It is a very challenging and difficult task
to seriously question a belief that is considered to be completely obvious.
The common belief in the physical existence of material things is just
such a belief. We would probably consider it a ludicrous request if
anyone were to ask us to question or doubt the existence of physical
things. And yet that is exactly what I will be asking you to try to
To help you with this difficult task I offer
you here three pieces of evidence that our belief in the existence of
physical stuff may be mistaken. The three evidential pieces come from
three completely independent sources, yet all three sources point to
the identical conclusion: viz., what we think of as physical matter
probably does not actually exist. The three pieces of evidence are quantum
physics, dreams, and the Hindu concept of tulpas.
Physics is the scientific study of physical
matter, so if there is any modern science to which we should turn to
learn about the existence of physical matter, it would probably be physics.
To learn what quantum physics teaches us about the existence or non-existence
of physical matter, please read the mini-lecture on quantum physics.
When we think closely about the kinds of
experiences that we all have for several hours almost every night of
our lives, we might also come to wonder about the ultimate realness
of physical matter. After all, the worlds we experience in our dreams
are also worlds which seem to be composed of physical matter (they definitely
seem that way while we are experiencing them). But when we examine more
closely those seemingly "physical" worlds of our dreams and
the seemingly "physical" things in those dream worlds, we
see that what appeared to be physical matter while we were experiencing
it is in fact made up only of a kind of thought-stuff.
To help us look at this dream-reality question
more closely, I ask you now to go read the entirely true story titled
"My Dream," and to respond to the questions at the end of
that story. So please go now to "My Dream," read it closely,
and then when you've finished that, come on back here.
Please break here
and continue this lecture after completing your reading of "My
Tulpas and Hinduism
The Hindu concept (or experience) of the
tulpa is yet another piece of evidence that might lead us to question
the actual existence of physical matter. If the entire physical cosmos
is, according to the ancient teachings of the Hindu tradition, one great
tulpa, then its status as physical matter is definitely questionable.
To understand what a tulpa is, and what
its place is in the Hindu world-view, please read the mini-lecture on
Please break here
and continue this lecture after completing your reading of the mini-lecture
I originally said that there would be three
pieces of evidence for you to take into account when you are considering
the question of the existence of physical matter, but there is one more
thing for you to consider also. George
Berkeley's philosophical writings are perhaps the most famous philosophical
examination of this question about the existence of physical matter,
and he concludes that common sense shows us, if we think about it clearly,
that physical matter simply does not exist. His arguments are not abstruse
or difficult, but are actually founded entirely on simple common sense.
He argues, therefore, that simple common sense, if we think about it
carefully and closely, will lead us to the conclusion that physical
matter does not exist, and that the entire "physical" world
is instead made up of a kind of thought-stuff.
Berkeley (1685-1753) wrote two
primary works on this question. Three
Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), written when he
was 28 years old, is a set of three short conversations between Hylas,
who represents people who believe in the existence of physical matter,
and Philonous -- lover of mind -- who represents Berkeley's point of
view. A somewhat more extended analysis of these arguments is presented
in his earlier work,A
Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)
written when he was 25 years old.
Most people find the Three Dialogues
more palatable and easier to read, but some students have told me that
they liked The Principles better.
Now, two questions for you to mull over
a bit and respond to in the classroom.
- Even if you found none of these three
pieces of evidence entirely persuasive, which of the three (or four,
if you went off and read some Berkeley) would you say was, for you,
the most meaningful. That is, which of the three pieces of evidence
would be the one most likely to lead you to question whether or not
physical matter truly exists?
- And what was it about that argument that
was persuasive to you?