Are we just Thinking Things in a World?

What do we really know about the relationship between the world and our experience of it? That is an important question and there are at least three things that we can be sure of.

  1. We all know that we have a subjective experience of the world. We all see, hear, taste, smell and feel the world.
  2. We also know that our interactions with the world often seem to confirm to us that our subjective experience is directly related to a world out there.
  3. Lastly we know that at least sometimes our actions in the world match up with those of other people in ways that suggest that we are experiencing the same world.

The first of these assertions seems quite obvious to me. I don’t know anyone who denies that they have a subjective experience of the world. That agreement quickly breaks apart once we consider how that experience is created and more significantly what it actually means. That we have an experience of the world is obvious, what that experience actually represents seems to be anyone’s guess. Some believe that our experience of the world is a mental representation of an actual world that we exist within? Others believe that our experience of the world is a purely fictitious creation of our minds that is not a reflection of any ‘real’ world at all.  Between these two poles there are all kinds of part way alternatives.

The second assertion is also pretty obvious. When I see a cup on a table I seem to be able to reliably reach my hand out and pick it up. Thousands of simple actions like this everyday confirms our sense that our subjective experience is a representational experience of a real world that we exist within and can effectively manipulate.

The third assertion is less obvious, but I believe equally true. Many people deny the existence of an ‘outer world’ that is the object of our subjective experience. They generally do not deny however that there are times the subjective experience of reality held by two or more people allows them to interact in ways that make it look like they are experiencing the same world. For instance if I see a cup on a table and ask you to “pick up the cup” and you do. The fulfillment of that simple directive seems to imply that the cup I ‘see’ in my subjective experience and ask for, is the same cup that you ‘see’ in your subjective experience and pick up for me.

This may all seem trivial – however each of these assertions can be and has been and is being challenged by some pretty stupendously original thinkers. The reason that all of these assertions seem obvious to us is because we have all been conditioned – indoctrinated if you will – into a particular experience of reality. Human beings have been training themselves to experience reality in specific ways for centuries. The development of human culture is the development of the experience of being human.

We all experience ourselves as a thinking thing – an entity that has a body and mind. We tend to locate ourselves most strongly in the thoughts and feelings of the mind and secondarily in the movements of the body. We experience the entity that we are as existing in a world. The world is like a stage and we are actors on the stage. The three assertions about the relationship between the world and our experience of it are embedded in the experience of ourselves as being entities in a world.

If we challenge the fundamental picture of human beings as thinking things in a world then we automatically challenge all three of those assertions. Many Philosophers and scientists today are challenging the ‘thinking entities in a world’ assumption in different ways and I believe that challenging this fundamental picture of reality is the most important philosophical project of our time.

One such challenge to this view came from William James the great American philosopher of the last century. He challenged the entities-in-a-world view with his world-of-pure-experience view. What he realized is that all that exists is experience. The cup we see before we pick it up is obviously an experience. But also the picking up of the cup is only an experience of picking up the cup.  And if a friend picks up the cup for us, their picking up of the cup only exists for us as an experience of them picking up the cup.

James’ philosophy of Radical Empiricism rests on his understanding that reality is always only an unfolding stream of experience and nothing more.