Does anything matter if nothing’s real?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
Yes, it does. Take the proposition by Bishop Berkeley that the world might not be real in the sense of being hard and soft, wet and dry etc., because these are all matters of perception. Then wet and dry, hard and soft are not real – they are ‘stories’ concocted by our perceptive apparatus. But you can’t say they don’t matter. They matter to us as perceiving agents.
Go one step further and look at evil. This is not real either, in the sense that it’s ‘out there in the world’. Rather it is a matter of perception again, yet it matters, because evil is suffered by the perceiving agents.
And now it is the perceiving agent who is crucial to this kind of thinking. If nothing else in the world is real, nonetheless the perceiver is. Descartes demonstrated this in his famous thought experiment of deconstructing the ‘real’ world. He said: let us assume that nothing exists, therefore I don’t exist either. But this lands us in a self-contradiction. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘therefore I exist.’ This sentence can’t be put into the negative, ‘I think, therefore I don’t exist.’ Accordingly ‘I’ (whatever this ‘I’ may be) exists without any possible doubt.
And it is this ‘I’ which, quite apart from having thoughts, also has all those perceptions. This ‘I’ perceives hard and soft, and wet and dry. They matter to the ‘I’, because they affect it. They can make the ‘I’ happy or sad, and they can make the ‘I’ perceive pleasure and pain, and all the other mental and emotional reactions of which an ‘I’ is capable.
You could put all this into a nutshell as follows: I doesn’t matter in the end if the world is real or not real. One way or another, we experience the world as real. Therefore we may as well act as if it was real. Especially so, as we are moral agents and have the ability to influence other human beings in their perceptions (i.e. with pain or pleasure). So that, in the end, real and sham are nothing more substantial than debating points. What matters is what we experience. The risk is only that thereby we oversimplify the complexity of the world, especially of those parts which are too big or too small for us to experience, but also those aspects (such as spiritual ones) which require special attunement to be perceived.
Consider finally, that even if nothing is real, but only perceptions, the greatest curiosity is that just about all human beings have the same perceptions of the same things. So there is a concordance among human perceptions which might at least suggest their source is ‘real’ and external to the perceiving agent. This makes it much more difficult to uphold the notion that these perceptions are all events in the mind of the perceiver. The old adage ‘reality bites’ is useful to remember in all discussions of this issue, especially if one of these bites doesn’t just hurt you, but kills!