"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination." - John LennonWe have this concept we call “reality”. It’s a bit of a mushy idea.
Is a rock real? Of course it is, we say. It physically exists. You can touch it. You can trip over it. You can break things with it. What about a Mooglesnoot (the purple-footed ones, not the crested howlers)? Well, no, those aren’t real. They’re only in my imagination (and now yours).
Is an idea real? Is an emotion? Is a memory? We do use that phrase a lot in that context – your “real” opinion, your “real” feelings. They’re no more physical than the Mooglesnoot, and what existence they have is in the same place. So why is one real, and the other not?
Like I said, it’s a mushy idea.
Charles Forte, the great chronicler of weird, often talked about the vague and uncertain line between real and not-real, or accepted and not-accepted. There is nothing that is purely true, he would say, and nothing that is purely fiction – there is only truth-fiction. And maybe he was onto something there. Maybe “real” is something of a popularity contest, a decision we make - often by consensus - of what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s credible and what’s implausible.
Let’s talk about some of those judgments, and how we make them. And let’s start with this: Are you sure that rock is real?
Read on . . .
“Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?” – Edgar Allen PoeA is A.
It is the fundamental philosophical concept. More correctly, it is the fundamental philosophical question. Is A really A? How do we know, and do we know for sure? Can we know for sure?
Take any A in question – the tree outside your window, say. How do you know it’s a tree? How do you know it’s not a cutout of a tree, convincingly detailed? There are artists right now making stunning 3D illusions with nothing but sidewalk chalk. Could a finely crafted cutout fool you? Or maybe it’s just an optical illusion, the image of a tree created by the dance of light and shadow. Staring at it from inside, how can you really know?
And both of those options assume that there’s actually anything outside your window. After all, you don’t know there is, you only know the signals your optic nerve are getting say there is – and technically, only that your visual cortex says the signals your optic nerve are getting says there is. What if even that isn’t true?
“Cogito Ergo Sum” – Rene DescartesI know my mind is real, because it’s thinking about whether it’s real. I may not know what “thinking” is, or how it works or where it comes from, but I know when I’m doing it (Ambrose Bierce took it out another level – cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum, “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am” – but thinking is thinking, and if it’s good enough for certainty at Bierce’s second tier, it’s good enough at Descartes’ first).
This is solipsism – the idea that, beyond your own mind, everything else is a “maybe”. Prior to Descartes, it flitted through Greek philosophy, and popped up in the oldest of the Upanishads. It is codified in the philosophical construct that has, at different times, been called the Alchemist Hypothesis, or Evil Demon or Mad Scientist (and now, I suppose, we could call the Matrix) Hypothesis – that some other agency is controlling all your sensory inputs, that the world you think you live in is a constant, extensive and richly detailed fake. You are a brain in a jar.
How do you know you’re not?
“As I was sitting in my chair / I knew the bottom wasn't there / Nor legs nor back, but I just sat / Ignoring little things like that.” - Hughes MearnsAnd this is our first leap. Well, mine anyway – if I’m a brain in a jar, there is no “you”, or anything else. There’s nothing left to debate. So my first step is to move past solipsism. There’s not really a logical way to do this – I could question how, if nothing’s real, there could be a jar, or an Alchemist/Demon/Matrix, but these are easy flies for solipsism to swat. All I can really do is adopt a simple assumption:
Either A) stuff is real, or B) stuff is practically real. In other words, if this is an illusion, it plays by its own rules with enough consistency that I can just roll with it. If the Matrix is going to tell me, repeatedly and predictably, that dropping an illusory rock on my illusory foot will give me the sensation of having a broken foot, I’m just going to shorthand it and say dropping a rock on my foot will hurt.
There may not really be a spoon, but as long as I can still eat soup, who cares?
“All is illusion, although as long as there's an illusion that the kids need to be fed, all might as well be reality.” - Robert BraultThis goes for you, too. Once I decide the rock and foot are real, because they act so consistently real that I can get along just as well saying they are, how do I deny people? Believing in a world outside myself (whether there is or not) throws open the door to the idea of other selves.
People act like they live, act like they die. They act happy or sad. They appear to have conversations, with me and each other. I could write all this of as the work of a clever A.I., or some metaphysical equivalent, but why accept one externality but not another, when the evidence is the same? In for a penny, in for a pound. So I’m real, whatever I am, and you’re at least presumably real, whatever you are.
So now what? Well, back to that tree outside your window. If it’s an optical illusion, you could tell by changing your angle of view and seeing if the tree “disappeared” as such illusions will when you don’t look at them just right. It might still be a cutout, but if you walk outside, you could tell, and could touch it either way. Whatever it is or isn’t, it’s still following the rules of this “reality”, so whichever it turns out to be – tree, cutout or illusion, it’s “real”.
"A" seems to be "A", as near as we can determine, so fuck it, let’s call it "A". Done and done, let’s go get some shawarma.
Not so fast. . .
"What is more important, the reality or the perception?" - Oleg CassiniThere’s more to this than just whether we accept the tree is there. Now all the other questions rise up – is it there when you’re not looking? Is it only there because you’re looking? Do a certain number of us need to believe it's there, before it is? What makes a tree a tree, when no two are exactly alike? We could go down a lot of roads, but let's just go with this - how do I know what a tree looks like to you?
If there is a simple, material world, then the tree is there, and its shape and physical properties are constant no matter who is looking at it or not looking at it. Actually, even that’s conceivably a maybe, but let’s not go too deep here. Let’s keep with the basic question – how do I know you see the tree like I like do? Or see anything like I do?
Even if you, as a non-me, exists, and our respective illusions line up with each other in terms of where things are and the like, that still doesn’t mean we see things the same way.
“Why is the sky grey? Why is the grass grey? Why is a rainbow grey, grey, grey, grey, grey and infra-grey?” – Wilfred the “dog”, WilfredThere is a frequency of light we are all taught to call "blue" (631–668 THz, technically). And all the things that reflect light in that spectrum – the sky, smurfs, Star Trek medical uniforms - we all agree are "blue" . . . but how do we know that your blue and mine look the same?
Imagine we all sit on identical couches in identical tiny houses, staring at identical TV screens, and that's the only way we perceive the world (Plato's Mancave). I could have my contrast turned all the way this way, and your tint could be all the way that way. We'd see the same things on the screen, and would be taught to call them the same thing, but they would actually look nothing alike.
Imagine that one day someone swooped in while we were napping and secretly put us on each other's couches. Think about how the images on my screen would look to you, and vice versa (“hey, why is Dr. McCoy suddenly wearing orange”?). Who's to say I wouldn't get the same effect if I could suddenly take the reins of your eyes, optic nerves and visual cortex?
"Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion." - DemocritusSo even if we assume that there is a world (and people) outside our own mind, and that, if it's not objectively real, it's close enough, we're still left with a giant list of unknowns - and we can't even be sure we're seeing the same font type and color when read it. Maybe we can't know anything - but we can agree on stuff. And that takes us back to Charles Forte, and the popularity contest idea of the accepted vs the kooky.
This is why religions and superstitions and fringe ideas and radical theories exist, and always will. There will always be that gray area of reality, in which nothing can truly be established or ruled out - just mostly established or probably ruled out. And that line that divides the blessed from the damned will shift back and forth - some things on the good side of it today will wander across it tomorrow, and vice versa.
"Reality", as a concept, will always be part consensus and part Rorschach test, with different camps seeing different things. And it will always stir up contention when skeptics and debunkers and believers clash. And it will always be worth having those arguments.