It’s an incredible time to be alive. Talking to people on the other side of the world is as easy as visiting our next-door neighbours. We’re teaching computers to think for themselves. People are cloning their dogs. No matter how you feel about all of these advances, one thing is true—as a species, it often feels like we’ve got it all figured out.
Well, don’t get too comfortable, because when it comes right down to it, we hardly know anything at all. I mean, people have been dying for 2.8 million years, and we just learned last year that when you die, you know you’ve died.
Still think you’re pretty smart? Then think back to the last time something blew your mind. Sure, your epiphany probably answered a question or two, but we’re willing to bet another 10 questions popped up to take its place.
Or maybe it’s been a while since you did any deep thinking. If so, we’ve got five theories that will give your brain some much-needed exercise. And we’re not talking Jane Fonda aerobics; it’s more like a Doctor Strange battle scene. So, grab your Cloak of Levitation and get ready.
At its most basic, solipsism is the idea that we can’t trust in the existence of anything outside of our own minds. The theory originates with the Greek philosopher Gorgias, who based his theory on three statements:
- That nothing exists
- That even if something does exist, we can’t know anything about it for certain
- That if something did exist, and it could be known and understood, that knowledge couldn’t be communicated
Bring this full circle, and you’re back to being stuck in your own head again, alone in a world of your own creation. It should be noted though, in case you’re worried, that no major philosophers have ever formally acknowledged the validity of solipsism as a philosophical theory, and many have provided compelling arguments against it. Learn more here.
The Omphalos hypothesis is a religious idea that originally popped up in a book published by Philip Henry Gosse in the 1850s. The hypothesis claims that a divine being created the world in a way that just makes it seem like it’s been around for 4.5 billion years—but that it’s really only a few thousand years old. Essentially, the idea is that when this divine being created the Earth, it created rock-faces with fossils already imprinted on them, brand-new old-growth forests, and of course, grown adults with belly buttons.
While most theorists rejected the theory almost immediately, it’s unfalsifiable–there’s really no way to prove it or disprove it. If you apply the hypothesis, it renders empirical evidence—and everything science has taught us about the world—completely moot. And if you were inclined to think this theory would support the notion that the world was created yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, you’d be right.
The Block Universe Theory
Scientists and philosophers have been struggling to understand time for as long as there have been scientists and philosophers. If you believe in free will, you might think of time as something that constantly flows forward, the events of your life passing you by as you make choices that lead you to the next event. If you’re a fatalist, you may think of the progression of time as a series of pre-determined events that you pass through as you fulfill the various stages of your destiny. But what if the past, present, and future all exist at the same time? This is a theory that Dr. Bradford Skow, an associate professor at MIT recently presented in his book, Objective Becoming.
An MIT News article says “Skow believes that events do not sail past us and vanish forever; they just exist in different parts of spacetime,” then elaborates with this: “The block universe theory says you’re spread out in time, something like the way you’re spread out in space,” Skow says. “We’re not located at a single time.” The past, the present and the future all exist at once, just as Australia, Paris and the park at the end of your street all exist at once. Linear time is an illusion. We just can’t think outside the box block.
How would you describe the word “red”? We’re willing to bet you can’t–not objectively anyway. You might be able to identify items that are red, like a lobster, or a stop sign. You might even try to attach other qualities to the concept of red, by making statements like, “red is bright” or “red is warm.” But even those qualities are subjective.
The problem is this: while we know certain things about colour–enough to give colours individual labels, and to understand how our perception of light works, we still don’t know if other people see specific colours in the same way we do. That’s because we only have our own experiences to rely on. If I say red and you say green, can we really know we’re not talking about the same thing?
Colour experience is only one part of the broader philosophical concept of qualia, which refers to the way we each experience different sensations. Learn more about colour perception here.
The Brain-in-a-Vat Argument
If you’ve seen The Matrix (and of course you have), you’re already familiar with the brain-in-a-vat argument. Essentially, it’s a thought experiment that asks you to consider the idea that your entire existence is the product of a computer program hooked up to a disembodied brain in a vat (the vat, presumably, is filled with some sort of brain-sustaining substance). If it happened to be true, there’s no way you could possibly know. Even if the computer controlling the simulation decided to let you in on the secret somehow—how would you know that the big reveal isn’t just another extension of the simulation?
Who knows? Maybe none of this is real. This entire article might just another part of the computer program that’s simulating your existence. But how would you ever know for sure?