Now, I'm not quite done with the book, and I also don't want to give away what I suspect Kaplan's ending will be. So I'll focus on the existence of Santa Claus in another post.
Here I'll zero in on a thought-provoking thought experiment about beliefs and reality that Kaplan throws out in the introductory chapter. It's a good example of what I like most about the book: a pleasing blend of quirky humor and pretty darn sophisticated philosophizing.
Which isn't surprising, since Kaplan had five years of philosophy graduate school at Columbia and UC Berkeley. He's becoming a bit irritating with his emphasis on Kabbalah near the end of the book, but I'm hoping he'll bounce back from this semi-religious detour in the final chapters.
Anyway, here's the thought experiment.
Imagine a field so big we can play the biggest game of red rover in history in it. Imagine we could open up our skull and have all the beliefs get out and stand on one side of the field, holding arms. On the other side of the field stand all the things. One by one, the beliefs call out what they are all about.
When the belief in Africa calls out his name, "I'm a belief in Africa!" the actual object -- Africa -- raises its hand, and they go off to a side field labeled TRUE BELIEFS. "Bees! I'm a belief in bees!" "Great! We are bees!" And they go off together. "I'm a belief in the planet Neptune!" "I am the planet Neptune! Let's get a drink!" And off they would go paired up.
At the end of the day, a few beliefs would be left standing on their side of the field. They raise their hands: "I'm a belief in the lost continent of Atlantis!" And nothing answers on the other side. There is no lost continent of Atlantis. "I'm a belief in pixies!" No answer. There are no pixies. "I'm a belief in Santa Claus!" No answer because there is no Santa Claus. The belief in Santa Claus is wrong because there is no Santa Claus to correspond to it.
When I got this far in Kaplan's description of the thought experiment, I almost thought that the book had reached a conclusion.
That didn't make much sense, of course, since I was on page 11 of a 255 page book. And an almost-professional philosopher like Kaplan (he also is a comedy writer) isn't going to come to a conclusion on such an important question as "Does Santa Exist?" so quickly.
But I'll admit that the notion of beliefs calling out and not getting a response from the things that actually exist appealed to me. This fit with my basic world view, as cogently summarized in one of my favorite quotations. It was written by Philip K. Dick.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
In Kaplan's thought experiment, a belief without an actual thing corresponding to it ends up lonely. The thing indeed goes away when called by the belief.
Well, more accurately the thing can't go away, because it doesn't exist. The belief just stands there by itself, not getting an answer from the thing because reality doesn't contain the actuality of the thing -- just the belief in it.
Kaplan went on, though, making me realize that beliefs and things aren't related in a simplistic fashion.
The first problem is that our beliefs don't separate themselves into little bits. How would we count beliefs? Is my belief that Africa exists a super-belief made up of beliefs in all the people, countries, and animals that I believe are in Africa?
Or is it part of a larger belief that the world is divided into land masses? Or a still larger belief that there are such things as physical objects of which Africa is an instance? All and none.
My beliefs form a web or, better yet, a world. If anything corresponds to anything, it is the assemblage of beliefs, all linking arms, who correspond to the whole assemblage of facts, all linking arms. My mind corresponds to the world as a whole.
OK, a bit of pondering led me to believe that this take on beliefs made sense. The human mind does indeed operate with a world view, not a view of isolated individual things. I've read lots of neuroscience books, and they all say this in one way or another.
Our previous experiences, memories, thoughts, emotions, and such influence how we perceive reality in the present moment. We try to fit new things into our understanding of old things. If this wasn't the case, we wouldn't have cognitive dissonance, described by Wikipedia as:
The mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
For example, I believe in human-caused global warming.
But my belief in this is connected to many other beliefs, such as the efficacy of science, the accuracy of historical accounts of industrialization, basic principles of chemistry and physics, and so on.
If in Kaplan's thought experiment, a belief called out "Global warming! I'm a belief in global warming!" and got no answer from an actual thing, this would call into question a lot more than just the reality of global warming. A whole world view would be on shaky philosophical ground.
(Fortunately for science-minded folks like me, there is very little chance of this happening.)
Here's the final part of the thought experiment.
But there's a much more serious problem. When we imagine playing our game, we imagine that we ourselves are standing in the field somehow adjudicating the game. We are looking at the beliefs on one side and the things on the other.
But when we look at a thing and see it, that is just another way of saying we believe that that thing exists. There is no way to step outside ourselves and examine the world and our beliefs from the side.
Consider this classic sketch that illustrates epistemology: [picture of a man with an apple inside his head looking at an outside apple]
What is inside that head that looks like an apple? It's just a bunch of atoms, or if you prefer, neurons and glial cells, or if you prefer, an organ consisting of a prefrontal cortex, a cerebellum, the periaqueductal gray, the hippocampus, and so forth; but there is nothing in there that looks like an apple.
And when can we stand where the picture invites us to stand -- looking at the belief and the apple from the side? Never. We have to be within our beliefs, developing them.
We can't examine apples and beliefs separately and figure out if the beliefs match the apples, because the beliefs and the apples are part of a single phenomenon. They evolve together, much as flowers and bees' eyes do.
Yes, I was on board with this perspective also. After all, I'd written this in a 2014 post, "In a God's eye view, who does the seeing?"
I've heard the term, "God's eye view," before. But I haven't given it much thought. Maybe it was because I believed in God for so many years.
I never questioned the notion that there could be a way of looking upon reality that was godlike. After all, even scientists -- not just religious believers -- assume the cosmos can be viewed from some sort of detached objective transcendent perspective.
This is the way things are.
OK. But says who? And where is that entity?
If inside the cosmos (which I define as everything that exists), then this being with a supposed God's eye view isn't seeing everything, since it is within everything. It is a part of reality, of existence, of the cosmos.
Thus this being not only can't see itself, it has its own perspective. It is situated within some aspect of the cosmos. For us this means time and space. Or more accurately, the space-time continuum.
This isn't nowhere. It is somewhere.
When we imagine God being aware of everything, what does the vision consist of? For me, I either picture myself looking through God's consciousness (a fantasy, for sure) or see God as if from the outside, gazing upon everything (another fantasy).
In the latter case, I'm definitely taking a God's eye view of God.
Yet also in the first case, more subtly. Because I am picturing myself looking through God's consciousness, which is a perspective on God's perspective.
The Big Question is whether a God's eye view makes any sense.
Can any being really understand reality as it is -- detachedly objectified -- or is reality always a matter of subjective perspective?
Well, I'd answer my own question this way: it's a bit of both.
We can never detach ourselves from reality and view it as an object. There always is a strong element of subjectivity in our perspective. However, even though objectivity and subjectivity are inextricably linked, this object/subject mashup ranges from highly-subjective (dreams) to highly-objective (physics).
It'll be interesting to see how Kaplan looks at the question, Does Santa Exist?, in his book's final chapters. Like I said, his excursion into Jewish mysticism seems like a detour to me. But it could very well be an essential foundation to his final philosophical conclusions.
Which I'll relate in a follow-up post.