How Do We Know We Exist?

Today I read a thought-provoking post on the subject of enlightenment. Quite a lot the article seemed to speak to me and I recognise that in some small way, perhaps I have been enlightened. When I say that, I mean, at least with regard to internet marketing, I have certainly been through a process that ended with my understanding shifting a gear (see Escaping the Matrix) so that, I believe is a kind of enlightenment.

However, in this post I wanted to pick up on one of the ideas that the post provoked. It is something that any philosophy student will be very familiar with, of course; and it is the subject of how we know that we exist. Even those not that well versed in philosophical matters will remember Decartes’, “I think, therefore I am” proposition. And, of course, every student of philosophy will also know the flaw in the argument too i.e. that this thinking does not prove that we exist at all; it simply proves that we think, and that is a different proposition.

My own reaction to the question is that the deliberation seems pretty pointless. Philosophers have debated the question for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years and apparently, nobody is sure that we exist at all. Personally, I am more than prepared to accept the results of the duck test on the whole matter. As James Whitcomb Riley so eloquently put it, “when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck”. I guess that I have always been an exponent of inductive reasoning – even when I didn’t know what it was called (lol).

So, how do we know that we exist? Here is my own argument:

1. We know that a thinker exists because we think (after Descartes)
2. We accept that this does not prove that anything else exists physically
3. We understand something about the mind that thinks and reasons
4. We know that the thinker perceives a version of reality
5. We accept that this perceived reality may be an illusion
6. We understand much of perceived reality within this chimera
7. We know that the chimera is convincing
8. We accept that, within the chimera, perceived reality is consistent
9. We understand that, within the chimera, universal law is predictable
10. When I see a chimera that looks like a reality, responds like a reality and behaves like a reality, I call that chimera a reality

Of course, the above is not an absolute proof, that’s true. Even if we invoke Occam’s Razor, a great temptation in such a discussion, we must accept that the principle of parsimony stating that simple solutions are preferred to more complex ones, might just apply to the chimera and not to reality itself. But the above reasoning is good enough for me. At least I understand that what we perceive as reality is not actually reality itself.

For me, it is practical enough to simply accept that our perceptions are very likely to be faulty to some extent. There is no question that our senses, upon which we are inclined to base many judgements, can be fooled very easily indeed. Even without any intended trickery of the kind that stage magicians practice, we know that we do actually see things that are not really there. There are many optical illusions that perfectly well illustrate the fragility of our perceptions (see Perception).

It is always useful to recognise that perception and reality are different things. It is useful in so many practical ways. For example, in the process of communicating with others, it is often useful to recognise that what we have understood by a particular communication may not be its intended meaning. If we were to exercise more energy in the direction of properly understanding others, I think there would be a lot less conflict in the world.

Given the limitations of our ability to perceive, I believe that intuitively we know that we are experiencing reality right now. To be enlightened is perhaps to come to this essential understanding. It seems perfectly reasonable to me. If we never understand that our experience of reality is reality, then perhaps we will never engage with life in the way we might – we will never really live. This is your life – right now – it is not a dress rehearsal so make sure you are doing the right thing with it and living the life you really want to live.

Now, I understand that there will be many who would wish to disagree with the foregoing, but that’s just fine. There is plenty of room for alternative views to be expressed, championed and defended within my reality. But as with many things in my experience, I have found that it is sometimes necessary to trust your intuition rather than your logical mind in order to move forward. We may yet turn out to be just brains in jars, that’s undoubtedly true; it’s just unlikely.

7 thoughts on “How Do We Know We Exist?

  1. Jim van Ommen

    It would appear Will that we have done full circle and you could say there are two types of logic, a secular and a spiritual, but where these two come into conflict in the final analysis the one that will prevail would have to be the one that is spoken of so powerfully,logically and convincingly in ” this article ” that you referred me to in your last answer. Thank you Will, that is really profound and I agree that we Christians need to be far better versed in scripture to be effective witnesses. Just think about it, if it was necessary for Christ as the Son of God to know and be able to quote scripture to be victorious over Satan, how much more do we need to equip ourselves and wear the full armour of God to have that kind of victory. The power of the word……it is awsome.

    God bless you,

  2. Will Edwards Post author

    Hi Jim

    When you say, “I can say the same about any other philosophy not being admissible” you touch on why the argument is constructed in the way it is i.e. it does not reference any belief system at all. You asked why God was omitted from this particular discussion and you do have your answer, though I accept that you may not agree with it or like it.

    As for your additional question, this is an entirely different matter. The question is outside our logical discussion on the issue of existence but, as you are a Christian, you might appreciate this article.

    Best wishes,

    Will 🙂

  3. Jim van Ommen

    Will, you say: “ By the same token, it is not admissible (in logical discussion) to include reference to God simply because a large group of people believe in his existence”.

    If that is so, then I can say the same about any other philosophy not being admissible simply because a large group of people believe in it. The end result being that all our logic is relative, not conclusive, mere conjecture. In that case I think I have reasonable grounds to suggest that some of us may need to ask somebody in authority whether or not we do exist.

    What I would like to ask you Will, is where: “your good authority” came from?

  4. Will Edwards Post author

    Hi Jim

    You need to see the distinction between your faith in God (which may yet turn out to be entirely valid) and how logical arguments are constructed on the basis of fact and not opinion, belief or intuition.

    With that caveat in place, I will try to answer your question. But you will have to open your mind in order to hear the answer in the way it is intended. However, I have it on good authority that God will (seriously) bless you for making the effort.

    With regard to your comment about ‘most people’ believing in God, that may not be strictly true. Around 70% of US citizens do believe in God, but in western Europe, the figures are quite different (only around 35% in the UK believe and the figure is even lower in France – about 27%). However, more importantly, belief (or faith) has no part in logical discussion. That’s not to say that your faith is not valid; just that, strictly, it cannot form any part of a logical discussion.

    Here’s why …

    To illustrate: supposing a large group of people hold a common belief, for example, the Mae Enga belief in menstruating women …

    “In the Mae Enga tribe of New Ginea, for example, it is believed that men will die if they remain in the presence of menstruating women: ‘they believe that contact with it [menstrual blood] … sickens a man and causes persistent vomiting, kill[s] his blood so that it turns black, corrupt[s] his vital juices so that his flesh wastes, permanently dull[s] his wits and eventually lead[s] to a slow decline and death.”

    The vast majority of the population of the world do not believe the above to be true. But, more importantly, that belief – to the satisfaction of most of the population of the world – has been shown to be false. So you see, it would not be admissible in a logical discussion about causes of death to list menstruating women simply because a large group of people believe them to be a cause.

    By the same token, it is not admissible (in logical discussion) to include reference to God simply because a large group of people believe in his existence.

    Please don’t misunderstand my reply: I am NOT arguing against the existence of God. However, in my view, many Christians would do well to learn how to engage in logical discussions on the subject if they intend to discuss the matter with others who do not share their faith. You may also find this article helpful.

    Best wishes,

    Will 🙂

  5. Jim van Ommen


    In discussions like this where we seek assurance that we exist, and there are quite a few on the internet, why is it that many of them leave God out of the equation. If we are to have intelligent discussion on this subject would we not at least want to face the reality that a very large proportion of people, if not most, believe in a God, one way or the other. At least a God who is responsible for us being here, whether before or after the big bang.

    As soon as we talk along those lines, I know the response by many is; “Oh, that’s to do with faith, religious stuff” and throw out the baby with the bath water so to speak, because they see science and philosophy as something that is superior, based on clever thinking and proof.

    But what is proof? The definition of PROOF according to the Webster dictionary is: “The cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact “…. and the word COGENCY means: “ Appealing to the intellect or powers of reasoning; convincing”. I ask you; what is the significance of that which is:

    “appealing to the intellect of the human mind “ as compared with “the wisdom of the One who created us and the universe out of nothing?”

    What does the Bible say about the wisdom of the wise?

    What we need to realize is that the word ‘proof’ is earthbound, it has no application or validity in the spiritual realm of eternity. We literally need to trade that word in for the word ‘faith’ if we want to earn our wings and have any enlightenment whatsoever. You could call it a kind of graduation to higher education, a metamorphosis where the butterfly emerges from its cocoon to spread it’s wings as it flies into another reality, into the live giving light, the Light of the World. Faith in our Creator God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, His Son, who continues to show the way to those who humble themselves and pray and follow Him.

    Ultimate knowledge, truth and wisdom is out of our reach and can only begin to flow when we see ourselves for who we are, and who we can be in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Very religous stuff, I know, but if we allow that to become a stumbling block, we’ve cut ourselves off from the real source of all knowledge and wisdom and all our reasoning and conjecture is a futile going round and round in circles, in our existence for a season, not knowing whether we are coming or going.

    Regards, Jim.

  6. Jim van Ommen

    Well, let’s put it this way: If you’re alive you do exist, but you can exist and not be alive in the true sense of the word. See if you can work that one out and let me know.

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