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Beyond Reality

We assume our senses reveal the truth about the world. But could reality be an illusion?
day and night
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

I opened the Beyond Reality debate with a quotation from Ambrose Bierce: “Reality is the dream of a mad philosopher.” Bierce’s words seemed apposite because to me the notion of a single overarching ‘reality’ which might apply equally and objectively to all humans, now and forever, is a wild fantasy.

A standard dictionary definition of reality runs thus:

“Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”

This sounds, at first, quite reassuring. Someone, somewhere, has carefully divided ‘things’ into two fixed categories:

(a)   ‘Things’ which actually exist. These are objectively Real

(b)   ‘Things’ which exist only as ideals or notions. These are not objectively Real.

‘Things’ can apparently only be one or the other – (a) or (b), real or unreal. Therefore, we might speak about someone refusing to face up to reality (meaning category a), or refusing to accept reality, and by this we would apparently suggest that there is something we all understand to be real (things as they actually are) which this poor person cannot accept. Worse still, their attempts to evade this immutable ‘reality’ have led them into the further sin of being ‘unrealistic’.

 Yet, what are things – actually or otherwise? And, who, or what, has divided all these ‘things’ into such neat, polarised categories: actual/notional, real/ unreal, objective/subjective?

In order to ascertain that something is ‘objectively’ real, you would need to be an objective judge of objectivity. Effectively, you would need to be omniscient, to perceive all time, all space, so you can fix the parameters of the real and the unreal. You would need, therefore, to be non-human, because the condition of human life is transience – non-eternality, non-omniscience – so there is a further question of how this non-human and therefore objective perception of reality would relate to non-objective and therefore human experience anyway.

The notion of reality as divisible into the notional (subjective) and the actual (objective) is therefore merely a notion. The entire definition of reality quoted above exists only in category (b). Therefore, by its own logic, it is not real. Or, it is the dream of a mad philosopher.

However, scientific materialists, for example, might say that this is specious. In line with the Johnsonian ‘kicking the stone’ school of thought, they might say that if we kick the stone, then we have felt it, and it is real. The stone we cannot kick, and cannot feel, is not real. Therefore, we don’t need omniscience; we can be assured – by directing our feet at solid objects – that certain things are objectively real and certain things are not. Equally, when Shakespeare writes of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and how “he startled like a guilty thing”, our scientific materialist/Johnsonian would explain that Shakespeare is just being poetic, and a ghost cannot be a ‘thing’ – not a real one anyway, only a notional one – and cannot be real because we cannot feel it and definitely cannot kick it.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this version of reality would result in the collapse in credibility of all laws, edicts and conventions, because such fundamental aspects of our ‘real’ societies are not solid and tangible, and we cannot stub our toes on them, and so, ergo, they are not real. There are also exceptionally influential schools of thought based on a belief in the actuality of phantasmagoric or even invisible – and certainly non-kickable – things: Judeo-Christianity, Islam, classical Platonism, Buddhism to name but a few. In the Eastern notion of ‘maya’ or illusion, the materialist notion of reality as the realm of the solid and tangible is completely inverted. Instead, anything solid or tangible is regarded as unreal, an illusion, and only the immaterial and spiritual is real.

So, once more, we return to the weird binary: objective reality versus subjective reality. We return to the question about the claims we are making for each version of reality; mine, yours, or anyone else’s: whether we are presenting it as objective truth or subjective personal theory.

For example:

If I say to you that I saw Hamlet’s father’s ghost, how would you respond?

You might say, “I don’t believe you.”

I might say, “Well, I saw it. It was subjectively real to me, but of course, it might well not be subjectively real to you.”

You might ask, “Did you stub your toe on it?” and I would concede that I did not stub my toe on Hamlet’s father’s ghost.

However, I might remind you that, on these grounds, all belief systems, all societal edicts, and all so-called scientific theories predicated on abstract notions (from Marxism to Darwinism to atomism past and present) would be dismissed as well. You cannot stub your toe on Darwinism, of course.

So, we would go round and round in circles – the ghost is not objectively real, because it cannot be kicked, but it might be subjectively real, but how do we ascertain that my subjective reality is real to anyone beyond myself, and do we need to ascertain this, when I am only claiming that my subjective reality is subjectively real and not objectively real? – and so on.

In the end, we might agree that I believe Hamlet’s father’s ghost to be real, and that is my subjective reality, and therefore it is real, but only as it concerns my small, personal version of reality. The ghost may not be real to a single other mortal, but we have at least accepted that this is my personal reality. You might walk away shaking your head at my susceptibility to superstition and vow not to invite me round to your house again, but we would have established that my subjective reality is real, at least, to me.

In essence, such quibbles among finite mortals about the nature of subjective reality are pretty harmless. The reality debate becomes far more fraught when finite mortals lay claim to objectivity. To me, such claims are indicative of a delusion that individual subjectivity can be objective and can therefore apply to humans beyond oneself, and, even, to all humans for all time. If I suddenly established a church of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, then other individuals could decide, in a free society, whether to join me in worship or to back away politely. This would still be pretty harmless: my subjective version of reality becomes the notional reality of a group, but only if other people want to join in.

If, however, I decide that all those who do not believe in the reality of Hamlet’s father’s ghost are committing a crime – because Hamlet’s father’s ghost is now objectively real and everyone MUST agree that this is true – then the situation has changed entirely. I have become a coercive and pseudo-omniscient figure, seeking to enforce my version of reality in general, rather than as it pertains to my subjective experience alone. I have developed a notion of the right and correct interpretation of reality versus the wrong and incorrect version.

Perhaps, then, I begin to punish and even imprison those who do not believe in the reality of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Perhaps they are even executed for non-compliance with this now-objective and eternally correct reality. They are wrong, I argue; they are heretics, they are reprehensible and must be removed from our society, which is now founded on this general, objective notion of reality.

This sounds completely ludicrous but alas it merely describes many historical and contemporary societies around the world. We have to be very careful about protestations of objectivity, about subjective individuals becoming the arbiters of ‘reality’ and about the mere notion of ‘objective reality’ at all. If we look at recent events, such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we can see how incredibly dangerous it is, if someone – or a group of people – believe they have discerned an objective, adamantine version of reality, to which others must adhere, on pain of punishment.

Such certainties, at the least, stymie debate, and tyrannise finite individuals. At worst, they are used allegedly to justify coercion, oppression and death. This applies to so-called religious or so-called scientific dogmatism, or dogmatism of any further denomination. This is why I believe we should always venture ‘beyond’ any prevailing or supposedly objective notion of ‘reality’. 



Image credit: MC Escher, Day and Night, 1938, woodcut in black and gray

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David Morey 2 on 22/08/2015 1:49pm

When it comes to what is objective, key are the things or experiences we can share, where agreement can be sought, where interpretations can sometimes be tested, allowing Nature a determining role in our conversations and attempts at understanding. Can we speak fairly of laws of nature we can discover? Well maybe, but they are only as good as long as we find them holding good in different environments and different circumstances and in different times. We might speak more reasonably of patterns and regularities, and such is our objectivity, identifying such regularities and processes that seem to repeat and keep going whether we are present to observe them, or whether we have begun to exist or continue to exist to have experienced their activity. Such 'objectivity' allows us to think about and imagine times and places we have been unable to directly experience but can reason about and build on to understand a reality greater than ourselves, independent of ourselves, however grounded this is in ourselves, our experiences and our thoughts.

David Morey 2 on 22/08/2015 1:36pm

Seems rather important to consider what is real in terms of what is actual, what is real and possible, and what we can identify as impossible. Also to look at real patterns that need to be described in more than simple material terms, in terms of feelings, reactions, qualities, values, ideas or possibilities involved. Patterns, what is real, all need to be given a context of the level they manifest at. And, what is hard to see in objective terms is the unpatterned, the unique, the one off event, individuality, creativity, emergence, history, openness, contingency, etc.

David Morey 2 on 22/08/2015 1:26pm

The dualism of subject and object is discussed by Robert Pirsig with great insight in his less well known book Lila.

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