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Is There An External World?
December 2, 2008, 12:17 pm
Filed under: Epistemology

Is there a proof for the existence of a mind-independent external world?  Yes and no.  

If we came across someone who genuinely doubted the existence of such an external world, really, and not just notionally, we’d say they were seriously unwell.  We’d send for help.  We wouldn’t try to reason with them.  We’d send them to a hospital.  

If we came across someone who only notionally doubted the existence of such an external world, we’d lead them through a series of practices which unveil our connection to the world.  We’d say “look at these two hands.”  We’d say “go smell those flowers.”  We’d say “go clime that tree.”  We’d say “go to the store and buy me some milk.  Here’s five dollars.  Bring me back the milk and we’ll eat these cornflakes.”

When we engage in these kinds of practices we encounter the external world.  After leading the skeptic through these practices, we can say to him, “here you are extending yourself out into the world.  Here you are navigating through this world and successfully achieving the ends at which you aimed yourself.”

If he brings up any of the standard skeptical arguments, it doesn’t make sense to try to reason with him and refute them.  

No.  Instead, point out that he doesn’t really believe in the conclusion of these arguments, except maybe in the most superficial, notional sense.  And it is hardly worth calling merely notional doubts, ‘doubts’ in the full sense.  The fact is that the skeptic does believe in an external world, as is revealed by their everyday practices.

It is not up to us to believe or disbelieve in an external world.  We just are the kind of creatures who do so believe.  It is a part of our constitution to so believe.  Given that we all do so believe, the key question is whether this belief is true and warranted.  Maybe we can’t prove that this belief is true or warranted, but we can’t believe otherwise, right?  

To persist in notional disbelief in the external world is to persist in a kind of deep existential dishonesty.

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