Reading Molyneux so you don’t have to: Reality

An adjective can work at least a couple of ways. It can distinguish a particular instance/subset of a group of things (e.g. red car – a specific car that is red) or it can highlight a property that is true of the noun in general (e.g. red Mars – Mars is red). The context and the type of word being used is usually more than sufficient to understand the usage. People may wilfully misunderstand, for example “toxic masculinity” is a term that identifies a particular kind of masculinity but it is often treated as if the term means that masculinity is in all cases toxic.

Which is my roundabout way of introducing Stefan Molyneux’s use of the term “objective reality”. Molyneux is far from alone in using the term ambiguously – know I do and have used it in ways that are less than clear. However, Molyneux is using the term in a book on philosophy and “objective reality” is really important to him. In the same way the book never gets a good grasp on epistemology the book is unsure of its metaphysics. Reality is something he appeals to but not something he knows how to engage with:

reality 109
objective reality 32
virtual reality 7
simulated reality 4
subjective reality 0
social reality 1
external reality 3
rational reality 2
material reality 4
empirical reality 6 (empirical material reality 2)
physical reality 1
simulated reality

I’ve some sympathy for anybody trying to distinguish between things that sort of like reality and actual reality while contending nothing exists that isn’t made of matter. Even so, if you are going to write a book on philosophy then that’s the task you set yourself. It’s no use saying that sex scenes are too hard to write well if you are selling yourself as an erotic novelist and the same principle is true for metaphysics and writing an overview of philosophy.

The clearest statement Molyneux makes about what he means by reality spins itself in circles:

“In philosophy, the preferred state is truth – in other words, statements that accurately describe the objective facts, properties and processes of empirical material reality. Empirical material reality is objective, rational and universal – a stone is a stone and possesses the properties of a stone everywhere in the universe.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2240-2243). Kindle Edition.

Reality is something Molyneux claims is something we need to take on faith:

“When most people think of the word “faith,” they generally refer to a belief in God – but it is much more accurate to say that we have “faith” in reality. We have faith in ourselves, our existence, memories or history, our relationships, the evidence of our senses, the virtue of our choices – we have few if any real philosophical certainties in these areas. We accept what we have to in order to survive, to get through the day, to find shelter and food – and love, hopefully.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 171-176). Kindle Edition.

That seems not unreasonable but later he says the existence of an objective reality is something which can be established:

“In order to value truth, we must first establish the existence of an objective reality. Its existence is easily testable. For instance, I have two realms of experience – one in which impossible things happen, and another in which impossible things do not happen. The first realm is my dreams – or perhaps a very vivid video game. The second is reality. I once had a startling dream wherein an alligator propelled itself backwards a distance of fifty or sixty feet, landing near me. This cannot happen in reality, absent the invention of reptilian jetpacks.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 413-419). Kindle Edition.

It’s paragraph like that which induce a strange vertigo in the reader. I’m a sceptical sort but I don’t seriously doubt there’s an objective reality. After reading Molyneux’s argument though, I’m MORE inclined to disbelieve there’s an objective reality.

Also, consider what role “existence” is doing there. “Exist” is a word Molyneux uses but leaves unexamined because he doesn’t examine his own metaphysics.

His grasp of physics isn’t much better than his grasp of metaphysics.

“Objects in the world are consistent for two basic reasons – the first is the existence of atoms, and the second is the existence of stable physical laws. The atoms that make up a feather possess different characteristics than the atoms that make up a bowling ball. The atoms that make up water are different from the atoms that make up arsenic. Atoms are subject to stable physical laws, which result in consistent object behaviour, information about which our senses then transmit to our brains.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 941-945). Kindle Edition.

And a not long after:

“Empirical reality is not self-contradictory – at least at the realm of the senses, where philosophy operates. The realm of quantum mechanics is interesting, of course, but does not impact the realm of philosophy, because quantum phenomena cancels out long before we get to the aggregate realm of sense perception.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 952-955). Kindle Edition.

I’ll pause to let that paragraph sink in.

Savour it.

Molyneux is doing whatever the opposite of philosophy is. In the past I would have argued that philosophy is a thing that can’t really have an opposite. Yet here we are. Molyneux encountered philosophy once and wasn’t paying attention and yet somehow holds a grudge against it.


21 thoughts on “Reading Molyneux so you don’t have to: Reality”

  1. Bowling balls have been made of various materials (wood, hard rubber, polyester, urethane), but all of them are organic (in the chemical sense), while a large part of feathers is composed of keratin. You could argue about rubber (predominantly carbon and hydrogen) and wood and polyester (predominantly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen), but neglecting trace constituents urethane and and feathers are made up of the same types of atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen).
    He could sort of fix his example by switching from atoms to molecules, but I expect that counterexamples where the arrangement of molecules in a substance makes a significant difference. In the other direction, diamond and graphite are made up of the same type of atoms.

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    1. The differences are in the atoms relationship to each other, which is governed by quantum mechanics, which doesn’t matter. Checkmate, Molyneux!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. However the statement that philosophy can ignore quantum phenomena is the more stunning one. I expect that ontologists and philosophers of physics at the least pay attention to the existence of quantum phenomena, and I would be surprised to find epistemologists and philosophers of logic joining in.
    And that’s before you take into account the dependence of much of modern electronics on quantum phenomena, or their pervasive presence in the modern fields of chemistry and materials science, and their involvement in nuclear fusion and fission.

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  3. My favorite example of restrictive vs. non-restrictive adjectives is “A big whale washed up onto the highway.” Was the whale big even for a whale or is it merely a comment on the fact that whales are big and hence capable of blocking the whole road? Some other languages force you to make the distinction (e.g. before the noun is non-restrictive) but not English.

    When he says “objective reality” I think he really means “consensus reality”: things everyone just knows to be true so we don’t need to prove them. Like Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley. The idea that reality is, pretty much, what we perceive, and that exceptions need to be individually justified seems like a reasonable application of Occam’s Razor. We pretty much couldn’t conduct our daily lives without it!


  4. I am intrigued by that comment about quantum mechanics. How does he think the “realm of quantum mechanics” was discovered, if not by, y’know, empirical scientific investigation? Does he think Max Planck got drunk one night and made it all up for a dare, or what?

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    1. The implication that quantum mechanics does involve self-contradiction is pretty revealing, too. That’s a whole pile of WTF for one short paragraph.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, he’s probably heard of wave-particle duality, and superposition of states (or at least Schrodinger’s Cat), and sees them as embodying a contradiction.


      2. But I read his statement in the same way as Camestros – that he doesn’t understand QM enough to know whether there are any contradictions.
        But you don’t have to go to QM – in SR events can be both simultaneous and non-simultaneous (and in philosophy of time it is argued this implies a deterministic block universe).

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  5. The bit about atoms has me wondering if he’d be interested in drinking a 30% solution of hydrogen peroxide (jjust hydrogen and oxygen) while breathing a mix of ozone and nitrous oxide (which are is just oxygen and nitrogen).

    There’s a sleight-of-hand “proof” that unicorns are real that relies on getting the reader to accept that “there is an existing unicorn” is a stronger statement and thus harder to prove than “there is a unicorn” and then after a bit of handwaving pulling out “we knowthe existing unicorn exists because it says right there ‘existing unicorn,’ and it’s a kind of unicorn, so unicorns exist.” But it doesn’t sound like this guy is clever enough to be going in that direction.

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  6. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K Dick

    The only definition I ever needed. =D

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  7. This is the kind of stuff the phrase ‘fractally wrong’ was invented for. The more you think about it, the more wrong it gets. I once met someone who told me he was very interested in applying quantum mechanics to society, which is a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of quantum mechanics. This seems less like a fundamental misunderstanding of quantum mechanics and more like a fundamental misunderstanding of pretty much everything…

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