These are babies, pretending to be stupid animals; see how the one on the right has a human ear. It is somehow significant that we only see one, but are likely to assume there are two. This is what babies would say if they could really talk, and this is how they would appear to us if we really heard them.
Descartes. Brains-in-a-vat. Skepticism. The problem of other minds. Philosophy 101.
The 15 year-old pragmatist in me was already fed up with these sorts of puzzles– “why do you ask?” I would wonder. I can’t help but notice how bothered some people are by the mere thought that reality as they know it might not really be what they think it is. The thought doesn’t bother me like it does them, and far be it from me to impose myself on anyone, but it’s hard not to have something to say about this stuff when people press you for an opinion. Interestingly enough, the last thing they really want you to do is agree with their suspicions. Hell, no. The only reason anyone asks you such stupid questions is because they want to be told they’re wrong. Why ask questions at all though?
Whoever asks questions with the desire or at least openness to being surprised has a sense of someone/thing else really being there. For someone not expecting someone else to really be there, someone like Lacan’s psychotic, the surprise would be an unbearable explosion of the world, the revealing of a hole in what was thought to be wholly imagined. For such a person, a someone else isn’t even a meaningful possibility; the sheer thought of it ruins everything, and they don’t know why.
This is why skeptical doubt, the kind shamelessly suggested in movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, is least of all a problem. This doubt is the eternal confirmation and seal we so fervently crave, though we forget it periodically when certainty creeps into our world. Without it, we could not know if we were wrong about anything; to be wrong about that which we are certain is not possible without going through doubt.
In this sense, our openness to Others is constitutive of our openness to the world at all. How do we know if we are open to Others, and therefore the world at all? Specifically to the extent that this always remains in question. To this end, Cartesian skepticism and the “problem” of other-minds are hardly problems at all; our doubt is our openness to Others, who may confirm or deny us.
If we follow Descartes, we cannot be certain of things “outside” the mind, which are otherwise “objectively present,” though the subjective content of the mind qua mind is minimally certain. Cogito ergo sum.
How is it that I know I am not psychotic, then, if the only content of my mind to speak of appears to me as objectively present? In other words, where is the minimal distance that separates truth from illusion, real from unreal, inside from outside?
Let’s make it clear by thinking of how people usually talk about The Matrix. They talk about being-in-the-Matrix as being different from being-not-in-the-Matrix, or rather, the kind of being of being-in-the-Matrix is different from the kind of being of being-not-in-the-Matrix. Where/what is the difference, but more difficultly where am I going when I traverse the fantasy of that difference?
UPDATE: Being-not-in-the-Matrix is, as far as I’m concerned, an absurd way to talk. Rather, for the sake of having a coherent sense of the world, we should talk about not-being-in-the-Matrix. There is a structural ambiguity here though: how are we to understand the difference between NOT being-in-the-Matrix and NOT-BEING (that is) in-the-Matrix? Is this difference simply a replay of the one I already considered. If the difference alludes you, think of at least two different ways to understand “he saw her with binoculars.” If that alludes you, you’re on the wrong blog.
When someone goes through some kind of acute psychosis, like schizophrenia or some species of delusion or paranoia, we often say “they’ve lost touch with reality.” How do we speak for them in this way when it implies we are certain of our being “in touch with” reality just as much as they are even when we tell them what they see or hear or anticipate is not real?
Often enough psychotics are treated enough or are not so “lost” that they can talk about their experience as unreal, but acting that way still seems beyond them. Below this threshold, psychotics will often act and talk about their experience as real, despite protestations and even physical intervention. What is our epistemic model in science and liberal democracy more than the consensus of empirical facts?
Such a model seems to function in a way that by definition exclude the psychotic’s gesture to being “in touch with reality,” which means the consensus model of knowledge functions by virtue of its lack of consensus, since it lacks the psychotic’s agreement with their interpretation of reality. Lacan will say that the psychotic break occurs when they encounter the name-of-the-father in the real, which in practical terms is when they receive an interpretation that they hear as outside their own from someone occupying or otherwise speaking from the place of the Symbolic Father. In their attempt to patch over this hole they poked in their world, they resist what is in more Heidegerrian terms a revelation of Being offered from an Other. We experience that as the psychotic losing reality, while they also talk as if its precisely reality that they are saving. However, we agree that this is an example of “losing touch with reality” only on the basis of agreement, which is always already impossible so long as the psychotic refuses to agree with the revelation of Being we offer them.
Chuang-Tzu was all over this 2000 years ago when he asked the brilliant question of how he know’s he’s not a butter-fly dreaming he’s Chuang-Tzu or the other way around