My Conception of Reality
(Written for Honors 250 in the Spring of 2011)

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” –Albert Einstein

What is reality, really?  How is my reality related to your reality?  Do our realities co-exist?  Is there one reality underlying everything?  Are their multiple versions of reality?  Do location, time, or gender affect individual perceptions of realities?  Unfortunately, none of these questions will be answered definitively in this paper. Like a child who incessantly asks “but why?” there comes a point when you just throw your hands up and exclaim, “I don’t know, because it just is!”  Stashing ambiguous uncertainties aside, however, after learning various perspectives on reality from the theoretical and philosophical worlds of Barfield and Davidson to the worlds of quantum physics, science and Einstein, I will attempt to piece together what I have learned and mused over in class and offer my opinions on what constitutes reality for me. Neither wholly idealist nor wholly materialist, my conception of reality is based on factors that include the senses, interpersonal confirmation, language, and communities. Ultimately, that reality and what constitutes reality is so hard to define underscores the subjective nature of reality itself; reality, I will contest, is an experience of the shared perceptions of individuals within communities that, while sometimes frustratingly ineffable, nevertheless exists so long as communities of people exist.

Sensory Experience

My first assertion about the nature of reality is the common sense idea that reality is constituted by what we see, touch, smell, taste, and hear.  When first prompted with the question, “what is real?” the most common response would be to reference some sensory experience: what I see is real, what I feel with my hands is real, what I smell is real, etcetera.  Reality as an individual sensory experience is probably the most familiar and accessible view of the nature of reality.  Well, of course what I see is real, why wouldn’t it be, I see it! This, of course, is complicated by both the nature of individual experience and the question of the existence of scientific “particles” underneath sensory “stuff.”

Interpersonal Experience

Although these sensory experiences are necessary for our own experience of the world, it is the process of sharing experiences that helps to mesh individual perceptions into a larger truth of what experiences are “real.”  Thus, to refer to the age-old question that we harped on in class: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to see/hear it, does it make a sound? Without any sensory confirmation of the falling tree, how can we know if it even exists at all to make a noise?  Based on this logic, it seems reasonable to assert that the tree only come into existence when a human experiences and perceives it; in other words, the reality of the tree relies on human recognition of said tree.  That being said, even if someone claims that the tree in fact fell and made a noise, or even claims to have seen or heard said tree fall, he or she cannot really prove its existence until another human can verify the experience as real.  In a more concrete example, Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact appears to have been transported to another world where she seems to have unbelievable experiences with aliens, yet on earth her experience contradicts both science and common sense. Without another person to confirm what her senses told her, Foster’s character is unable to prove the reality of her experience.  In fact, she even begins to question herself when the overwhelming majority of people convincingly argue that she was merely hallucinating.  Thus, despite her sensory perception of an experience, she needs the confirmation of other people with similarly sensory experiences in order to establish a truth of reality. The same, I presume, holds true for any aspect of reality: I may initially believe that something exists and is real, but without the collective confirmation given by those around me, it is impossible to be sure.  But this gets to a deeper question: are there some permanent underlying particles that constitute reality and exist regardless of this process of sensory experience and confirmation?

Appearance vs. Reality: Existence of "Particles"

Without the confirmation of other’s to assure an individual sense of reality, it becomes hard to trust our individual senses.  But does what we see, hear, and feel actually constitute some underlying, fixed and true reality?  Owen Barfield asserts that there are two ways to interpret reality: (1) the materialist conception that sensory perceptions have some underlying atoms or particles, or (2) to think that reality is really just an elaborate system of representations, and the appearances are all that reality is (basically, what you see is what you get). Barfield argues for the latter, and thus rejects science ‘s claims for objective reality as mere delusion, and further asserts that reality relies only on human interpretation.  To draw further from that assertion, we can conclude that from this perspective, without humans, reality ceases to exist.

One challenge that I have to this assertion is the evidence from things like carbon dating that assert that the world existed long before humans were around to start perceiving it.  I cannot help but pause to consider the idea that there is more than just human perception, and that something real must exist before and after our mere existence.  That being said, I understand the line of Barfield’s argument and the incongruity of my materialistic view of reality and the idealist view.  While my hesitation to accept pure idealism lies in my thoughts on the world as it was before humanity, the idealist argument asserts that reality is solely dependent on human consciousness. Individual perception and interpretation are the only means of forming a view of reality, and without those aspects, reality as we know it ceases to exist.  Perhaps, however, there is another way to interpret reality, and instead of a lack of reality beyond human perception, there is some other reality that we simply cannot perceive that exists beyond human interpretation.

Language

An extension of the need for interpersonal confirmation of reality, language is a necessary component to reality so long as reality requires human perception.  Without the ability to communicate, humans cannot confirm their own existence or the existence of anyone else (or even of reality in general). For example, I agree with the assertion that prior to Helen Keller’s water pump moment, when she discovered language and entered the community of language and understanding, she did not truly exist and the world did not truly exist to her. Rather, Helen suddenly came into existence because of her new understanding of language and her entrance into the community of interpersonal understanding. 

That being said, it is obvious that the entire globe does not share the same language, and thus we all do not share exactly the same sense of reality.  The language of the deaf, for example, expresses life experiences in a radically different and untranslatable way than the spoken Romance languages.  Furthermore, the language of the Hopi tribe is also radically different from other spoken languages in that it has no linguistic tenses.  These variations of language affect how individuals think and thus how they interpret the world that they sense around them. While all of humanity may share the same five senses (or even just share four or three of these senses), language has the power to alter the perceptions of the world that these universally human senses provide. Thus, language is a pivotal part of experiencing and confirming perceptions and interpretations of reality. 

Community

That we are so closely interconnected via the Internet, high-speed travel, and other universalizing factors has helped make the global community smaller, and more accessible.  Without a sense of community, that is if people lived isolated from other people, reality would be impossible to describe. Whether you are discussing the global community of the Internet and websites like Facebook and Match.com or local communities like the University of Michigan, the fact that communities of people exist helps to create a sense of continuity and reality in all of human life, while confirming our sense of existence as individuals.  Without communities, isolated individuals would go mad because they would be unable to confirm or deny their existence in relation to the existence of others.   

Conclusion

Whether or not there was a different reality before the existence of mankind, or whether or not there exists other realties on different planets or in the future, there are certain aspects of interpreting reality today that I feel are necessary towards understanding the world we live in.  Combining the common sense notion of reality as what we sense on our own with the need for interpersonal confirmation, language and communities, forming a picture of reality relies on the amalgamation of the individual pictures created by mankind today. If we are to believe that reality is based solely on our conscious perceptions and not on some underlying particles, then it becomes easier to grasp that yes, what you see is what you get with reality.  Ultimately, while the reality of the pre-human past, the unknown future, and the far-far-away are harder to grasp, I understand the reality of the present to be what we can sense, discuss and confirm in the moment, rather than some sub-atomic structure of things that exists without human interpretation.