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What is Reality?

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Metaphysics - What is Really Real!

What is Reality?

Next: Do mind and matter exist?

Are we just lumps of matter?

Is everything mind?

Do I really create my universe?

What's in a Name?


Last modified on: 27-Sep-98.
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Now, between you and I, is it really real out there? Do objects, you, me, and the cat really exist outside our minds? Are objects, or even our thoughts an illusion?

We are sometimes deceived, therefore we could always be deceived!

Have you ever thought you heard something, but there was nothing there? Have you ever thought you saw someone in the corner of your eye, and when you looked there was no person there? Have you ever looked at an illusion and been deceived that one line was longer than the other, but really it wasn't? When you look down from a high building on people, do they appear small like ants? Aren't there thousands of occasions when we do mis-perceive?

If we are wrong on some occasions, for example, from a height people look the size of ants, is it not possible that we are always deceived? Logical necessity requires the answer: Yes, to this question. It is possible that things as we perceive them are not that way at all!

So what?

If we are concerned with:

  • The purpose of life.
  • What we should be doing on Earth.
  • The meaning of  life and death.

then the issue of reality and the true nature of our existence is crucial. If things are different from how they are presented to us conventionally, then this is very basic to our quest.

What does science have to say?

Let's say they do, and let's be scientific. How do you know something is really out there?

Now ...

We know things are there because

  1. Light hits the retina of the eye.
  2. And this changes the chemical composition of the eye. Right?
  3. And this makes electricity travel along a nerve, the Optic Nerve.
  4. And this goes to a part of the brain.
  5. And then something happens and we see the thing.

That's what happens according to science.

According to science: "We do not respond to the thing, but to electrical and chemical events in the brain."

So, do we really respond to a thing?  Don't we respond' only the electrical and chemical events that occur in the brain and nerves, and not to the alleged real object? Therefore, it is not things we are experiencing but chemical and electrical reactions. We don't see things directly. We see via chemical and electrical reactions in eyes, nerves and bits of brain. This appears to be true because:

Without eyes, we don't see.
Without Optic Nerves we don't see.
Without certain bits of the brain, we don't see.

So we never directly see what is out there, according to science.

How do we know that what we see is real?

Suppose someone were to put electrodes in our brains and stimulate the visual part of our brains mimicking the impulses we normally receive. Would we see? Definitely we would. But we wouldn't be seeing what is there outside. We wouldn't be seeing what is real. We'd be seeing because some electricity was put in our brain, and it would look the same as our real objects!

How do we know the science is true? Of course we can observe, but science tells us that we don't directly experience objects .. and just as we could be deceived by a wicked scientist putting electrodes in our brains, we could be deceived, in the same way, into thinking that science was 'real.'

Is science self contradictory?

Therefore, isn't it true that if we accept this scientific account then we cannot be certain that anything exists out there because we can never directly perceive it. Strangely, if this scientific theory is true we cannot prove it, because we can never perceive anything directly, so we do not know how and from where the experience came into our minds. Even our knowledge of eyes, nerves, bits of brain, is not direct but via electrical and chemical events in our brain!

How much is in the mind?

In the olden days, we thought that there were objects, material things, such as bricks, trees, mountains and goats, which were themselves real and constant in a way independent of our looking and otherwise perceiving them. These were things that had primary qualities which did not change and other qualities, sometimes called secondary qualities, which   were our reaction to the primary object, and which did change depending on. These secondary qualities were colour, shape, etc. No thinker suggested that the actual object had these qualities. They were qualities we gave to objects.

For example, a rose might look red to us, but if no one was looking at it, we couldn't really say it was red. We might have said it had the power to elicit the colour red in our minds, but this primary quality of being able to elicit the red sensation was not 'red.' The colour was our reaction to the object. So we assume there was something out there, say next door's cat, which was a real object. However our experience of it, blackness, meowing, shape, etc, were largely our reaction to the real object and not the real object itself.

Have you ever been in a shop to buy something, say curtains, where the colour is very important? Have you heard these stories of people getting home only to find the colour looked different? The curtains were the same curtains in the shop. Their primary qualities hadn't changed, but our experience of them, the secondary qualities, changed when we viewed them under different lighting conditions. Because the length and weight, for example, remain the same, we may be tempted to think these are the primary qualities, and colour is just subjective.

What does a thing look like when no one is looking at it?

Science rushed off to discover these primary qualities and developed concepts like mass which were supposed to describe the real object. However, pretty soon, we realised that the so called primary qualities were just as much secondary as colour and the rest! Although we can specify conditions and measuring instruments which largely give us consistent results, it is a human being who is perceiving the measuring instruments and their reaction on him or her. We cannot know the real object apart from our perception of it. A question like, 'What does something look like when no one is looking at it?' is clearly nonsense, and unanswerable.

Next: Do mind and matter exist?