Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Coming to terms with the Antipodean Fallacy

Here in the grim upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere where the low grey clouds oppress the spirit and the most dangerous animal a philosopher might encounter on a typical day is a Harlequin Ladybird, it is very easy to imagine that there is no such thing as The Real World. 

However, in the scorching heat of the Australian desert where the terrain, the flora and the fauna have all been out-competing each other in the viciousness stakes for Millennia, the philosophers tend to assume that the world is real and start their musings from there without bothering to establish it. This is known as the Antipodean Fallacy. Or so I was led to believe by a lecturer at the University of East Anglia. When I came to google the phrase as research for this post, I found out that, until now, those two words have never been put together on the whole of the internet. 

Skeptics have been doubting the existence of The Real World since Zeno of Elea noticed that a running man could not reach his destination because he would have to cross half the remaining distance an infinite number of times. A solution to this paradox can be found here, but it may hurt your eyes.

Descartes managed to doubt everything except the fact that he was doubting and then confusingly attempted to rebuild all knowledge from that foundation of doubt - with a little help from God (he was after all an Early Modern Philosopher).

These sorts of ideas have held an immense appeal for me since I was a teenager. I thought: let's start at the beginning with "What is it possible to know?"  Anyway, turns out the answer is "Not very much."  Even Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum" has been watered down by subsequent thinkers to something along the lines of "there was a thought".  And I don't think we are going to be able to deduce rice pudding and income tax (let alone all knowledge) from a remark as wet as that one.

So maybe the Australians have got it right? Perhaps a better starting point is to adopt the Antipodean Fallacy and ask: "What is it possible to know about the Real World?" The answer is probably: "Not bloody much, mate?" 

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