A Reflection by Paul O'Brien

     Imagine this: what if everything in the known universe was to
double in size one night while you slept. Can you imagine that? You
would be twice as tall and twice as heavy as you were the night
before. But tell me: when you woke up, how would you know that
everything doubled in size? You may be twice as big, but so is your
bed and the rest of your bedroom. You could measure your height,
but the ruler would also be twice as large; you could measure your
weight, but the scale would be proportionate in size to you as
well. After all, the double-sized sun would look no larger in the
double-sized sky as you looked through the double-sized window with
your double-sized eyes. Even with a microscope, the very molecules
inside all things would be twice their size as before.
     If everything doubles in size --literally ALL THINGS-- we
wouldn't be able to tell, would we? All points of reference would
have matched the change and everything would appear the same;
everything would literally seem unchanged. My question, though, is
no longer how we would know IF this were to happen. I wonder... how
do we know it DIDN'T happen to us all last night?

     Frankly, I don't think anyone reading this will be terribly
pressed by this issue. Nonetheless, just a simple case leaves us
asking the most important of philosophical questions: How do we
know? If I may, I would like to offer a reflection on the subject
of knowledge and truth, but a reflection based not so much on an
argument or evidence, but on imagination.  
     I have a passionate conviction that the imagination is one of
philosophy's greatest tools. Maybe it's because I was once an avid
comic book collector, or maybe it's because my older brother and I
have loved science fiction and fantasy films all our lives, but for
as long as I can remember, I have dreamt of other worlds. As a
young boy, my action figures were denizens of such worlds; as a
young man, I still find characters springing to life in my
imagination to inhabit fictional worlds I write about.
     Though it may sound silly, and maybe even strange, I've taken
these imaginary worlds rather seriously. First of all, they require
their own special logic, order, and consistency. We expect no less
from the movies we watch, after all; we know it's just fiction and
we're know they're just actors, but even one simple inconsistency
can dispel the cinematic illusion and distract us. Even if one day
I see that the incredible Hulk now has purple skin, or that
Superman is no longer affected by green kryptonite, I think I'm
justified in snickering at the writers. These worlds don't need to
obey the rules of our everyday world, but they should at least obey
their own.
     Secondly, there are important lessons to be learned from
fiction. It's almost too obvious to point out, but literature,
poetry, and plays count as some of the most meaningful, moving
elements of our culture. It doesn't matter that they're made-up
worlds if their themes and characters touch us, whether by their
complexity and challenge, or by their humane gentility. We're
perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief in order to enter a
world that may enliven or enrich our own.
     But speaking of worlds, we can't forget to consider our own;
more specifically, what exactly is this everyday universe of ours
like? All these imaginary, alternate worlds seem to come back to
this everyday world. This is the world where you're reading this
right now, where authors are eating breakfast before they sit down
to create fictional worlds, where audiences enter movie theaters
before the film begins, and where we were born and where we will
die. Even the most outlandish of our nighttime dreams awaken to
this everyday world.
     Or so it seems, at least. But anyway...
     There is a general belief that there is this everyday, shared
world that we all live in. Scientists devote their efforts to
experiment and explore this common world (they couldn't care less
about Metropolis or Narnia). And they aren't the only ones:
philosophers look at this world too. For most people, seeking truth
or the meaning of life undoubtedly means finding out what this
world is all about and how we can find meaning in it.
     But I can't stop my imagination from wandering, and I can't
help thinking about other worlds. It's not that I think we live in
many worlds or literally travel to these fictitious worlds; I'm
just not sure what kind of world I'm living in, quite literally. If
I cannot tell the difference between the world I think I am in and
a world that I am imagining, then I have to wonder how I know which
is real and which isn't. If I can't tell, I just don't think I can
know one way or the other.
     We can make this discussion easier by defining some terms.
Let's call these many worlds --be they speculative, hypothetical,
or imaginary-- "possible" worlds. They must at the very least be
logically possible. What I mean is, they can't completely
contradict themselves or they're too nonsensical to interest us. If
you tell me of a universe where triangles have no sides, or of a
universe filled with bachelors but which contains no unmarried men,
you're talking about logically contradictory worlds; they make no
sense, and they couldn't even begin to work.
     What about logically possible worlds that are physically
impossible? They may not entail any logical absurdities, but maybe
they break fundamental laws of physics. Can a world exist where
objects float up when we let go of them instead of fall down, or
where ships can fly faster than the speed of light even though
nothing is supposed to be able to even MATCH the speed of light?
     I don't know... I hesitate to rule such worlds out. Why?
Because my knowledge of physical laws comes to me through my
senses, and to trust those laws, I must first trust those senses.
Why wouldn't I trust them, though, when "seeing is believing"?
Because I can imagine two worlds: one is a world where everything
I see accurately correlates to something real, so that when I see
a red sign, there really is a red sign being seen; but another is
a world where I have these experiences of sensing things (getting
sense-datum), but they correlate to nothing in reality, or they are
inaccurate, or they are illusions (Descartes's brain-in-vats
illustration comes to mind). If I lived in either of these worlds,
how would I know which one was the accurate one and which one was
the illusion? I really don't think I could tell... which leads me
to say that I don't know if my senses are accurate for certain.
Physical laws, because they are based upon observations made with
these potentially dubious senses, are not certain either.
     So back to my original point... I hesitate to rule out
physically impossible worlds. Only logical impossible worlds seem
to get kicked out, because they violate all rational sense (If they
CAN literally exist, then such a fact would slap our sense of logic
so painfully hard that we would be completely ill-equipped to
consider anything at all.)
     As you can tell, I'm setting the range of possible worlds --
even if just speculative and imaginary-- rather broadly. I just
don't want to rule anything out prematurely, that's all (and this
lets the imagination roam more freely anyway). Now, despite all
these possible worlds, there is something we can call the "actual"
world. We can talk of many possible worlds, but we think of the
actual world --the REAL world-- as singular.
     Perhaps a way to illustrate this is to imagine that you and I
are playing a simple game: we are asked to guess a number between
1 and 100, and in a few seconds, one such number will be randomly
drawn from a hat. I'll guess 27 (it's as good a number as any), and
in a childlike manner, I can imagine that the number I guessed is
the one that will actually get drawn. Can you imagine that? Well,
it's easy to imagine, really, even if it doesn't turn out that way.
The chances of 27 getting drawn are quite possible; hence, we can
say that a world where 27 gets drawn is a possible world. The
problem is, this is just one of a hundred similarly possible
worlds, one for each number that might get drawn. 
     Guess any number you like: As long as you stick to something
between 1 and 100, you've chosen a possible outcome. In a few
seconds, though, when a number gets drawn, one of these one hundred
possible worlds will no longer be MERELY possible; it will be
actual. Let's say 27 gets drawn; what luck! My guess was once just
a poke at a possibility, but as it turns out, I was lucky enough to
hit upon an actuality. For all our guesses, possibilities, and
chances, there came a result which confirmed or affirmed one of
those competing possibilities and showed it was actual.
     The same form can be used for something less trivial, like a
scientific experiment. What happens when I drop a 10 pound bag and
a 50 pound bag from the same height at the same time? Which will
hit the ground first, or will they hit at the same time? Say
someone guesses that since the second bag is heavier, it will hit
the ground before the lighter bag; so far, this seems quite
possible. Someone else guesses that they'll hit the ground
simultaneously; this too seems possible. After all, we don't know
UNTIL WE TEST IT. So with guesses in mind, we drop the bags and
discover that they land on the ground at the same time. One
possibility is ruled out, and the other one is confirmed; one turns
out to be actual, the other fictional, and all is revealed through
a simple test.
     The human arena is not so different than the number game or
the experiment with gravity. We makes guesses all the time: that
there will be life after death, that justice has an objective
standard, that God exists, that we have free will, and so on and so
forth. The problem is... when do we ever find out what's actual and
what's not actual? It's not like the game of guessing numbers,
because in these philosophical issues, no such result is ever
clearly drawn. It's not like the experiment of falling objects
either, because there isn't always a clear test or clear result
that would convince us of one way or the other. 
     It seems quite possible that God exists. Even though it
strikes me personally as counterintuitive, it's still quite
possible that God actually exists and has existed this whole time,
regardless of my silly intuitions and strange doubts. But it also
seems quite possible that God does not exist. This possibility
doesn't contradict itself logically at all, so therefore it may be
actual. Well, we have two possibilities (out of many), but they
can't both be right, and by "right," I mean that out of these two
competing possible worlds, they cannot both be actual. Where does
that leave us? How will we find out which is actual and which is
not? Until we have a religious experience? Until we study enough
history and science? Until we have faith? Until we die?
     The price is too high to wait until death, especially when
even that may settle nothing. We have a life to lead in the
meantime. So what do we do in the face of these many worlds? 

     I have only my personal ideas about the matter to offer, and
like any of the things I say, you're free to take them or leave
them. I would still like to offer these thoughts anyway.
     First of all, I don't see how we could, in all philosophical
integrity and honesty, ever claim to understand the actual world
with any certain accuracy or dogmatic objectivity. I can't rule out
that such an understanding is impossible; maybe it is, and I'm just
too dumb to see it. But if I can't find ironclad criteria for
whether the actual world has, for instance, a God or not a God,
then I can't claim to know either way for certain. It leaves us
agnostic, but not just about God; about issues of afterlife,
morality, and general philosophy as well.
     I don't believe that this is an excuse to give up trying,
however. Some people hear about the uncertainty of these ideas,
about the agnosticism and complexities of competing possibilities,
and they think it's a sign of philosophy's weakness as a method,
not of any weakness on the part of their ideas. These are the kind
of people who think that it's virtually pointless to discuss issues
like God because philosophers have been discussing them for
millennia with no clear, substantive results. These are the people
who assume that when a philosophical debate gets down, deep, and
dirty with abstract terms, subtle arguments, and complex
possibilities, that it's all just a silly mind-game; never
reflecting, though, on the possibility that their dismissal itself
may be the next move in a game they don't themselves don't even
know they're playing.
     I'm not advocating lazy ambivalence, but ambivalence, if there
is to be any, grounded in serious efforts to consider competing
worlds as clearly and deeply as possible. Why? Because you never
know when you might finally find that criteria for actuality. You
can't just fail a few times and conclude that it's all unknowable.
That is too cheap an unknowingness. I think that if you really want
to pursue any truth about the actual world, you must seek to know
it even if it leads you deeper and deeper into unknowingness. Even
if this all, in all actuality, IS just a game, you still should
play it out in the hopes that one day you will find that fact out.
     If you don't know --if you CAN'T know-- you should be able to
give some good reasons why. Cheap unknowingness comes when someone
claims not to know, but doesn't know why they don't know. If a
group of people was looking for a restaurant in a town, they could
seek it out by travelling down every street. The person who goes up
one street or two and gives up can't really say with any certainty
or conviction that the restaurant isn't there; they've left too
many avenues unsearched. But the one who treks up and down every
street, even the alleys and backroads, is the one who will be in a
much better position to say whether or not what they seek is really
there or not. You'll never find out whether you know or don't know
unless you TRY to know.
     And what if this effort leads to no substantive results? What
if it only makes us more confused and uncertain than before? I
wonder if that would be so bad. I wonder if we are so fearful of
life and the pursuit of truth that we would prefer blissful
ignorance to conscious confusion. Or would we agree with David Hume
when said that "it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a
fool satisfied"? 
     And as so many people have asked me, what tools can you
possibly use if truth is so uncertain? I've gone to some lengths to
explain what some of these tools might be in other articles, but I
think we can keep Occam's razor handy (and in my case, a few tomes
of William James). We aren't completely naked when we traverse
these possible worlds in our minds. There are some signs and tools
to work with, else the endeavor would become as pointless to pursue
as catching a gust of wind.
     But I would much rather finish my reflection by stepping out
of this philosophical discussion and entering a more humanistic
one. I think that for whatever world may actually exist and for
whatever possible worlds we consider, we each end up living our
mental lives in one such possible world, whether we want to or not.
Out of such possible worlds as one with God existing or one with
God not existing, we end up choosing one possibility over the other
anyway, even though there's no ironclad reason why one should be
chosen over the other. Maybe faith and personal sentiments makes
one person lean one way; maybe intuition makes someone else lean
     We end up inhabiting these mentally perceived worlds, each of
us having our own private, unique spins on the various aspects of
our lives. Maybe we all really live in the same actual world in
some ontologically objective sense, but internally and
subjectively, we nonetheless have our private lenses through which
we see and personal landscapes that mold our thoughts. The question
is, will we let culture and tradition form these worlds for us, or
will we consciously choose which possible worlds we will live in?
It may not matter in the ultimate scheme of things, just as it may
not matter whether you choose the numbers in lottery or have a
computer pick them for you randomly. But which would you prefer?
Would you rather steer this plane through the clouds yourself, or
let the auto-pilot handle it? You decide.
     There will always be pragmatism to help us choose among
possibilities, too, of course, but I would refer you to my other
writings to expound those ideas. 
     For now, we come full circle. If I was convinced that this
world I SEEM to perceive was the only one, the actual one, I would
become a critical scientist and devote myself to observation. But
since it is so uncertain to me, since so many worlds might be the
actual one, my imagination flies to consider all these
possibilities. Although I can't back this intuition up, I suspect
that naive realism is exactly that: naive, and not disastrously,
but simplistically. I cannot help but feel it's time to stop asking
"What is?" and "Why?" so much as "What if?" and "Why not?"
     Also, if we can not ascertain which world is most likely to be
actual, then we will be left to choose among possible worlds that
are best blind stabs. But shouldn't this choice be conscious and
creative? In such a situation, why not unleash the imagination and
construct a personal world-view that, after well-grounded in
pragmatism, becomes a comfortable home for our everyday lives? If
we're going to end up disbelieving in the knowability of the actual
world, and if we're going to have to live within our own world
anyway, we should suspend our disbelief consciously. Maybe it's all
just a lie; but it's a conscious lie. 
     Why bother? Why be conscious? There is no concrete reason. The
fact that it would make this life of mine interesting, creative,
and ever-changing --and at the same time, try its hardest to seek
truth just in case truth can be found-- is sufficient for me. It
wouldn't be anarchic wish-fulfillment but creative, pragmatic
     There's so much more to say, but enough is said for now.
     If I am shown to be wrong about these possible worlds, then I
will gladly admit it and follow the singular one. Who knows? I
could very well be way off. For all I know, I could wake up any day
now and realize this was all just a dream... as I flutter my wings
to join the other butterflies. 
     It would just turn out to be one world of many. 

 [NOTE: The scenario of the double-sized world was first made known
to be by reading William Poundstone's Labyrinths of Reason. As he
cites, the scenario was first posed by Jules Poincare. Poundstone's
book is highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy rational