Why I am Not a Skeptic about the External World
Published 25 May 2017
The question why one can become skeptical about the external world entails two things. First is that it entails that there is an idea of an external world. Second is that it entails that there is a perceiving object or thing which grows skeptical about the external world. With the first implication, it can be said that for one to become skeptical about something, that something would have to be first an idea, or that there should be an idea of that something which the skepticism is about. This, however, does not guarantee nor propose that the idea would have to correspond to an actual object although we are tempted to argue for that in the following paragraphs.
On the other hand, skepticism roots from the ability of the mind to be skeptical. As Rene Descartes once said, “I think, therefore, I am”. A doubting mind is already proof in itself that there is a mind, and that mind is the mind which doubts whatever it is that it finds doubtful. Hence, there ought to be no question if there is a mind or otherwise precisely because the capacity to question and doubt, to begin with, tells us that there is a doubting mind.
As a consequence, the question of skepticism towards the external world implies that the mind is skeptical about the world that is not within it, or the world that is outside of it. From the point of view of the skeptic, it may be argued that there is no outside world and the only thing that exists is the mind. That is, the mind is all that there is, and that everything that the mind perceives is the product of our mental functions. From our daily experiences in our homes to our visual sensations, all of these things are mere products of the mind as a skeptic may argue.
I believe that there is an external world and that I am not skeptical about it. However, it does not mean that I do not believe that there are certain errors that our senses encounter. It may be the case that we tend to confuse the reality of certain objects given the often failure of our senses, such as the case of mirages where our eyes are deceived by what is presented before it. Nonetheless, it only goes to show that, at the least, our senses are functioning, although its functions may sometimes become erroneous.
The failure of our senses and even our minds to experience, understand and explain things does not, however, guarantee that there is no external world after all. While there may be instances when our minds, even from a collective standpoint if individuals, have collectively failed to comprehend certain things, it does not mean that there is nothing outside of it simply because the mind failed to comprehend. The fact that there are other minds comprehending many other things in the world entails that there, too, are existent spatial and temporal objects which, the ‘other’ perceiving minds just being a few of them.
Perhaps indeed the skepticism towards an external world is caused by the failure of the mind to comprehend things. Perhaps because the mind is unable to discern some of the ‘mysteries’ in this life we are led to believe already that there is no such thing as an external world, and that the so-called ‘external world’ is only the product of the mind. Yet is it really the case that all these things are just mental products and, hence, there is no actual external world when all along we grow with life and acquire new experiences each day? That is to say that our lives begin from being a fetus, to an infant, until we reach the point of adulthood. If indeed everything is just a product of our mental faculties, then it follows that from the time since we already have the minds to think and comprehend everything else must be already within our minds. As we grow, it may only be the case that we begin to gradually realize all that the things contained in our minds, and that eventually there is no external world.
But then again, it can hardly be the case that the mind contains within it all the things in the world, or all the ideas in the world, so that we begin to think or become skeptic that there is no external world. If the mind already contains all the ideas in the world, would it be of no use anymore to have experiences, and that we can only arrive some time in the future to realize what we know all along?
Of course, experiences share a crucial part in the development of our understanding, our understanding of our selves and of the world notwithstanding. Without these experiences, one can hardly have a grasp of reality, like that of a child locked in a room since birth and deprived of the opportunity to interact with others unable to comprehend the things around him. We do not experience just through our own. That is, we experience what we experience through the external world, through the world outside of the mind for the mind is not an entity confined on ‘looking’ on its own. Rather, the mind is also an entity which looks ‘outside’ of it as we extend our sensory perceptions outwards and absorb the perceptions brought by the external objects.
I am not a skeptic of the external world even though Berkeley believes that matter does not exist and that everything that may exist is merely a mind or something which depends on a perceiving mind for its existence. It is indeed scary to think that matter does not exist if we are to believe Berkeley precisely because the brain wouldn’t exist and that, since brains do not exist, the mind would not exist under any given circumstance. I would not have been able to type this and the reader would not be reading this essay as well.
Yet I have written this and I fully comprehend what I am doing, my mind is functioning and that I do not doubt that I have a mind, much as the reader, too, has a mind. Matter is a small part of the external world, giving concrete form to objects like our body which inevitably makes possible for the mind. Our minds are only a part of the external world although each mind has in it its own sets if understandings and ways of comprehending the external world.
- Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy.