I see something brown, rectangular and small with a somewhat glossy texture and ridges. I think it is a chocolate bar. But I think again; how do I know it’s not a piece of plastic made to look like chocolate? So I pick it up, taste it, conclude it is a chocolate bar and put it back down.
But is this enough to decide it’s really chocolate? What if it is something that looks, feels and tastes like chocolate but is not chocolate? Maybe it is an artificial substance that resembles chocolate in every way? But is this coherent? If it has all the properties of chocolate, isn’t it chocolate?
This raises a question: Is chocolate a substance that has certain properties or is it just a word that’s a short-hand for certain properties?
If it’s a substance that has properties, then it cannot be identical to these properties, it is something beyond them. This means any property can change, and it will still be chocolate. So, the texture, flavor and color can change (e.g.: to that of broccoli) yet it would still be chocolate. Or each of those properties could vanish (leaving apparently empty space), yet it would still be chocolate. That seems nonsensical.
If it’s just a word for these properties when they occur together, then if any of these properties change, it stops being chocolate, or at least becomes a different chocolate. So if its appearance changes because I take a few steps back and/or look at it from a different angle, it would be a different chocolate. That also seems nonsensical.
Maybe there’s a different approach. I can deny it’s a substance and just claim the properties have a reality to them that is independent of my experience, and my experience simply reports that reality. However, I’m now claiming something I cannot experience to explain something I do experience. What’s more, I’m doing this to explain my shifting experience. That seems shaky if not nonsensical.
I could go on all day. For instance, what if pieces of the chocolate were replaced with chocolate from another bar? At what point would the chocolate be a different bar of chocolate? If this sounds familiar, it’s a re-phrasing of The Ship of Theseus thought experiment.
If I looked away and — unbeknowest to me — the bar were replaced by an identical bar, is it the same chocolate? I’d never know the difference, so is it even coherent to talk about this as I don’t even have an experience to work from. If this sounds familiar, it’s a rephrasing of The Tree Falling in the Forest thought experiment
Speaking of shifting appearances, is there a canonical representation of the chocolate? For instance, it appears non-rectangular at different angles, yet people would agree that it’s “really” rectangular by settling on one vantage point and claiming it is the “right” one. Yet, what justifies this vantage point and none of the others? What’s more, this ignores a great deal of my experience of the bar (such as when I’m moving towards it, viewing it from a distance, etc…). So I am throwing away a great deal of experience — the same experience I am trying to explain — in order to posit an explanation for this discarded experience, using something I have no experience of, an underlying reality of the experience. The one I just threw out. Experience demands ignoring itself?
So I invest greater stake in something I cannot experience, that exists solely as an explanation for my shifting experiences. That seems very shaky if not nonsensical.
I can claim that I need these assumptions to function, but does that count as an argument? Isn’t this like trying to justify a nonsensical game because I have money riding on it and thus must play by its rules?
I can repeat this exercise with anything, including myself. I can pay attention and notice the sensations, thoughts, etc… that make up what I think of as “myself”. I can then ask where is the “self” among all this. At best, I witness a “sense” of self, but that’s just a feeling. However, I can argue that this proves nothing, since if the self is me, I cannot perceive it — can the eye see itself? I could also claim that if I wasn’t a separate self, I could not witness all these experiences, including intimate thoughts. Just what IS watching the thoughts and feelings? However, I can challenge that and ask why do I assume there’s something apart from this experience? Isn’t this another assumption of a reality underlying experience? Why not just assume that experience IS? In fact, to even call it an experience assumes something of its nature; perhaps I should call it ALL. It seems the self is a very special kind of assumed substance that is even more entrenched and subtle than many of the typical substances we encounter.
How do I reconcile all this? I don’t.
Externally, I accept conventions about the chocolate, including the arbitrary vantage points. They’re a lot more convenient than carrying on conversations like “the bundle of perceptions that is consistent with chocolate that at distance X has shape Y…”. The key here is that I don’t internalize this talk as being what things really are; they are just convenient ways of operating and I use them like I would any other tool and set them aside when done.
Internally, I don’t flee the realization of the shakiness of my foundations, or at least my inability to understand them. Yes, this may say more about my ability to understand than my experience, and could foster non-attachment to my intellect, thoughts, concepts, etc… Considering how fundamental (and often pain producing) that is, that’s perfectly fine.
I realize my hopes, dreams, aversions, loves, etc… are all built on this shaky foundation. This helps keep me from getting too hung up over any of it provided I don’t backslide. Maybe I could set aside some time and really try to experience this — it might make a good meditation. Whether or not I can live my life in this state of consciousness, I can remember having done this, and the memory can be a powerful backdrop against which the rest of my life is lived.
This article could be seen as an extended thought experiment on Pyrrhonism, which is all about suspending judgment about what lies beneath experience, if anything. In fact, my back and forth questioning could be viewed as the Pyrrhonist strategy of pitting opposing arguments against each other to arrive at a suspension of judgment, which should lead to tranquility (ataraxia).
Claiming that “objects” are bundles of sensations rather than “things” is classic Bundle Theory, of which Hume is the most famous expounder. His Philosophy covered a great deal of ground from The Self, to Bundle Theory, to Causality and more.
This article could also be seen as an extended thought experiment regarding Buddhism’s concept of Emptiness. It’s interesting to compare the Buddhist concept of Emptiness (and its “opposite” Form) to the Western philosophical concept of substance.