What is Reality?


This is a question that has plagued man since he was capable of wonder and reason. Philosophers, mystics, scientists, poets, and theologians have all endeavored to provide the answer either through dogma, personal experience, empiricism, or reason. The answer they have provided is rarely satisfactory outside of the subset of individuals belonging to their education, culture and time period.

The modern age is a time of dynamism that has caused the old answers to fade away without providing adequate answers for the present or future. Thus, many people either don’t consider the nature of reality at all or have “bought” the 19th century’s western materialist philosophy merged with obsessive capitalism and disregard for the self and the environment the self exists in.

My opinion is that this is why so many people are morbidly obese, poorly educated, barely literate, and apathetic during a time when the opportunity to not have these characteristics is at an all time high. I’m not saying that this new age of information hasn’t created wonders and developed fascinating ideas about the structure of the universe. It simply hasn’t provided them for public consumption; with the ideas being theories and not the familiar absolute answers that most seek and often changing radically before the public can even grasp the first version. According to John D. Miller in 1979 only 5.4% of the population of the United States met the minimum qualifications to be scientifically literate (44). My opinion is that this has most likely gotten much worse in the intervening decades. There is also the unwillingness of many people to face reality. This is illustrated by a quote by the French scientist Henri Poincare, “We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling” (Sagan 4). So, it is no big surprise to find that humans often succumb to illogic and are often overwhelmed by the comforting delusions peddled by those who would prey upon their weakness. Another problem is that the new ideas and information are scattered across many fields and haven’t been connected together to forge a new philosophy and are often misrepresented by the sensationalist media. I intend to provide a framework which you can use to come to your own answer about what reality is and “Be your own Sage” (Wiggins).

One might ask why this is important. Without spending the time and effort you will not gain the inestimable value of freedom-from assumptions, from the beliefs of others, and the freedom to make our own decisions. “The study of philosophy is more than just an encounter with ideas or systems of thoughts but it is a quest for self-definition and understanding” (Velasquez 39). Coming to an understanding of yourself and the reality you exist in is thus necessary for the freedom to achieve the self-actualization of your full potential.

It is necessary to define reality before a discussion about it can be clear. I have chosen to use the definition provided by The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. “In standard philosophical usage, how things actually are, in contrast with mere appearance. Appearance has to do with how things seem to a particular perceiver or group of perceivers. Appearance does not determine reality (677).

A major question that philosophers have pondered is whether reality is material or nonmaterial. Modern science has mainly disposed of this question by showing that what we used to think was matter is actually small vibrating energy packets. The reason your hand doesn’t pass through a table is not because there is “matter” filling the space of the table and blocking your hand but it is because the energy of the table pushes away the energy of your hand. This field is called electromagnetism and is one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature. The other forces are gravity, the weak and the strong nuclear forces. These forces hold together energy into various forms, relationships, and patterns. Gravity is probably the most obvious of the forces but it is actually the weakest; it has an infinite range but it‘s strength diminishes the further it is from it‘s source, following the inverse square law. The strong nuclear force or “strong interaction” is that which holds the atomic nucleus together and resists the positive electric charge from blowing the nucleus apart and the weak nuclear force deals with the interactions between quantum entities and beta decay; it has been merged with electromagnetism to form the electroweak theory.

Einstein’s famous e=mc2 reflects this. Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light. This formula is interchangeable thus the mass discussed in the equation is really “matter” which is just another form of energy. Matter is defined as that which has mass and occupies space and as such can be looked as a solid or “ice” version of energy.

Some philosophers have proposed that reality consists of more than matter or that matter doesn‘t even exist. These “idealists” propose that we end up with a purely mental world, a world of ideas. “They hold that a mental or spiritual force is needed to account for the order they perceive in nature. But they go beyond this to conclude that everything must be mental: the universe is not matter, but only idea” (Velasquez 190). This “idea” has grown more influential as modern science and philosophy has ripped to shreds the ideas central to materialism including determinism (predestination), the existence of “matter“, objectivity, absolute space and time, the existence of the mind, absolute causation, and the existence of probability and free will in any form. The next time a materialist says he is right; ask him does it even matter? If materialism is right we have no choice but to believe whatever we believe for we have no freedom and no responsibility for our actions.

Whether dreaming is “real” or not is another question. Some societies have believed that dreams tell the future, solve problems, that the dreamer dreams his waking life, and other diverse beliefs and theories. What do you think? I find it amazing how powerful and real some of my own dreams “seem”. Remember the definition of reality! Dr. William Domhoff holds that “Dreaming is a form of thinking during sleep…and in fact, dreaming may be an evolutionary recent form of thinking, not the primitive process it is usually assumed to be” (Domhoff 5).

Speaking of beliefs, a friend of mine, David Carnahan wrote an interesting online post about the future of belief. He starts off talking about the power of belief and its death grip on world society. One major point that he makes is that too often people insist and demand to shove their views down other peoples’ throats and how a majority of people don’t realize the difference between truth and faith; that fact needs to be resurrected! This quote I find particularly important to my own views on reality. “I know that there is no such thing as true objectivity outside of the self, and also know that it is impossible to appreciate fully the experiences of someone other than myself“(Lesh 1).

Now what is truth? “According to the pragmatic theory of truth what is real and true must work, be useful, have value, and be dynamic and changing” (Larson 5). “The correspondence theory of truth says what is real is what is observed as a fact or that the truth is an agreement between a proposition and a fact. This is “true” but is limited by the accuracy of the model we perceive and create. It works well for daily life when and if an individual’s model is fairly representative of reality, however, it is not good enough by itself to be the basis for truth since it is dependant upon observation” (Larson 4).

“The coherence theory of truth states that truth is found within the connections between other truths and is dynamic as new truths are added to the web. I think this is how the mind forms its model to interpret reality. The reason the mind doesn’t create an accurate as possible model is that when a false statement is incorporated all further connections and truths are flawed or biased until the false statement is corrected. This is why the external world we perceive doesn’t always correspond with reality. The good thing is that if we are aware enough and flexible enough we can alter our model to more accurately reflect reality” (Larson 4).

The definition of the self seems to have caused a lot of confusion amongst people and philosophers over the ages; does the self exist and what is the self if it does exist? Velasquez’s textbook defines the self as “The individual person, the ego, the knower; that which persists through changes in a person” (82). I reason that the self is the entirety of “itself” and this self exhibits consciousness which is the explicit expression of that self. This includes your form and the energy of your body, your history (in contrast your memory can be different from the actual events that happened to the self), your thoughts, your imagination, and your relationships between everything else in reality. This may include everything in reality as the self. Categorization of the distinctions between things may be false. Maybe everything is a single unified self that doesn’t realize it is one; such as a person with multiple personalities. Some philosophies have denied the very existence of the self. This is another important question to ask yourself and your “final” decision will greatly impact how you deal with reality.

Leibniz, a famous philosopher of the 17th century had a concept he called the “monad.” He defined a monad as being “A group of one” (Lacey 540). He further defined a monad as “Being either a numerical unit or an object which is essentially unitary and indivisible“(Lacey 541). Leibniz believed that simple substances are what are most real. So, could only this small part be the self or soul? After you break yourself into component parts do you find a single component of yourself is left over?

Is this even a worthwhile goal? According to Henri Bergson “The attempt to understand the self by analyzing it in terms of static concepts must fail to reveal the dynamic, changing, nature of the self” (Magill 767). So, it seems you must be fluid in your ideas as well in order to succeed in understanding the self and I feel that the key to understanding reality is through understanding the self. Bergson gave further insight in the following quote “Instinct is limited in that although it grasps the fluid nature of living things, it is limited to the individual; but intellect is limited in that although it constructs general truths, it imposes upon life the static character of concepts. But by the capacity of intuition, a disinterested and self-conscious instinct, a kind of knowledge is made possible which is superior to instinct or intellect working separately” (Magill 767).

As far as objectivity goes Descartes believed that there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause of an effect as in the effect itself. “There must be at least as much actual or formal reality in the efficient and total cause of an idea as objective reality in the idea itself” (Audi 677). The objective totality of an idea has to with the idea having representative content. Now whether there is objectivity beyond that of ideas is something else to ask yourself.

I suppose relative objectivity that happens when an individual attempts to leave his biases and opinions at the door are possible to a certain extent. But, we still filter the data we receive and changing the way we perceive is a difficult proposition and would still be our unique way of perceiving (even if it changed) and we would still make decisions based on what information we gather. Another way of looking at this is that it doesn’t matter if you think of the bulge at the equator of the earth as an effect of the universe spinning around the earth or of the earth spinning in relation to the universe. There is no single “true” objective answer or correct viewpoint. A basic foundation of knowledge about modern science is in my opinion a very important step for an individual’s education and to help you become self-autonomous. I will begin with a quick overview of some of the most important concepts and theories of quantum physics.

An understanding of space and time is a good place to start. The definition of space-time is the history of a universe comprising all of its events and their relationships. Space is than a representation of the relationships between processes (things) and time is the representation of change within the network of relationships that describe space. “Neither space nor time has any meaning outside the system of evolving relationships that comprise the universe” (Larson 2).

So, space is not a “grid work” of Cartesian points, or infinite, and is not independent of processes. If nothing existed in the universe there would be no universe. Think of the processes and relationships being represented by a sentence. The processes would be the words and the relationships would be the grammar and how the words are ordered and space would be everything from the first capital letter to the period. If there were no processes then you would be left with an empty sentence or literally nothing. There must be at least two processes in existence for space to exist and there must be relative change in their relationships for time to exist.

Space-time is subjective as it is warped by movement within the “web of relationships” (Larson 2). According to the theory of relativity all processes have a subjective rate of change that is effected by gravity and momentum and that movement is always relational to other processes. This is illustrated by the twin thought experiment. One stays on the earth and the other leaves on a spaceship traveling at a speed close to the speed of light (momentum). Both would experience a similar rate of time but the twin would return after 10 years in space to find that the other twin died of old age a century earlier. So we all have a slightly out of sync space-time history according to the theory of relativity that very accurately predicts the macro world.

Now to take this to the micro world we come to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a particle or the state or rate of change in any system accurately. The best we are theoretically capable of is 50% of the total information. This can be in any combination such as if we had full knowledge of a quantum entity’s position (100%) than we would know nothing (0%) about where the entity was going. This is not because of the lack of instruments precise enough or because of disturbances caused by the instruments performing the investigation. It is because entities in the micro world don’t have a precise position and momentum (Larson 3).

Bell’s Inequality is one of the most important concepts in quantum physics with important ramifications. The most important fact is that we must accept two choices about reality if we want to believe there are real things in the universe. First we can choose to believe that reality is non-local and exists when we are not observing it or that reality is local but nothing is real except when we are observing it (Gribbin 24). The old saying “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” illustrates this problem. In other words if reality is local then the tree makes no sound because there is no perceiver to make it real. If reality is non-local then everything is connected somehow allowing instant “spooky action at a distance” between things which violates Einstein’s speed of light barrier.

The participatory universe theory reveals a most interesting concept. It states that there is no absolute truth of reality. Instead when we are investigating the universe we are actually creating the answers with our questions. These answers must be self-consistent with previous answers but the answers did not exist prior to our questions. So, we are creating new ideas with the universe and helping to make reality and our model of reality more comprehensive and detailed or at least make our model more so (Larson 4).

Relational quantum theory is a concept that states “the quantum state of a particle or subsystem of the universe is defined, not absolutely, but only in the context created by the presence of an observer, and a division of the universe into a part containing the observer and a part containing that part of the universe from which the observer can obtain information. There is not one quantum state of the universe but as many states as there are contexts. If this is true then we each live within a subjective “portrait” of nature that is subtly different for all observers” (Larson 4).

Mr. Wiggins’s views match relational quantum theory. During our interview he said to me, “I have ideas about reality but I value my relationship with reality itself far more than my ideas about it.” He further qualified by saying that “essentially reality seems to be an experience, THE experience, to be precise; my experience is the only experience I really have and all my knowledge and understanding is based in that experience.” His opinion was that reality may be something like a dream and that he is reality since he can only observe and experience from his perspective, thus he can honestly only speak from his own perspective (Wiggins).

If you recall earlier in this paper I wrote about how electromagnetism and the weak interaction or force had been combined into one theory called electroweak theory. A major question is why the “weak” half of the carriers of the electroweak force has mass? What if there is an undetectable field that pervades the universe and this field is associated with an unknown type of boson which has mass and thus allowed any photon-like particle that “swallowed” it to become massive. This field is called the Higgs field and is scalar and has a definite strength but no direction and thus no influence on the universe except in the case of the Higgs mechanism which may be the cause of the form the weak interaction has (Patrick 1).

“No region can contain more than a finite amount of information and this informational limit is 10 to the 66th power of bits per square centimeter or 1 bit per 4 Planck areas and is known as Bekenstein’s bound. The Planck scales include the Planck length and Planck time and they are the smallest units of time and space. Any unit of time or space smaller has no meaning at all. Thus space is discrete and time cannot be divided infinitely nor can the agreements between observers ever be perfect in forming a consensual reality” (Larson 3).

“This connects well with the weak holographic principle that states we are mistaken to think that the world consists of things that occupy regions of space. Instead all that exists in the world are screens on which the world is represented. Nothing exists except processes by which information is conveyed from part of the world to another. The area of a screen is really just the capacity of that surface as a channel of information. So, space is nothing but a way of talking about all the different channels of communication that allows information to pass from observer to observer” (Larson 3).

And finally, the observer effects the observed. Every act of observation makes some degree of disturbance in every case; there is no way to make any observation of any phenomena and not effect what you are observing. Think about this deeply.

I think I have given enough basic information to give an individual a start in making his own decisions about reality. In order to help you filter the information that you receive on your journey of self-realization; I will provide a most valuable guide written by James Lett. He is a professor and he teaches his students the acronym ignoring the vowels FiLCHeRS. These are his six rules of evidential reasoning: Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replicability, and Sufficiency. Should you follow these rules you will be in his words “filch proof” (Lett 1). Remember this the next time someone brings you a wild claim. The essence of each of the six rules are: With Falsifiability it must be possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false; Logic dictates that any argument offered as evidence in support of any claim must be sound; Comprehensiveness requires that the evidence offered in support of any claim must be exhaustive; Honesty’s is that the evidence offered in support of any claim must be evaluated without self-deception; Replicability is that the evidence for any claim must be based upon an experimental result, or if the evidence offered in support of any claim could logically be explained as coincidental, then it is necessary for the evidence to be repeated in subsequent experiments or trials; and finally Sufficiency which needs that the evidence supporting a claim be adequate enough to establish the truth of that claim.

Joshua Wiggins has his own advice to the prospective philosopher. “Do not trade your experience for the description of your experience, especially not for someone else’s description of your experience, or theirs for that matter. Your experience is far more precious than anything else in reality, and should be cherished for without experience there is only death and oblivion. Life is for living, do not squander it, live it as you see fit and acknowledge it as your own. Take responsibility for yourself and your experience. You are whatever you create yourself to be” (Wiggins).

Now my personal view of reality is below and I‘ve made no attempt to hide my bias in this paper as should be obvious.

From my own experience I find that every new idea or stimulus I perceive or develop has led me to look at the world in a different way and thus react to my environment in a different fashion. I think that I’m constantly changing physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m definitely not the same person I was a year ago, though I share up to that point in time the same history. History is different from memory for the mind can be tricked or it can be faulty in recalling experiences. How I react and deal with reality is transformed with each passing moment as I grow more complex and aware. As my history develops I evolve as a consciousness and the model or virtual reality I create to represent reality or the “external world” hopefully becomes a more accurate description of my personal reality. In this way I feel that I’m drawing closer to my potential and living a richer more meaningful life.

The main core of my personal philosophy is that “We exist in a dynamic, variegated, probabilistic, interconnected, and interrelated Universe that is composed of energy shaped by ideas into patterns of information that is then affected by consciousness. The external world that we perceive is a model to represent reality that our consciousness creates and these models (and possibly reality itself) are subjective in nature and differ from each other depending on many factors such as beliefs, knowledge, history in space-time, and how the consciousness filters data” (Larson 1).

Thus I’m an idealist. I perceive that matter is a misnomer and that everything that exists affects everything else that exists and that “imagination is the driving force and building block of reality“(Wiggins). This energy is formed of ideas that are built upon ideas until reaching the “monad” ideas which underlie everything. There is thus no difficulty in dealing with the famous mind-body duality debate by saying that there is no “mind” only consciousness for which the key ingredient is imagination and the “body” is energy providing form with the assistance of ideas thus there is no need to worry about how different “substances” interact be they mind/body or soul/body. There is just one substance energy, one essence imagination, the perceiver (that which has consciousness), and the language of ideas. As Adu’l-bah’a Abbas Effendi said, “Your thought is your reality” (Larson 1).

I urge you the reader, to discover your own truth through the vehicles of experience and reason and anything else that works for you. I hope that this research essay will help you on your road to self-actualization and your understanding of reality. Just remember to take everything another person tells you or you read with a grain of salt (including this) and ask yourself for proof of what they maintain and then verify the idea using whatever methods are available to you. Just remember that the veracity of a concept has nothing to do with how reasonable it seems. Once you remove such a roadblock from your thoughts you will be able to look at the universe with clear eyes and accept what nature is telling you.

Works Cited

Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press,1995.

Carnahan, David. “The Future of Belief.” Online Posting 5 February 2005. The Philosopher’s Stone. <http://www.tickle.com>.

Domhoff, William G. The Quantitative Study of Dreams. “ Dreams: The Case against problem-solving.” August 2004. <http://psych.ucsc.edu/dreams/>.

Gribbin, John. Q is for Quantum: An Encyclopedia of Particle Physics. The Free Press, 1998.

Lacey, A.R. A Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Routledge, Kegan, Paul, 1976.

Larson, Ty. “The Nature of Reality.” Online Posting 8 November 2004. The Philosopher’s Stone. <http://www.tickle.com&gt;.

Lett, James. “A field guide to Critical Thinking.” Skeptical Inquirer. Winter 2000:153-160.

Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. Harper and Row, 1961.

Miller, Jon D. “Scientific Literacy.” Daedalus. Spring 1983.

Patrick. “Higgs search at a new linear collider?” Online Posting 13 January 2005. Isospin Zone. <http://www.tickle.com&gt;.

Sagan, Carl. “The Burden of Skepticism.” Annual CSICOP Conference Journal. 3 April 1987.

Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A text with readings. 8th ed. Belmont Ca. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Wiggins, Joshua. Personal Interview. 7 February 2005.



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