Even if it were true that I am mistaken about nearly everything that I suppose to be true, Augustine argued, one inescapable truth will remain: "Si fallor, sum" ("If I am mistaken, I exist"). Based upon this insight, Augustine believed it possible to employ human faculties of sense and reason effectively in the pursuit of substantive knowledge of the world.


Albert had forgotten this idea of Augustine’s until he got to Paul Weiss’ class. Bishop Berkeley had concluded exactly the opposite, that neither reason nor one’s senses could be of any use in determining what was; and from that day forward Albert became obsessed with the idea of the substance of reality.

This would have been all well and good if Albert had been able to consider the conundrum within an academic context – pursuing a PhD in philosophy, for example, an idea suggested by Weiss himself – but it became a central feature of his life. He challenged the reality of everything he saw or heard.  He looked at the trees in his back yard and recalling Bishop Berkeley asked a similar question. “I can see and hear the tree”, he said to himself, “but how do I know if it is not a figment of my imagination, a distortion caused by a febrile brain, or even the animations of a superior intelligence.  The Gnostics came to mind with their ideas of The One and the nous, reality ‘emanated’ from a spiritual unity; and although Father James had told him that they were heretics and caused untold grief for the early Church, Albert thought that they might have had a point.

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Unfortunately Albert never grew out of his obsession.  It was not unlike an allergy, like the ragweed pollen which made his life miserable every April growing up in New Brighton.  His sister counted fifty sneezes in a row one year when he was ten.  Suddenly, when he was 19, walking through the Freshman Quadrangle at Yale, past Connecticut Hall and the statue of Nathan Hale, he stopped sneezing.  There was ragweed everywhere growing around the the dormitories and wouldn’t be cut down until Graduation; but his nose didn’t tickle, his eyes didn’t water, and he didn’t bark out sneeze after sneeze.  Whatever peculiarities in his system that had caused him so much grief had suddenly disappeared.

The reality thing, however, never went completely away.  He sought psychiatric help as an adult because he thought he might be schizophrenic.  He had read about John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who had suffered from the disorder for decades.  In fact he never was cured, but simply learned to believe that the familiar people from his past who showed up in his office, on the Princeton campus, or in his garden were simply not real.  How hard this must have been, thought Albert. There was nothing to distinguish Nash’s imaginary friends from others. How could he have ignored what for all intents and purposes were real people?

Image result for images john nash mathematician

The psychiatrist told Albert that there was nothing wrong with him that a little trip to the Bahamas wouldn’t cure.  He was not demented; but only over-intellectualized like many very smart people. “What difference does it make”, asked the psychiatrist, “whether that oak tree outside my window exists or not?  Doesn’t it feel good to sit under it on a hot July day?”.

That was all it took to shake some sense into him.  He wasn’t a loony like John Nash who imagined things, only an intellectual who pondered them.  If the oak tree’s leaves rustled, and if they provided shade from the summer heat, that was all that counted.

Eakins rowers 2

The psychiatrist had, however, dismissed Albert’s obsession a little too quickly, for the obsession returned after a year, but this time it was not the nature of reality that kept him up at night, but time.

He was a man of routine and especially as he aged, more and more activities became routine.  Every morning at 3am when he woke to work on his book, he made tea. He warmed the pot and the teacup, heated the milk and the water, chose from one of his many varieties of tea, infused the leaves, let the tea steep, and then drink exactly two cups. The problem was that every morning as he moved his hands through the tea ceremony he felt as though no time had passed.  “I just did this”, he said to himself, “but I know I did it yesterday. How can I slow time down so I don’t die too quickly?”.

Time Machine

He tried to alter his routine by having coffee instead of tea; rising at 4 instead of 3, leaving the tea service unwashed until the afternoon instead of washing up immediately.  Nothing worked.  The aberrations themselves became routine.

He tried walking to the office a different way each morning and go down a different corridor to get to his desk.  “If I don’t have to see those same bloody Indian women fetching water”, he said referring to the stock photos of World Bank projects on the walls, “maybe the days won’t go by so quickly”.

That didn’t work either; and like the tea-coffee exchange, no matter how he entered, navigated, and travelled through the Bank, it was the same. The next morning seemed so identical to the previous one that he thought he had actually missed a day

He went back to the psychiatrist who said that it happened to all people as they grow older.  They see the dimming light at the end of the tunnel, would do anything to travel more slowly towards it and in their obsession with time, make it pass more quickly. “Forget about it”, the doctor said. “What you need is a few weeks in Barbados.”

Once again the psychiatrist had earned his keep; and Albert felt renewed and refreshed after the trip.  What did it matter if the women at the well reminded him of the figures in an old, stuttering black and white kinescope?

Like Leo Tolstoy, he had a final epiphany. Tolstoy wrote in A Confession that he simply had realized that millions of people alive believed in God, and billions before him had also; so what had been the purpose of his lifelong search for truth? Why not simply join the human race and do what everyone else does. After that Tolstoy lost his anxiety and was a far happier man. 

Albert, once he realized that neither the nature of reality or of time mattered in the least, he too was happy. Whether real or unreal, whether quick or slow, life for everyone was the same and headed in the same direction.

Now death was one subject he did not want to start worrying about.


Marilyn Monroe

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