What is the nature of reality?


Thursday 13th March 2014

This question was inspired by the ‘Question of the Month’ for March/April 2014 on the Philosophy Now website.  Some of the responses from contributors are fascinating and may inspire equally fascinating with some comments on this post.

Common sense tells us that reality is somehow a sum of all the things we experience ‘out there’ and the mental experiences we have within our own minds.  If we kick a stone, it hurts; if we hear a song by Nora Jones, we feel happy.  So the interface of the reality out there and the reality in us is our sensory perceptions which the brain processes to give us meaningful experiences.  Science tells us that we are pattern seeking creatures who evolved to have the (often strange) capacity to find patterns in the random data yielded by the senses and to somehow invest these patterns with meaning.

But we know that our senses are often vulnerable to mistakes.  We often connect the dots between the things we see, feel and hear in pretty bizarre ways.  Just think of the countless optical illusions (remember the Jesus image?) and aural illusions (do you know the one about listening to the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards) to which we’re susceptible.  Philosophically, these limitations of our senses suggest that we cannot fully know the real world, let alone what different people think and feel within it (look up the problem of ‘solipsism’).  On another level, the limitations suggest that our mental maps of the real are full of beliefs we have created that don’t exactly resemble the territory which we consider to be the real world (this is part of the message of Magritte’s painting above).  In short, there is a sort of knowledge gap between what we think we know is real and the objective nature of the real world in which we live and interact with others.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ you may ask.  ‘We seem to get along pretty well most of the time and we’ve managed to send people to the moon, so we must have got to grips with the nature of reality.’

Fair point.  When our mental maps work, they help us do great things.  But what happens when the discrepancy between the mental map in someone’s head and the ‘real’ world is so great that they cannot navigate the world like the rest of us.  Thus we get the differences between ‘mad’ people and ‘normal’ people’; the creative genius and the sheep-like follower; the terrorist and the average citizen…

So you see, it’s an absolutely crucial question: all we have are our senses (including all their faults) and they are our first portal into the real world.  To extend the map metaphor: from the moment we have a spark of consciousness, we become adventurers of the real, constantly exploring the world as a way of refining and updating our mental maps so that we can navigate the world with some semblance of certainty and practicality and, of course, happiness and good.  There’ll be bumps and downright disasters along the way, but we were made to be resilient, curious and with a tremendous capacity for self-knowledge…

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