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Short Story

The Real Thing

Raul Casso takes Reality 101.

For Jethro, philosophy classes were a joy. His teachers, true to the Socratic Method, answered questions with questions. They seemed to have fun picking on Jethro for answers. Jethro welcomed the attention.

“Jethro, what is the nature of reality?” the teacher asked aloud.

The entire class turned in unison to stare at him. Black hair, complexion Latin, Jethro wore a leather jacket and sat at the back of the classroom looking like a hell-raising biker from the fifties. Accustomed to looking at the back of everyone’s head during class-time, Jethro paused to take in how the classroom brightened measurably as every face turned to look at him in anticipation of his response. ‘The class changed colors, big-time,’ he mused. “Well, I think that’s a real mystery,” he remarked. “Just look at everything around you… you don’t really know what it is, do you? Look at this pencil, for example.” Jethro held a yellow No.2 pencil aloft so that every eyeball in the room could focus on it. “Look at it. It appears to be an ordinary pencil that you wouldn’t think twice about, right? What you’re seeing, however, is a concept of the pencil in your mind; and a concept in your mind is not a pencil – it’s an idea about it! The real question is: how closely does the image in your brain match the real object in the world? Is the correspondence between the physical object and the image in your mind’s eye one-to-one? I don’t think so. It can’t be.”

“Why can’t it, Jethro?” asked the teacher, raising her eyebrows in inquiry.

“Okay,” Jethro continued: “Each of us has senses designed to gather information about the world and transmit it to the brain. As it processes the sensory data, the brain creates pictures and sound – a movie, if you will – that allows us to work with the real world in real time. Yet it is not necessary for the data to be transmitted to the eyes for the brain to form an image. This is demonstrated during dreams, where no sensory data is being transmitted, yet the same images appear. This means that even during waking hours the same images may be depicted with a minimum amount of data coming in. As the senses scan one’s surroundings, they spot a pattern. Call it a constellation of data. Consider the constellation Scorpio, for example. Scorpio is a recognizable pattern of stars that suggests, in some peoples’ imaginations, a scorpion. Obviously, there is no picture of a scorpion up there in the night sky. It’s rather the same with the formation of images in our consciousness, except that instead of seeing what we want, we see what we must. Well, this constellation of information in the brain summons a corresponding image, projected onto the conscious ‘screen’. The pictures we see, therefore, are a conceptual synthesis of the sensory data – a sort of approximation of what’s really out there. We know this because the amount of information needed to retrieve the image may be minimal or even non-existent, as we see in dreams.”

Jethro cocked his head slightly sideways, and, sitting back in his chair, looked at the teacher expectantly. The rest of the class watched on.

big glasses
Photo by Nicki Varkevisser licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence

“I see,” remarked the teacher in a thoughtful tone. “But if that’s true, Jethro – if the picture in your brain does not necessarily match the real object – then how could you ever know that the object you’re looking at is there at all, in reality? If someone kept showing me a picture of a horse over and over, eventually, if all I ever get to see is only a picture and not the real thing, I might start to wonder if the actual horse is really there.”

Jethro paused before answering. “The real thingHmmm… If you were shown a picture of a horse repeatedly, and the image never changed, then yes, one could doubt whether there really was a horse, or whether it’s just a picture of some horse that does not exist anymore. Or it could be a composite picture of a horse that never existed at all. But even if you were to look at a real horse in a barnyard, you’re still only looking at a conceptual picture of it in your mind, not the horse itself – like the pencil.”

“Well then, what can the image we perceive tell us about the real thing?” interrupted Hortense – a bright student with impossibly thick glasses, working hard to secure that coveted ‘A’.

Jethro sat up and studied Hortense. Their eyes met and held for a few seconds longer than necessary for Jethro to acknowledge the question. Hortense was possessed of an extraordinary beauty that managed to overcome the owlish look imposed by her glasses. Behind her eye, a star Jethro saw. “Well…” Jethro continued as he turned back to the teacher: “We know that the picture you see in your mind’s eye is not a stock picture of the object. One does not see the same picture every time one looks at a similar object.” Jethro glanced at Hortense, who was looking at him intently. “We know this,” Jethro went on, “because we see different details among different objects of the same kind. We also see changing details for a single object over time. Those different, individual details are how we know there really is an object out there that corresponds to the concept in our mind. Consider a banana. Over time, if you leave it there, it develops, changes – small changes at first, then bigger changes if you don’t eat it…”

The teacher stared at Jethro with a slight frown. “How do the different details between objects of the same kind tell us that there is a reality corresponding to what we see?”

“Because the different details between objects of the same kind, or for the same object over time, confirm that the concept in our mind – the picture or image we see – is incomplete. It shows that the concept is less than the physical object. I mean, the concept in our head does not portray the entire object. The concept contains less information about the object than the object really consists of, if you like. Our senses convey only the information they are capable of capturing and transmitting. Our sensory apparatus can convey just enough information to allow our consciousness to kick into gear and project images into our minds. And it doesn’t take much information for the brain to depict an image.”

Hortense spoke up: “I have a question.” Turning to Jethro, her face flushing with color, she asked, “Jethro, what do you mean by the picture in our head being incomplete ? What are you talking about?”

Again Jethro paused to look at her. Hortense’s eyes conveyed open challenge. Jethro smiled. ‘She is pretty’ he said to himself, before explaining, “The differences between individual objects – those small, unique details between objects of the same type – contradict the proposition that the conceptual image is a complete representation of the object portrayed: the correspondence between the concept in our mind’s eye and the physical object is not one-to-one. The actual conceptual image we have of a thing contains less information, whereas the ideal image of a thing would be complete in all aspects. The differences among individual objects present counterexamples to the completeness of any given experiences.”

Bananas © Gerardolagunes 2019

At this point, Hortense, exasperated, raised her hand again, “I still have a question.”

“Yes Hortense, go on…” allowed the teacher.

“I have a bunch of bananas at home. Some have a few brown spots, others have more, and some are entirely yellow. But they’re all bananas.”

“Jethro, do you care to comment?” the teacher asked, turning to Jethro. “Hortense does have a point, you know – a banana is a banana is a banana.”

“Yes,” continued Jethro: “A banana is a banana. And what allows you to conclude that, even though each individual banana has a different appearance, is that they each share crucial qualities. Even though they differ in detail, they’re shaped the same. Indeed, they resemble each other enough that you can identify them as fruit of a certain type – in this case, a banana. It is the individual differences, however, that tell us that the banana is really there.”

“Jethro, you’re going in circles,” the teacher admonished. “The ‘individual differences’ – sometimes referred to in the history of philosophy as secondary or accidental qualities – have been dismissed by some philosophers as lacking any philosophical importance. So, what are you talking about, Jethro?”

“He’s going bananas!” Hortense declared, provoking general laughter.

Jethro pressed on: “Yes. Historically, secondary or accidental qualities were considered as the nonconceptual aspects of things, which ever since Plato have been dismissed as transitory and insignificant. More value was placed on the ‘primary substances’ – those qualities, whatever they are, that give objects their form and the basic physical attributes that allow one to identify them as a particular type of object.”

“What’s the difference between the primary and secondary qualities, Jethro?” The teacher asked, turning to the class, inviting them to listen up.

“The primary qualities last longer than the secondary qualities. As a banana ripens, with its colors changing, you can still recognize the banana as a banana because it still has the primary banana qualities, even after it begins to rot and turn black.”

At this point, the teacher took over in lecture mode: “Aristotle taught that the form of matter is eternal, with form being if you like the ‘soul’ of matter.”

Provoked, Hortense again jumped into the fray: “But aren’t forms or shapes entirely material? Without material to display a form, or take a shape, wouldn’t forms cease to exist, once an object is gone?”

“What you say seems to follow, Hortense,” remarked the teacher. “As I say, in effect, form was treated by the Aristotelians as the ‘soul’ of an object. It is form, then, that is the so-called ‘stock item’ in the conceptual realm – the one size fits all that allows us to identify and name the objects that take the given forms, no matter how they may differ individually.”

“So raw matter, like clay, must exist for any form to be realised,” Hortense, interjected. “There must be stuff to be shaped. But who’s shaping it?” Then the schoolbell rang.

The class gathered their materials and shuffled out of the classroom. As Jethro walked out into the hallway, he saw Hortense, who was leaning against the wall, waiting for him, smiling. Jethro knew he’d had a basic idea of Hortense since first noticing her in class – a lazy mental sketch of a geeky girl in bottle-bottom glasses. Spotting the ironical twist at the corner of her mouth, he realised with a jolt that the reality might be more complex.

© Raul Casso 2021

Raul Casso is an attorney and heads a law firm in Laredo, Texas. Formerly a prosecutor, he diligently sought the underlying reality.

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