Yes or No: Is There an External World?

AI-generated painting depicting ‘internal’ and ‘external’ world.

As the title suggests, as of recent, I was pressured into giving a categorical answer to what I deem to be a false dichotomy, for reasons that I shall elaborate later. The question was raised by an acquaintance who grew frustrated with my responses when there was an exchange of metaphysical views between us, which began with my disagreement with his notion that our existence in the world is fundamentally derived from ‘pure potential’, more of which below, from the quotations and explanations that he provided. He said, and I quote:

So pure potential is another name for spinoza’s god he says that

“By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself”; “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence”; “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”

So in order for anything to exist there has to be the potential for it, now pure potential or god has to exist prior to a specific situation and a specific situation requires the general situation, the potential for the general situation has to lie in something more general, unconditioned, hence pure potential but pure potential can’t be all there is otherwise we wouldn’t have be able to say something is impossible, so there must be situated potential or constrained potential

– ‘A’

To complement, this is the summary that he provided:

pure potential -> the total situation -> situated potential.

total situation-> situated potential -> the species essence -> the species existence -> an individuals existence -> therefore an individuals sense of self which is taken as their essence

– ‘A’

To put it differently, if we were to ask him what Heidegger called the fundamental question of metaphysics i.e. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, I understand his answer to be “because nothing isn’t actually nothing. It is ‘pure potential’.” What follows is a causal chain of events starting with ‘pure potential’ that produced or caused the total situation to exist, up until where we are, individuals belonging to the human species in a world called earth.

Since, in his conception, there was and can be such a thing as a purely objective world, I asked how his conception of things accounts for the individual and his sense-experience (including mind-experience or imagination), and the nature of material change due to conscious action, to which he responded saying:

It’s an emergent property of matter, matter can be objectively present because of pure potential, matter is present in a situation with a limited potential

The individual has consciousness and can act because our kinds essence allows for it, the human condition follows from causal relations but these causal relations could have gone another way

I’m not being deterministic I’m just saying things happen and things can happen that haven’t happened

– ‘A’

Furthermore, in our conversation, he explicitly stated that he makes a clear distinction between Reality ‘as such’ and Reality ‘as experienced’. I referred him to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (or ‘Being-in-the-world’), which he responded and also included a quotation from Being and Time (I have added the preceding sentence in square brackets below for context):

[Interpretation is carried out primordially not in a theoretical statement but in an action of circumspective concern—laying aside the unsuitable tool, or exchanging it, ‘without wasting words’.] “[F]rom the fact that words are absent, it may not be concluded that interpretation is absent.” Heidegger [(Being and Time, p. 158)]

Cool but, the fact that interpretation is absent, does not allow us to conclude that the interpretable thing is never to be present

– ‘A’

To my acquaintance, the existence of an “interpretable thing” (both factically and temporally) precedes ‘interpretation’. As my reader, you may first of all be unsure about this discussion given the very limited context and theoretical jargons, and as a second point it may appear only logical that interpretation first requires an object to ‘hold fast’ and interpret (thus “interpretable thing”). However, allow me to perform a critical analysis of the text, in case it may effect a change of mind later on:

  1. Text Reference: “From the fact that words are absent, it may not be concluded that interpretation is absent.”
  2. Text Interpretation: a) The ‘absence of words’ or ‘silence’ (which is a ‘thing’) is present (i.e. it is a ‘positive’ phenomenon). The ‘presence of words’, or ‘absence of silence’ (which is another ‘thing’ of the same nature [of words]) is the absent (or a ‘negative’ phenomenon) at present. The latter is the counterpart of the former in that it is only a possible state of affairs of the actual situation at present.; b) Thus, the present ‘thing’ (i.e. the positive phenomenon) can be described as ‘actual’, as opposed to the ‘possible’ which is an absent ‘thing’ (i.e. the negative phenomenon), within the totality of ‘things’ (i.e. the actualpossible state of affairs, phenomena, ‘experience as a whole’) involving actions of circumspective concern.; c) “Within the totality of ‘things’ involving actions of circumspective concern” describes the whole Situation (i.e. context), which is existence or Dasein (as Being-in-the-world), in which Interpretation, as a primordial mode of Being, is not a matter of choice.

To recall, my acquaintance asserted that “the fact that interpretation is absent, does not allow us to conclude that the interpretable thing is never to be present”. Given the above critical analysis of the text, how would you respond to this assertion?

My response was: “to ask a question in return: ‘and when is Interpretation absent?’” Interpretation, as a primordial mode of Being, would be absent only when Dasein ‘is not’. And when Dasein ‘is not’, from where does the designation ‘world’ come? So far from obvious, “interpretable thing” cannot be said to ‘exist’ (i.e. described as ‘present’ or ‘absent’) without there-being Interpretation (that which indicates Dasein or Being-in-the-world).

To assert the existence of a ‘world’ without Dasein (i.e. when Dasein ‘is not’) is to commit a logical contradiction. “But where is the logical contradiction?”, you may ask? In so doing, one conceives a world and at the same time abstracts oneself from it, assuming (i.e. with or without being aware of it, taking the ‘role’ of) an “objective view” and simultaneously assumes the validity of this ‘view’ (or notion)—the “objective view” is a contradiction in terms, because a view is by definition constitutive of subjectivity.

My point is this: we can’t investigate objectivity in isolation from subjectivity. In principle, we are bound by subjectivity through and through. It doesn’t matter whether one understands this principle or not, or to what extent one understands it, but to investigate objectivity “in isolation” amounts to attempting to contradict the principle. However, the attempt (i.e. any attempt) to contradict the principle in truth does not contradict the principle—this contradictory notion of an “objective reality apart from subjectivity” does not get beyond subjectivity (it is within). Therefore, in effect, the assertion of there being a purely objective world is a ‘leap of faith’ (i.e. a speculative view) to what is essentially a contradiction, whilst falsely believing that both the assertion and the conclusion are justifiable, true, or even necessary.

Take for example a ‘woman’ (leaving aside socio-political debate) who wishes to get pregnant and welcome a baby onto the ‘world’. The possibility of an Other (i.e. of a foetus) is the present possibility of the woman, within the ‘world’ that is designated and disclosed through the woman’s Being-in-the-world. Confusion is made when this first-person perspective of the ‘world’ (i.e. her ‘world’) is projected onto this imaginary Other and to assume (wrongly) that the designation ‘world’ applies, which gives rise to the “wider notion of one general material world common to all individual” (more of which shall be elaborated in a future post). In essence, we have become so adept at “switching point of views” that we come to forget the very basis for or what constitutes a ‘world’, which is our Being-in-the-world.

The above may seem unnecessarily convoluted, or appears to be complicating something that could very well be answered via the opposite assertion i.e. “the world does not exist when Dasein ‘is not’.” But this is a mistake and constitutes committing to an equally speculative view via the same contradiction described above (i.e. a ‘view from nowhere’). All that we can say is this: “When Dasein ‘is not’, no statement about ‘the world’ can be justified.” And to correctly respond to my acquaintance’s assertion regarding “interpretable thing”, we can say: ‘“interpretable thing”, which is of ‘the world’, gets interpreted by Dasein through Dasein’s Being-in-the-world and its simultaneous disclosure of the ‘world’—in other words, when Dasein ‘is’.

Perhaps now you can see that it really isn’t as straight-forward as it first appears. Without existence (which by definition requires a point of view), such assertions are invalid by nature. But of course, my acquaintance, not being able to shake off his faith (i.e. assumption) on a Reality that he takes to be more fundamental than what he ‘is’ or can experience, resorted to asserting that Earth has a point of view and that it is backed by science. Make no mistake, I don’t assert that the “history of the world” (or ‘historiology’ in Heidegger’s terminology) as discovered by science is pure fiction—the “world” of science is the world of statistical probability, and cannot reveal to us the fundamental principles of things (to be covered separately). At the very least, I hope to have elucidated the significance of ‘world’ (i.e. “what is a world”) and what Heidegger calls “the worldhood of the world” (i.e. what constitutes a world).

Doubtless, there will be those who complain that my disagreement with my acquaintance is a nit-picking, for “in the end we have the same world and objectively it is the earth”. If this is your conclusion, it is safe to say that I have failed to get the message across. This cannot be overstated: “It is a distinction not without a difference (and further implications down the line).” The scientific attitude of approaching the world (and for one who adopts it, in engaging with the world) is what Husserl called the ‘natural attitude’, and which Merleau-Ponty called ‘the prejudice of the world’. In Heidegger’s conception, it constitutes an inauthentic mode of the Being of everydayness—the ‘other’ inauthentic attitude is idealism or mysticism, which together with materialism form the two extreme poles of speculative views—, which he termed fallenness. In fallenness, the existentiality and facticity (e.g. Heidegger’s conception of thrownness) of our Being-in-the-world get concealed, or more literally, it is us who conceal them from ourselves (this has a practical element).

What we have analysed thus far are relevant and cannot be understated. For it paves the way for further discussions on both philosophical and practical grounds, in which we shall further clarify and more thoroughly understand the phenomenality of Being-in-the world, and get in touch with phenomenology (to take a few examples: phenomenological theory of perception as opposed to psychophysiological theory of sensation; the phenomena of intentionality and intuitive knowledge as opposed to rational judgement and inferential knowledge), in order to better understand our world and the fundamental principles that underlie it.

It is not denied that objective thought has validity; but in connection with all thinking where subjectivity must be accentuated, it is a misunderstanding. If a man occupied himself, all his life through, solely with logic, he would nevertheless not become logic; he must therefore himself exist in different categories. Now if he finds that this is not worth thinking about, the choice must be his responsibility. But it will scarcely be pleasant for him to learn, that existence itself mocks everyone who is engaged in becoming purely objective.

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript


2 responses to “Yes or No: Is There an External World?”

  1. Ben Avatar

    Hi Dicson,
    good essay. (Altough I had some trouble discerning what exactly your acquaintance was getting at, but I assume it’s some form of eternalism)

    Indeed, in my discussions with friends I’ve often tried to get others to “leave aside” their scientific/materialistic/cartesian perspective, but it’s quite hard to argue on that level if they have never tried to understand phenomenology. As such most people immediately assume that I want to assert that “nothing exists” if I don’t want to assume the outside world a priori.

    The dominant ideology (in this case scientific materialism) always seems transparent, that is to say objective or like the position of no-position.

    Looking forward to further essays.

    1. Dicson Candra Avatar

      Hi Benji,

      Thank you for your comment.

      The eternalist asserts the point of view, which usually manifests as the belief that his point of view is everything there is, in the sense “there is nothing but this point of view” = “self has been, is and will be”. On the contrary, my acquaintance seems to deny the point of view i.e. “there is everything before this point of view and everything after” = “self gets born as an emergent property of matter and dies along with matter” so I tend to think of his view as a form of annihilationism.

      What is most worrying is the fact that he actually has read more existential and phenomenology work than I do (and perhaps more than the average philosophy reader) and considered my interpretation of Heidegger and the phenomenologists to be a misreading (more to come in a future post). But when I pointed out Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s disapproving view on the scientific notion of sensation and described how so, he was very quick to conclude that they were wrong. It’s a good reminder that if intelligence isn’t an issue, self-transparency would be.

      I hope you’re well.


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