The mind is a weird place. It just does one thing, it rambles. We are no different, only weirder. What if that which seems to be real is unreal and that which appears to be unreal is real? What if this world which we are living in right now is nothing but an illusion? And what if we are no different? What if we are all rubber dolls being operated by the Martians? (Okay, that was exaggeration, but what if!)
There is a famous philosophical joke about this whole idea of reality and idealism. Bishop Berkeley, a prominent idealist philosopher, said that all we see is an idea in the mind, it is not real. To this Samuel Johnson, the famous English poet, replied by kicking a rock saying, “I just kicked this rock, and it is not an idea.” But Berkeley was equally witty. He silenced Johnson and all others by saying, “When did I say that your leg is not an idea!”
Jokes apart, the debate between realism and idealism is one of the most important philosophical concepts. Rooted in this difference is the whole concept of Appearance and Reality which Bertrand Russell philosophized at length. When we see an object, is it the real object? Or does it only appear to be real and there is a real object beyond it? Is the reality hidden beyond unreality? Russell tried to find answers to similar questions.
How do we know something is real? No seriously! How? Right now we can see this tree outside our window, but can we say it’s real? Because if it is the reality, then it should be unchanging. Then why do different people see the tree differently? Like we might see it as green and flourishing, while person X might see it as shady and huge. While we see one shade of green, someone else might see a different one. If it were to be the reality, then we would not be perceiving it differently. So, what is the real tree? Does it even exist? And if it does, what is its nature?
This is the crux of Russell’s philosophy. We studied him recently in our Metaphysics class, and were blown away by the way his mind worked. We learnt things we never imagined in our wildest thoughts. He would say that whatever we perceive through our senses, is not the reality, but there is something beyond this appearance which is really real. And that is the reality we all look for.
Bertrand Russell’s mind-work of some time threw us into complicated confusion for it questioned all that we knew so far. If everything we see is an appearance, then what is reality? Is anything as we know it even real? We found ourselves to be like the protagonist of The Matrix, where Neo’s world is torn apart when he accepts a red pill from Morpheus. Neo chooses to swallow an offered red pill; his reality soon disintegrates and he abruptly wakes, naked and weak, in a liquid-filled vessel, finding himself as one of billions of people connected by cables to an elaborate electrical system. He is rescued and brought aboard Morpheus’s levitating ship, the Nebuchadnezzar.
Morpheus explains that in the 21st century, humans waged a war against intelligent machines they had created. When humans blocked the machines’ access to solar energy, the machines instead turned to harvesting the humans’ bioelectricity as a substitute power source, while keeping them trapped in the Matrix, a shared simulation of the world as it was in 1999, in which Neo has been living since birth. Morpheus and his crew belong to a group of rebels who hack into the Matrix and “unplug” enslaved humans, recruiting them as rebels. The red pill and its opposite, the blue pill, are pop culture symbols representing the choice between embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue pill). Well this concept made a good Sci-fi movie. Now the question is what if the world we live in is also a matrix? What if all that is happening to you and around you right now is all an illusion? Once one accepts The Matrix as a generated reality of malicious machines invention then this is Descartes’ First Meditation, a hypothesis that the perceived world might be a comprehensive illusion created to deceive us. One can make a connection between the premise of The Matrix and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; once one accepts that The Matrix is an illusion, then the allegory of the cave becomes clear. The allegory is related to Plato’s theory of Forms, which holds that the true essence of an object is not what we perceive with our senses, but rather its quality, and that most people perceive only the shadow of the object and are thus limited to false perception. This is what forms the basis of Russell’s theory on appearance and reality.
We cannot claim that we have completely understood the philosophy that Russell offers, but we are sure of one thing that, in this world full of appearances, actually, in this world which itself is an appearance, we are on a quest to find reality. And we think that our approach to it is not right. Instead of findind what is real, we should look for all that is unreal. It’s similar to the approach Indian Philosophy adopts to discover the ultimate truth, “evam nasti”. We like Russell because he offers such a different view to look at the world. It’s like when you go for a regular eye checkup and the doctor gives you glasses, and then you realize that all this time you were looking at the world through a film of haze. Russell’s philosophy is like those glasses, which has given us a clearer view of looking at things, and a clearer thinking to find out what is reality, for this is what Metaphysics is all about.
-Khushi Vijayvergiya and Aanchal Tewari