It is a very challenging and difficult
task to seriously question a belief that is considered to be
completely obvious. The common belief in the physical existence
of material things is just such a belief. We would probably consider
it a ludicrous request if anyone were to ask us to question or
doubt the existence of physical things. And yet that is exactly
what I will be asking you to try to do.
To help you with this difficult task
I offer you here three pieces of evidence that our belief in
the existence of physical stuff may be mistaken. The three evidential
pieces come from three completely independent sources, yet all
three sources point to the identical conclusion: viz., what we
think of as physical matter probably does not actually exist.
The three pieces of evidence are quantum physics, dreams, and
the Hindu concept of tulpas.
Physics is the scientific study of
physical matter, so if there is any modern science to which we
should turn to learn about the existence of physical matter,
it would probably be physics. To learn what quantum physics teaches
us about the existence or non-existence of physical matter, please
read the mini-lecture on quantum physics.
here and continue this lecture after completing your reading of
on quantum physics.
When we think closely about the kinds
of experiences that we all have for several hours almost every
night of our lives, we might also come to wonder about the ultimate
realness of physical matter. After all, the worlds we experience
in our dreams are also worlds which seem to be composed of physical
matter (they definitely seem that way while we are experiencing
them). But when we examine more closely those seemingly "physical" worlds
of our dreams and the seemingly "physical" things in
those dream worlds, we see that what appeared to be physical
matter while we were experiencing it is in fact made up only
of a kind of thought-stuff.
To help us look at this dream-reality
question more closely, I ask you now to go read the entirely
true story titled "My Dream," and to respond to the
questions at the end of that story. So please go now to "My
Dream," read it closely, and then when you've finished that,
come on back here.
Please break here
and continue this lecture after completing your reading of "My
Tulpas and Hinduism
The Hindu concept (or experience) of
the tulpa is yet another piece of evidence that might lead us
to question the actual existence of physical matter. If the entire
physical cosmos is, according to the ancient teachings of the
Hindu tradition, one great tulpa, then its status as physical
matter is definitely questionable.
To understand what a tulpa is, and
what its place is in the Hindu world-view, please read the mini-lecture
Please break here
and continue this lecture after completing your reading of the mini-lecture
I originally said that there would be
three pieces of evidence for you to take into account when you are
considering the question of the existence of physical matter, but
there is one more thing for you to consider also. George Berkeley's
philosophical writings are perhaps the most famous philosophical
examination of this question about the existence of physical matter,
and he concludes that common sense shows us, if we think about it
clearly, that physical matter simply does not exist. His arguments
are not abstruse or difficult, but are actually founded entirely
on simple common sense. He argues, therefore, that simple common
sense, if we think about it carefully and closely, will lead us
to the conclusion that physical matter does not exist, and that
the entire "physical" world is instead made up of a kind
Berkeley (1685-1753) wrote
two primary works on this question. Three
Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), written when
he was 28 years old, is a set of three short conversations between
Hylas, who represents people who believe in the existence of physical
matter, and Philonous -- lover of mind -- who represents Berkeley's
point of view. A somewhat more extended analysis of these arguments
is presented in his earlier work,A
Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)
written when he was 25 years old.
Most people find the Three Dialogues more
palatable and easier to read, but some students have told me
that they liked The Principles better.
Now, two questions for you to mull
over a bit and respond to in the classroom.
1. Even if you found none of these
three pieces of evidence entirely persuasive, which of the three
(or four, if you went off and read some Berkeley) would you say
was, for you, the most meaningful. That is, which of the three
pieces of evidence would be the one most likely to lead you to
question whether or not physical matter truly exists?
2. And what was it about that argument
that was persuasive to you?