Reality is one of those concepts we can have some fun with at the expense of common-sense.
After all, how do we know what is real and what is illusory? How do I know whether what I am perceiving is any more than a dream? Are you a real person; is that a real mountain in front of me or have I made it all up? Is what we see and feel real, or must we say that only the sub-atomic particles (whatever they are) are real'?
So let's think about it in a bit more depth.
When we are looking at scientific theories, we need to adopt certain methodologies in order to make sure that we are not deluding ourselves. I perhaps need only say 'Karl Popper' and 'falsifiability' for you to know what I am referring to. There are some things, however, which cannot be the subject of the test of falsifiability. They are not things which are capable of being measured.
Whether I am living in a world with other objects around me or whether I am living in the world of my imagination is not likely to be falsifiable. Anything which 'you' can point to, can be asserted to be the product of my imagination. But by the same token, I can see no reason for giving this question any particular importance. After all, whether I live in a real world or a world of illusion, it seems that I still have to eat, sleep, dress myself and do all the other one hundred and one things which are needed during the course of my life. If you prick me, do I not bleed? You could say, if it is a world of illusion, that if I do not eat then my death will also be an illusion. I for one am not prepared to take the risk. So answering the question has no practical value.
But if a decision is felt to be required, we can adopt another strategy. Judges in civil proceedings have to come to a conclusion as between different accounts of the facts. They do so on the "balance of probabilities".
Taking this approach, I look at the competing arguments -
If proposition 1 is true, then I have to explain how I have the knowledge that I have. How is it that during the course of the day, I can read books, watch television, consult the internet or simply talk to other people and acquire knowledge which I did not have before. You may say: “well you did have the knowledge, but it is only now that it has come to the surface”. I am apparently divided in two, with the one part of me creating all these things - completely unknown to the other part, the part I think of as 'me'. 'I' then imagine all this information coming to me from other sources, as that fits in with the model of the world I have created for myself.
But is it really likely that the plays of Shakespeare (wot I rote) come to me fully formed when they are acted on my 'imaginary' stage, but I if I try to learn the lines, it is an uphill struggle?
Likewise, presented with a newspaper printed in, say, Italian (a language which I have apparently created), I have to look in a dictionary to find the meaning of various of the words used. And for 'me' to learn to write or speak the language is a task which takes considerable time and effort.
How is it that I can set the Times cross-word, not be able to do it on the day it appears, and then read the answers the following day?
It all seems inherently unlikely. Lawyers say that he who alleges must prove. That is to say, the person alleging must show at least a prima facie case. In my view, the suggestion that I have created the world around me is so lacking in credibility that it does not even get to first base. If it does, however, it fails utterly on the test of the balance of probabilities. On a balance of probabilities, I would judge it to be nonsense.
I would go further and conjecture that if that knowledge was somehow already within me (albeit not the me of which I am conscious), it must have come from somewhere. I do not think it likely that knowledge spontaneously creates itself. If not, then there must have been some other source. If there was some other source, then there must have been at least something-else. If there was something-else, why not all the things that I see around me?
But let us move on. Let us instead ask the question - what is 'real', or to phrase it more clearly, what do we mean by saying that something is real?
The question only has to be asked for all of us immediately to be able to give our answers. Most of us would say that what we can touch and feel and see and taste and smell is real to us. As a working definition, that cannot be argued with.
Is there though any deeper meaning which we ought to consider? Well, it is now clear that what we see and touch etc. is only a manifestation of the smaller elements which make up those things. So we are sensing what is there and putting an image to it, but we have no real concept from the sensation what the object sensed 'really' is at an atomic scale.
Does that have any effect on our definition of what is real? Probably not. We are perfectly content to use our senses to tell us what is around us in ways which enable us to react to them. If we did not, then we would have major problems. It may reasonably be suggested that our evolutionary development as animals requires that the way in which we sense things should be very much to our advantage. There must after all be other ways of perceiving things, but whatever they are, they have not caught on.
That is not to say that we all perceive things in exactly the same way. Recent research tends to support the idea that we do indeed see colours differently and that we sense the taste of food differently. We certainly feel pain to different degrees. That there is a range in the way we, as human beings, perceive things is not in itself a problem. In fact if there were no such range, it would be somewhat strange. Everything else that we know about ourselves (and other organic life) entails variation from the norm.
So is there an ultimate reality? I have difficulty in seeing what such a question may mean and can see no purpose in pursuing it. We should instead ask how things work and what they are made of. In doing the science required to answer these questions, we would hope to find out more and more.
Whether there is a limit to what there is to know or indeed a limit to the knowledge we can comprehend in our human state, is itself likely to be unknowable. Even if we get to a theory of everything which apparently works for us in every circumstance, there is always just the possibility that we will come across circumstances in which it doesn't work. If there is knowledge which is incomprehensible to us, then I can't, off-hand, see how we can know that to be the case. I suspect that we would just believe ourselves not to have found our theory of everything and continue looking in vain, but always in the hope that we might one day find it, perhaps when our brains have finally evolved to cope with it.
19 July 2004; rev Oct 2015
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