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Question of the Month

What Is The Nature Of Reality?

The following readers’ answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.

What’s the problem? Isn’t it enough that things are as they are? No, because we are sometimes deceived. We need to tell the difference between hard ground and marsh that only looks hard. We need to know whether something is a bear or only a child with a bearskin rug over its head. We have evolved to tell the real from the false. Injure the brain and the victim may lose their sense of reality. When you have flu the familiar world can seem unreal. You might as well ask “What is the nature of ‘upright’?”

The real is the genuine, the reliable, what I can safely lean on. It is akin to truthful, valuable, even delightful. Its opposite is not illusion, but the fake, the counterfeit, that which can’t be trusted, has no cash value. Theatre, television, paintings, literature deal in illusion but can be real in the sense that they nurture and enlarge us, help to make sense of experience. When they fail in this, they feel unreal, they don’t ring true. They are false, they fail as art. Theatre and everyday life overlap – although the murderer in the play is not prosecuted. Psychotherapists know how people act out ‘scripts’ which they can rewrite to invent a new reality. It may not matter if the story of my life is real or invented, until a lawyer asks if I am really the person mentioned in my long-lost uncle’s will.

Electrons, energy, valency, spin are real in so far as the scientific structure they form part of explains what we experience. Phlogiston no longer makes sense, so it has lost its claim to reality, as a banknote which goes out of circulation becomes a piece of paper. Promises, agreements, treaties are real only so long as they can be trusted. Some plans and commitments are called unreal because we know they will come to nothing.

To take the big question: is God real? ‘Real’ I find more meaningful than the ‘existence’ question. We cannot prove the existence of the electron or alpha particles or even such matters as market forces, compassion or philosophy. But we see their effects, and assuming they are real makes sense of great swathes of our experience. God is at least as real as an idea like ‘compassion’.

Tom Chamberlain, Maplebeck, Notts

The problem ‘what is reality?’ arises from a consciousness of ourselves as living in a world which seems to be outside of, and yet is the cause of, our conscious life. Our reflections on this lead us to wonder if we can know of the world beyond our perceptions – the underlying cause of our consciousness of appearances. This world of the underlying cause we call ‘reality’.

Is reality mental – mind; or is it physical– matter and energy? If mind, is there a deeper consciousness underlying appearances that unites us all and is the source of our conscious thoughts? If matter, can we understand how the play of material objects and forces can give rise to conscious life?

If reality is mental, we might best connect with it by skillful introspection; by a pure, deep, and penetrating way of thought that would see past appearances and show reality directly to the mind. Alternatively we might passively receive, by a process of revelation, a mental image of reality. In revelation, the cosmic mind could speak directly to us, in apparitions or visions.

If ultimate reality is instead composed of matter and energy, the method recommended is more empirical; that is, more reliant on the senses. This method, which we call ‘science’, involves the formulation of statements of proposed facts (observable truths) about the physical, along with statements about relationships between the facts, in the form of physical laws. In science, these statements of laws and proposed facts are subject to criticism and testing by observation and experiment. The statements that at any time best convince, after testing and criticism, are given the status of ‘actual fact’, or if you wish, reality.

Revelation resists and endures, because science gives scant comfort to the desire for unification with cosmic reality. But science is relentless, and facts, ultimately, are irresistible.

Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio

In discussing the nature of reality, we must distinguish between physical reality and immaterial (non-physical) reality. Physical reality is that which is constrained by physics or physical laws. Perhaps the best person to relegate this part of the discussion to would be a physicist, since a physicist is probably more qualified in discussing physical reality then an armchair philosopher such as myself.

Immaterial reality then pertains to what is not constrained by physical laws, eg concepts such as ‘character’ and the ‘mind’, Plato’s Forms, the realm of God and spirits. If physical reality is all that is ‘real’, then what is the relationship of immaterial concepts, such as ‘character’, the ‘Good’, and ‘morals’, to this physical reality? Are concepts such as these just the content of our brains and products of our reasoning and emotions? If so, then it is probable these concepts are just subjective and thus non-absolute, since the contents of our beliefs is contingent and always changing. Conversely, if there is a separate and distinct (non-subjective) immaterial reality, and the aforementioned concepts of character, the Good, and morals etc exist as aspects of this reality, then the existence of objective, absolute concepts is possible (maybe even necessary), since the nature of reality is not contingent, dependent on subjective opinion.

On the other hand, some questions now arise: if immaterial reality does exist as separate and distinct from physical reality, how would these two realities interact? Is there a distinct location for an immaterial concept (or a form, or spirit) in somewhere such as heaven, Plato’s perfect realm, or perhaps a more local area in the universe? And is there a distinct nature for logic and mathematics, or for the connections that exists between these realities. These are questions for the philosopher and physicist to ponder, and perhaps answer, together.

Joe Moore, Woodland Hills, CA.

I recently uncovered the nature of reality from a man on a flaming pie, who handed me a herbal cigarette. I now know that previously I was a body in a vat being poked by a malignant demon. I was only an ape then, but after millions of years I evolved so that I could have the brain power to lasso the demon with my electrode and thus escape. I was chased by a large white balloon, but made my getaway from the Island. Since then, I have set up my own very successful religion in the U.S. So, all in all, make sure you always trust your senses, never question organised religion, and don’t engage in any philosophy beyond Matrix 1-3.

Simon Maltman, Bangor

Definition 1. A reality consists of the interactions of a particular thing with what ‘becomes’ for that thing.

Definition 2. Reality (with a capital R) consists of all realities.

Definition 3. The nature of a reality, or of Reality, is a description or explanation of that reality, or of Reality.

A reality for a particular stone or person consists of that stone’s or person’s interactions with changing environments – ie with what becomes for them. The nature of reality for the stone is not available to any person, since stones do not speak or understand a language any person can understand. However, the nature of a stone’s reality can be imagined or inferred by people. Geologists do this, so do poets like Shakespeare (“sermons in stones”), and so could you if you try. People infer that a person’s reality is different in kind from a stone’s reality since, for example, people infer as a result of their interactions with what becomes that they can have more elaborate interactions with environments than stones can. One way people interact with what becomes is by way of their senses. Another way is by reasoning and feeling, or perhaps by way of intuitions or revelations. Stones don’t have these capabilities.

An hypothesis which can entertain people is that together all the realities – for stones, for people, for whatever – form a single Reality. One can then ask whether or not all these realities, the parts of Reality, have something in common. One answer is that they have in common interacting with what becomes. One can ask further, what is the nature of what becomes? An answer is that what becomes is realities, ie, what becomes consists of interactions with what becomes. That is, the parts of Reality, the realities, interact with each other. Thus Reality is the interaction of realities with each other.

A more difficult task would be to explain how one particular reality interacts with another reality, and with all the realities it interacts with. One can then contemplate how all the realities can or might or do or did or will interact with each other. This is how one can contemplate the nature of Reality.

Gordon Fisher, South Salem, NY

One thing that everyone agrees on – idealists, materialists, dualists – is that there is sense to our question. Another thing all these views share is that we all share the same reality. For example, for Berkeley the nature of my reality and your reality is the same – it is all constructed out of mind-dependent ideas.

We should be wary of the idea that the nature of reality is relative to what someone believes. Suppose I believe that the Earth is flat and you believe it is round. Therefore, the line goes, we have two different realities. This cannot be right, for we are talking about (referring to) the same thing. We just differ in our beliefs about it. But whatever the nature of reality is, it cannot be hostage to anyone’s view of it. It must be independent of any individual’s mind. We can only hope to understand questions about its nature once we admit this. Of course, this rules out solipsism, the view that reality – all of it – is a function of my private experiences. This view is deeply mistaken, for the beliefs and other mental states the solipsist takes to be the sole furniture of his world depend on there being a shared environment. As Wittgenstein, Davidson, and Strawson have all stressed, the development of language and of thought cannot occur in isolation. So, there must be someone else on the scene for the solipsist to have the beliefs he does, even if it is only Descartes’ evil demon. With two, at least, in reality, we see that the nature of reality cannot just be how the world seems to any (one) individual. While this is not a full answer to our question, it is a fact we cannot ignore. At the very least, we can now say something of what the nature of reality is not.

Casey Woodling, Gainesville, FL

Reality is the independent nature and existence of everything knowable, whether it is knowable by logical inference, empirical observation, or some other form of experience. Reality’s existence and nature are independent because reality does not depend on our mind’s apprehension of it to continue to exist or to maintain its character.

Consider Kant’s idea of the ‘thing in itself’: that aspect of existence always outside of our perceptions of it. In Kant’s view, we can never truly know reality in itself, what he called ‘the noumenal world’, because we are limited to our mind’s imposition of fixed ‘categories’ of knowledge upon our perceptions of it (this giving us what Kant called ‘phenomenal’ knowledge). So it would seem we are forever cut off from reality as it is in itself, that is, distinct from our minds’ apprehension of it.

Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas pointed out that our perceptions of the world around us cannot be knowledge, since perceptions can logically contradict each other. For example, I may say, “This chair is brown,” while another may say, “No, this chair is not brown, it’s white.” Since these perceptions contradict, perception cannot produce genuine knowledge, since truthful knowledge cannot contradict itself.

Therefore, genuine knowledge of reality would have to be direct knowledge of the object itself. And so reality itself, comprising the independent nature and existence of everything knowable, exists independently of our minds’ apprehension of it. At best, perceptions are not that which we know; rather, perceptions are that by which we know.

Craig Payne, Ottumwa, IA USA

While much of reality is a shared conceptualization, a great deal of it is personal to the individual, for reality is how we describe the world: it is how the world seems to us to be. Therefore the foundation of our reality is our language use.

We must resist the tendency to think of reality as a fixed state of affairs that language merely identifies or labels. Reality is the product of language. The impressions that flood our mind provide food for thinking, and the language we use provides us with the means to ‘cook up’ a reality. Peter Winch states it clearly: “Our idea of what belongs to the realm of reality is given for us in the language that we use. The concepts we have settle for us the form of the experience we have of the world.” (The Idea of Social Science, Humanities Press, p15.)

What we know of the world we can only know through language, and as our language is subject to change, so too is our reality. The world will not change in the sense that physical objects may come into existence as a result of language use, but our comprehension of our impressions of the world (our experiences) often change as a result of language. When Harvey discovered that blood circulates he did not discover red and white corpuscles or plasma. But though corpuscles and plasma existed as part of the perceived world they were not realized. They held no place as conceptual elements of reality. Realization is an act of discovery governed by language use. In this sense, cultural differences in language use often create cultural differences in realities. New Guinea tribesmen who have only two basic colour words (light and dark) have a different apprehension of reality to us. They live in the same world we do and they are capable of receiving the same impressions, but their reality is different from Europeans as their language use obliges them to divide the world into different categories.

Launt Thompson, Armidale, NSW

How does reality appear to us? What are the circumstances that could cause one’s reality to be different from another’s?

Our perception of reality is a generation of sensations caused by our minds, and the sense that they make of the inputs to the brain, be they aural, visual, tactile, taste or smell. These sensations, particularly the visual, will give us a sense of our surroundings and their dimensions. It is very easy to distort this perception, and this can be done through mind-altering drugs or through the loss of one of the senses.

People who have never seen can have their own sense of reality, which may be vastly different to that of a sighted person. They may have an internal non-visual ‘visualisation’ of bodily form for example, which if drawn or created could be completely different from what is normally visually perceived.

Questions have been raised whether one person’s sense of reality may be basically different to the next person’s. However, as we are made of essentially the same genetic material and receive essentially the same sensory inputs, this seems unlikely.

How different would an insect or animal’s perception of reality be to ours? A fly for example will have a distorted (to us) representation of its visual stimuli, caused by the need for the fly to be aware of different aspects of its surroundings.

In a dream state, situations often occur which seem absurd when awake. Therefore, we seem to have a dual existence; one conscious and the other subconscious. The subconscious state can seem as real as the waking state to a person who is dreaming or having a nightmare. How often is it that you wake, and then go over your dream to realise that some of the things you were doing are impossible. Or are they?

Alternate realities can now be induced by wearing computerised headsets, which can place a person inside a virtual reality. As graphics become more sophisticated, will this visualisation always be distinguishable from ‘actual’ reality?

Simon Scates, Kalamunda, Western Australia

Reality is a simulation. In a very real way we live in a reality like that portrayed by the Matrix. I can prove it to you, right now.

Take the sensors you call your eyes. They transform light energy into an electrical, essentially digital, signal, which is sent to your brain. The same with all your other senses. All the sensory information you have about the world, according to our best scientific understanding, comes to you as electrical pulses. Your brain uses this information to produce a highly elaborate simulation. It produces a 3D coloured representation of something that’s almost certainly not coloured in itself, and may not even be 3D. It bears some relationship to reality, sure.

This may seem a bit worrying. All these science fiction ideas about being a brain in a vat are essentially true. We are just that. The vat your brain is in is your head. Worse, we are a consciousness, in a brain, in a vat. However a simulation is not necessarily less real than an unsimulated world, just a different type of reality. To paraphrase Kant, there is reality and reality, and we need to be sure which we are talking about.

Take a fighter pilot as an example. If she looks out the window at 700mph, all she may see is a mist of darkness-obscured blur whizzing past her window. If she looks down at her instruments however, she is provided with a much more useful reality simulation. A radar screen tells her where she is in the world and what is coming up far beyond her ‘real’ vision. A topographical display and night-vision goggles help her see the ground she is flying over. Our ‘normal’ simulation of reality aids us in the same way. Colour tells us information about the surfaces of objects we would otherwise not have (and how else could this information be displayed?). Three dimensionality helps us make our way in a world of solid objects. Psychologists can tell you how much this all relies on brain processes.

We live in a simulation, yes; but it is not a lesser reality, it is an enhanced reality. Problems only come about if we, as the pilot, start to think the radar screen or the night-vision goggles are the only true way to see the world, and confuse our representation of reality with reality itself.

Justin Holme, Surrey

The Y-Monster of Reality

Gazing upon a beer bottle I hold in my hand, I consider that I am not seeing the beer bottle as it exists, out there, in ‘reality’. Instead, I am looking at a picture of it as produced in my brain via my sensory perceptions. That is, my senses provide data about the object of my perception (a beer bottle), and using the sensory data my brain assembles a picture for me to see. At any rate, it is the picture in my brain that I see and not the bottle of beer I hold in my hand. But because the picture in my brain is not the object itself, one may come to doubt the very existence of the object out there, in reality. How can we ever know whether objects really exist externally, if all we have to look at are images of them in our heads? Is ours a world of ideas, or is our world really real? The answer is, Both. Reality is at once a world of ideas, and an objective world of empirical reality.

Although one may never perceive physical objects apart from our perceptions of them, we can safely conclude that the objects out there really are there, and so really are real, because there is general consensus about them. People agree, generally, as to what objects are. If I were to throw my beer bottle and hit a passer-by on the head with it, that person would tell the police I threw a beer bottle at him – as opposed to having been kicked in the head by a flying blue unicorn, for instance. If there were no such consensus about the perceived external world, then the fact of one’s experiences would be all one could be sure of, with little by way of meaningful discourse with others. Yet, there is consensus about the perceived external world. Like moviegoers in a theater, we all see the same movie.

Indeed, there is some consensus even concerning the world beyond our senses. Niels Bohr & Co explored an invisible world on the basis of theory. Yet the world they thus ‘observed’ and described is real, as corroborated by subsequent discoveries and common experiences (well, sort of, at least to some extent). So, how can the empirical world, about which there is general consensus, and the world that exists in our individual heads, be reconciled? Behold: the Y-Monster of Reality.

The nature of reality is that it has two perceptual realms, or two heads, like a ‘Y-monster’ – albeit with a slight qualification. Unlike a Y-monster with two heads perched separately on two torsos joined to one spine, the Y-monster of reality has two heads, but one is inside the other. On the one hand [head], we have our individual, subjective perceptions, individual to our own heads. On the other hand, however, there is also a giant, external ‘head’ which encompasses all empirical reality, including our individual heads. It is science-based culture.

This metaphorical ‘outer head’ encompasses the empirical world of our common consensus. It is by way of this consensus that we experience reality. Any individual’s perception is made within the context of a much larger shared perception. To use a crude analogy, moviegoers at a cinema each perceive the movie in their minds, but what they perceive is in the movie theater, and their perceptions are determined by the same objective data, as depicted on the silver screen. If, as quantum physicists say, our perceptions play a role in selecting reality by freezing a wave of quanta upon perception, then the world is also subject to our collective perception. Thus we form our world together, from one infinite moment to the next.

Raul Casso, Laredo, Texas

Bishop Berkeley’s Friday teas attract philosophers, whose most imminent reality is an empty purse. His rock cakes have to be seen to be believed.

“Time is a human construct,” reflected Cornbow. “One cannot say that Reality is, or was. One can only say that humans reflect on Reality as a defence against the mental trash unloaded upon us by the media. Those dire Reality shows especially.”

“I heard that the cosmos is shaped like a ring doughnut,” suggested Dr Shambollix, whose ultimate reality would be abundant with doughnuts. “Dark matter may be much like raspberry jam.” There followed a long debate about the meaning of ‘like’, and, fearing indigestion among his guests, the Bishop intervened: “St Paul told the Corinthians that he could see Reality only through a dim reflection. However, he also thought that Reality understood him.” Young Amy, inclined to charismatic utterance, said that like Paul she had ascended into the Third Heaven, and it was both spacious and comfortable. “Not like railway travel,” she added.

“There was a time,” sighed the Bishop, “when Bradshaw’s Railway Timetable sustained public belief in the reliability of religion.”

The last word, and the final cake, fell to Sam Socrates, the New Yorker, who saw Pragmatism in all phenomena, including the Bishop’s cakes: “When we arrive at the gates of Heaven, we are clad only in the wisdom we’ve garnered in this life. But we don’t mention it much on Capitol Hill.” A tear dropped on the Bishop’s cheek. It is easier to sense Reality within the human spirit than to say much about it. He pronounced the benediction before distributing the washing-up rota. “There are some,” he said, “who believe that God is bound up with the spiritual evolution thrust upon mankind. All is in the process of becoming Real, but is not yet. Washing Up, not Cosmic Reality, is the Categorical Imperative for our Friday afternoons. As for Spiral Dynamics, look at the icing pattern on the soft sponge...”

David Lazell, East Leake, Loughborough

From the perspective of modern physics, the chairs we use are not solid at all but are comprised mostly of space. In consequence we not only sit down rather more cautiously, but have become really quite relaxed with the notion that our day-to-day constructions of reality may be largely illusory, varying not only from person to person but from one era and culture to another, and most notably between species.

Plato’s Cave allegory would not get him onto any chat shows today; it may not even have been big news way back in 400BC. The trouble is he fudged the issue, because the reflections in the cave were distortions of real people, carrying their various burdens past the mouth of the cave.

By contrast, Heraclitus a couple of centuries earlier was making the more challenging suggestion that everything is flux – nothing permanently is. There are no beings at the cave mouth. What we think of as things – as stable objects – are really in constant transition: they are processes. Our selves are the same.

Well, this is more like it: far better box office stuff, like the Matrix, where we’re fed a stream of data. If we take on board the notion that the raw material on which our limited senses feed comprises a shifting, shapeless field of energy or data, like a sort of thin gruel in constant motion, then the question emerges: What conditions within this constant flux yield boundaries? Without boundaries, the thing-medium distinction that so taxed ecologist Roger Barker cannot exist, and our varied experiences imply such a distinction. Further, without any boundaries, any awareness must of necessity be ubiquitous and remain undifferentiated from other focuses of awareness. I, in consequence, become positively godlike.Well, I can live with that if you can.

Martin Lunghi, Scottish Borders

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: Why Should I Be Good? Answers should be less than 400 words. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’. If you want the chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. You will be edited.

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