Many things have been said about reality. You might say it’s the most discussed subject of all time…and space…and matter and energy. But that’s neither here nor there…unless it’s both.
An old gag, usually presented as part of a mock test called “Qualifying Exam,” includes as an “extra-credit question,” this chestnut: “Define the universe. Give three examples.” You have to be fairly sharp, and knowledgeable about the nature of definition, to get the joke. A lot of people never do get it, which I would argue is a large part of our current malaise.
I remember, as a young physics student, asking my professor whether the time dilation effect predicted by both special and general relativity “really” occurs. He smiled and replied “What is real?” I had no answer at the time. I doubt I could have come up with one if I’d had a year to think about it…but after four years and a hell of a lot more study, I finally knew what he meant.
You could say that the whole thrust of human thought, all the way from the moment we became capable of reason to the present day, is an attempt to distinguish what is real from what is not – and to know the reasons why. What does that imply about the motives of those who claim, in their various keys, time signatures, sharps and flats, that reality is just what we choose to believe?
If you’re one of that latter group, keep your hands where I can see them. No sudden moves, please.
Ursula Le Guin’s first great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, introduces the reader to a fascinating concept in human thought: the retreat from abstraction as an antidote, or perhaps a preventative, against the seductions of theorizing parted from reality. Le Guin instantiates this in a cult called the Handdara, who strive mightily for “ignorance:” “to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing.”
There is no question that theorizing ripped loose from reality can lead to lunacy. We have records of enough mad philosophers to establish the point. But my professor’s reply to me, way back when, is central to the matter. What is real, and how do we know?
A life dedicated sincerely and entirely to seeking a firm answer to that question would be a life well spent…even if no answer were to be found.
Philosopher David Kelley has written an impressive exposition on the concept of realism: an argument that we should take the world around us as what we perceive it to be. Kelley’s book was widely acclaimed when it was published, and remains an important milestone in modern realist thought. However, it does not answer my professor’s question. Indeed, it does not attempt to do so. It presents a theory of perception and perceptual cognition, rather than a metaphysical approach to reality per se. The inherent unprovability of reality-as-real made Kelley uncomfortable enough to say this:
The primacy of existence is therefore not a conclusion at all. It must serve as an axiomatic foundation for any inquiry into the nature and functioning of our cognitive capacities. This does not mean, however, that the thesis is an arbitrary postulate of an act of faith. The point is rather that it is self-evident, and its self-evidence can at least be EXHIBITED.
“Self-evident” is what a philosopher says when he means “Just take it as written.” It may be just as peremptory, but at least it sounds less dictatorial. (For best results, avoid typing in all-caps.)
Smart philosophers don’t attempt to “define the universe.” Rather, as Kelley does, they postulate reality: that is, they take as a working assumption that there is a realm of objects and relations among them that’s independent of our perceptions and our opinions. You may ask, “How could any variety of thought proceed without that assumption?” The answer, embodied in the directionless and destination-less concept called solipsism, is plain.
Yet solipsists abound. Most are unadmitted as such. Indeed, they’ve acquired unprecedented power over our politics and our public discourse. Their grip on those things has proved decidedly hard to shake off.
Contemporary solipsism is slightly more sophisticated than the original version. It posits that “reality” isn’t “what I say it is” but “what we say it is:” i.e., socially constructed. “What do you mean, we?” I reply, but they respond by straining to construct me out of existence. It’s their only conceivable rejoinder. Unfortunately for all concerned, it leads to a violence that’s all too objectively real:
“Just relax, take it easy and let me lift you.” “Yes, Mr. Rearden.” With the jerk of a sudden effort, the boy pulled himself up to lean on an elbow.
“Take it easy, Tony.”
He saw a sudden flicker in the boy’s face, an attempt at his old, bright, impudent grin. “Not ‘Non-Absolute’ any more?”
“No, not any more. You’re a full absolute now, and you know it.”
“Yes. I know several of them, now. There’s one”—he pointed at the wound in his chest—“that’s an absolute, isn’t it? And”—he went on speaking while Rearden was lifting him from the ground by imperceptible seconds and inches, speaking as if the trembling intensity of his words were serving as an anesthetic against the pain—“and men can’t live . . . if rotten bastards . . . like the ones in Washington . . . get away with things like . . . like the one they’re doing tonight . . . if everything becomes a stinking fake . . . and nothing is real . . . and nobody is anybody . . . men can’t live that way . . . that’s an absolute, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Tony, that’s an absolute.”
No one with a bullet in his chest spends much energy on trying to construct it away. Among other things, he hasn’t got the time. Tony’s observation that “men can’t live that way” is the key to effective living. But the solipsists who command the heights of politics and the media are determined to construct it – and you – away.
It’s not a new thing. It’s been going on long enough for some of the greatest writers and thinkers in history to comment on the lunacy of it:
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong of the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal. (Herbert Spencer)
Need any more be said?
You might think I’m on a ramble here. Yes, in part. I spend a fair fraction of my thinking time on questions in metaphysics and epistemology. If I’m prevented from writing about them, I get frustrated, like Heinlein’s hypothetical editor who’s been presented with an absolutely perfect manuscript. (“You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it, he likes the flavor better, so he buys it.”)
When politics and public discourse are sick – demonstrably insane, as I contend is the case at present – one’s only recourse is to the personal and the private. Yes, the solipsists are doing their best to eliminate those categories – “The personal is political,” remember? It’s just a restatement of the social-construction thesis – but so far, our redoubt stands strong.
It will remain strong as long as we hold fast to two essential postulates:
- Reality is real; what is, is, no matter how anyone feels about it – and that includes you.
- Anyone, including you, can be wrong about anything…and sometimes you will be.
Dismiss anyone who says otherwise.
Oh, happy Guy Fawkes Day, by the way. To those who’ve proposed celebrating it in an American idiom by burning Joe Biden in effigy, I submit this query: Are you quite sure that’s an effigy you’re burning?
Your subtext, it seems to me, is that “with all the gaslighting going on, this review is in order.” No?
Close enough for horseshoes.
Excellent essay Mr. Porretto. Now please remember to protect pregnant men from climate discrimination as you sally forth today…
Take a look at Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality. Nickel summary: He argues that what we think that we perceive, whether a chair or spacetime itself, doesn’t really exist. Something exists, but we don’t perceive reality. It doesn’t make much practical difference, because if you step off a cliff because “the cliff” isn’t real and “gravity” isn’t real, you are likely to suffer adverse consequences even though “your body” isn’t real. The book is interesting from an epistemological perspective even if, as above, it doesn’t make much day-to-day difference.
A teleological refutation of that thesis is possible, even straightforward, but I’m sure you’re already aware of that.
My summary didn’t do his thesis justice. (In my defense, I’d been up since midnight, dealing with something.) I think the book is worth reading, else I wouldn’t have mentioned it.
The fact that countless people have the luxury of debating what is or isn’t reality is evidence of how far from real world issues much of society has strayed. We now have the excess time, energy and resources to debate that which is self evident. And to frequently arrive at the wrong conclusions.