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Our day to day experiences are what shape our understanding of the world we know. Every moment of existence shapes the person we will become. However, what if the world as you know it is merely an illusion? How would this affect your behavior, and would you be even able to know the illusion of the world? In the short story “They”, by Robert Heinlein, the author creates a thought experiment that examines these very questions. Through his story, Heinlein manages to convey the idea that there can never be any certainty with one’s own reality, and the only thing that one may be certain of is his own mind.
In “They,” the protagonist of the story is a patient in what at first appears to be a mental hospital. The protagonist is there, because he believes that the world in which he lives has been crafted for himself, and everything he experiences is only a facade. His “doctor”, originally known as Hayward, tries to convince him that the world is in fact real by providing what can be called the typical answers to the patient’s existential questions about the world. The patient claims that he realizes he is being conspired against due to the apparent futility of life, to which the doctor responds, “Life does look like that, and maybe it is just that futile. But it is the only life we have. Why not make up your mind to enjoy it as much as possible?” (Heinlein 91). These same challenges faced by the protagonist are not uncommon frustrations faced by what are perceived to be other human beings. However unrealistic these claims might be, they all become validated at the end of the story. Which raises the question to the reader of, how can I be sure that my life is not some evil formulation on my existence?
This is the same question Descartes tried to answer in his work The Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes assumes the following: I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; I will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better that the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity. (31)The essence of Descartes’s dilemma is the same of that of our protagonist in “They”. Descartes is able to reason that the only thing he himself may be sure of is himself. Descartes comes to this conclusion by examining his reality, and realizing that everything is based on his own observational lens. If how he viewed the world could be manipulated everything, even his memory may be a lie. This is the same principle the Heinlein tries to convey. When trying to reason whether he is under the influence of an evil being or organization, the protagonist rationalizes that, “Self-awareness is not relational; it is absolute, and cannot be reached to be destroyed or created. Memory, however, being a rational aspect of consciousness, may be tampered with and possibly destroyed or created” (Heinlein 95). This quote directly resembles Descartes’s work, and it shows the reader the basis for the character’s understanding of his environment. In fact, this piece is a very nice thought experiment if a person were to wholly accept the skepticism provided by Descartes.
Such an example would not be as powerful were one not to learn of the truth of the patient’s situation. The mundane lifestyle is one that many can say they are acquainted with, but the end of the story reveals that the patient is in actuality the only conscious being in his world. This revelation makes the reader ask, could this be a possibility in my own life? This uncertainty of reality places a much greater emphasis on the self, and what it means to be conscious. Whereas Descartes would merely accept the idea that he will never be able to fully know whether or not other appeared beings are conscious in his world, Heinlein makes the claim that if others were conscious beings he would be able to know, saying, “If they were like me then I could get into communication with them. I can’t” (Heinlein 92). Through this line Heinlein claims that a meaningful soul connection would be able to be had if every other human being were conscious, but because one cannot reach this connection with most, then most must simply be empty soulless shells. In other words, individual selves should be able to communicate with each other, and because observation and senses may be manipulated any form of communication through that medium may be manipulated. Therefore, unless souls can communicate there is no reason for which one should believe any other being has a soul.
Furthermore, once skepticism has been established, should this affect one’s life as it does in “They”? In our own lives based on pure practicality the easy answer might appear to be no, because even if our lives were pure deception, there would be very little evidence to try and prove this. Except, when we consider the protagonist in “They”, after accepting his skepticism to be truth, he then learns it to be true, therefore how much should one merely accept their surroundings as true, and how much should one accept their world to be false? The answer must lie somewhere in between, and Plato has often provided the best response. In The Republic, Plato describes the allegory of the cave, in which it demonstrates the duty of the philosophe, and the effects of enlightenment on the world. The allegory describes a prisoner climbing out of a cave, of where he saw only shadows, to make it out in daylight, experiencing, per se, the real world. Plato states: The prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.(27)This line of reasoning, if accepted, is encouraging one to continually seek enlightenment, whether from his own experience, or from listening to those have achieved a closer degree of enlightenment. It may also be said, however, that what one may believe to be the actual sun, after escaping the cave, may in fact just be another larger fire within a larger cave, and its appearance is only there to trick one even further. Therefore, I believe the perfect degree of skepticism should be that of which you live in your world, and act according to its rules, but at the same time acknowledging that a new set of rules may arise, and lead to a greater degree of understanding about reality. With this being my decided conclusion about how one is to experience the world, was the patient reacting rationally when accepting skepticism as truth? Certainly by a pure logical standpoint by accepting anything as truth, one would simply be in a larger cave, to put it in terms of Plato’s allegory.
However, even before the patient realized that he was being manipulated near the end of the story, he had accepted his reality as purely false. This is not merely being a skeptic, but instead questioning reality to the point in which it must be false. This form of reasoning, it would appear even to Descartes, to be irrational, because he can never have any certainty of reality. For instance a malignant demon could easily be making things appear to be false to his mind, when in actuality they could be entirely true. Even if he does remember what the “Glaroon” has done to him, he already acknowledged that memory may well be a lie. Nonetheless, the protagonist’s belief in an absolute truth though may as well be a larger part of Heinlein’s thought experiment. For if we are to be skeptical of all realities presented, we cannot even be sure if the patient’s so called “antagonists” are even real themselves. Thus, proving the author’s point that there can never be any certainty with one’s own reality, and the only thing that one may be certain of is his own mind.
Descartes, Rene. “Excerpt from the Meditations on First Philosophy.” Science Fiction and Philosophy from Time Travel to Superintelligence. Susan Schneider. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009. 28-32. PrintHeinlein, Robert. “They.” Philosophy and Science Fiction. Michael Phillips. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1984. 88-101.Plato. “Excerpt from the Republic.” Science Fiction and Philosophy from Time Travel to Superintelligence. Susan Schneider. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009. 24-27. Print.
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