Reality Bites

We are new kids on the block, residing in an obscure corner of the Cosmos. For these reasons, there is probably a lot we don’t know or understand about reality.

The simplest way to think of reality is to view it as that which can be perceived by our five senses.

This seems intuitive, but unfortunately, our senses often let us down, or play tricks on us. In addition, this view of reality is also a very subjective one.

The following two proposed definitions of reality are perhaps more robust: (1)

"The first equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. Accordingly, a lot of things we usually regard as real – languages, wars, the financial crisis – are nothing of the sort. Still, it is the most solid one so far, because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.

The second, but also more restrictive, equates reality with the most fundamental things that everything else depends on. In the material world, molecules depend on their constituent atoms, atoms on electrons and a nucleus, which in turn depends on protons and neutrons, and so on. In this hierarchy, every level depends on the one below it, so we might define reality as made up of whatever entities stand at the bottom of the chain of dependence, and thus depend on nothing else.

Following from the second definition, one can view reality as being made out of atoms.

Essentially then: electrons, quarks (up and down) and gluons account for most of the ordinary matter around us. Relative to their sizes, a lot of empty space exists between electrons and the atom's nucleus. If so much of reality is built on emptiness, then what gives observable objects their form and bulk? The answer lies with electrons. Quantum rules dictate that no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state. Thus, no matter how hard you try, you cannot cram two atoms together into the same space. Electrons do all the work when it comes to the structure of matter we see all around us"

So, should one attempt to combine these two definitions of reality; one could say that reality consists of observable matter and energy, and that it exists totally independent of us. It also exists (in whichever form), no matter how we view, believe, or wish it to be.

Furthermore, other forms, or explanations of reality that might exist, will have to be discovered and validated by science for us to accept them.

An interesting (and disturbing) question relates to quantum theory and the proposal that the act of observation causes a wave function of possible states to collapse into a single state or particle. This has lead to the suggestion that perhaps there is no reality independent of our observations of it.

In other words, nothing is real until it is observed, or measured...

However, even though quantum effects have been validated at atomic level, it does not necessarily translate to the macro level (a controversial topic).

The "quantum measurement problem" remains largely unsolved, but a few hypotheses exist to resolve it. One, called decoherence, is gaining momentum as a viable solution. The hypotheses being: the environment causes the classical appearance of macroscopic objects (2).

For now, we probably have to accept that an external reality exists independent of our observations of it. The niggling philosophical question then still remains: But if there is – how can we know?...

A further problem with the standard model (of reality) concerns some significant omissions: There is no account for the invisible dark matter nor the dark energy, which together, make up an estimated 96% of the universe.

It is also silent on concepts that seem to be very real, such as time and gravity.

Such issues aside, the scientific method is the best tool we have to give us a handle on the true nature of reality. Some scientific findings may appear totally counter-intuitive to us, but with sufficient empirical evidence and after withstanding the test of time, we are obliged to accept them (until they get refined or replaced by better evidence).

The ever-pragmatic neurophilosopher, Patricia Churchland, has the following to say on reality (3):

"1) Reality does not conform to what we want it to be. Reality does not care if we do not like the way it is put together. It goes right along being reality anyhow.

Reality does not care if we prefer to disbelieve facts about our heart or brain or the cause of AIDS.

By working with reality, we can sometimes change it by finding a new vaccine or a new machine to harness electricity.

Science - testing, being guided by the facts, revising, testing again - is the best deal we have for getting a bead on reality.

We can regulate how we use science. We need not heed the romantics who insist that the old days were really the good old days.

2) Liking what is true is a psychological state. You can fight reality, hoping your fantasy will prevail, or you can decide to make your peace with reality and come to like it.

What I can and cannot imagine is a psychological fact about me. It is not a deep metaphysical fact about the nature of the Universe."

With all of the above in mind, it should be apparent that we cannot rely on anecdotes, folklore and ancient texts, to tell us anything new or significant about reality.

Claims for anything supernatural as being part of the fabric of reality, just cannot be taken seriously. These include: gods, mystical phenomena, "conscious energy fields" and/or "universal life force energies". All of these will remain nothing more than mere speculation and unjustified beliefs, - until verifiable evidence for them emerges.

Religions, traditions and customs might provide comfort or fulfilment to many. They certainly form part of our cultural diversity, but do not contribute towards our understanding of reality. As long as they are harmless, and so long as participants can readily distinguish myth from reality, such practices can be valued additions to the rich tapestry of Life.

Perhaps the Indian Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello, was onto something when he said:

"Reality is not problematic. Take away human beings from this planet and life would go on, nature would go on in all its loveliness and violence. Where would the problem be? No problem. You created the problem. You are the problem. You identified with “me” and that is the problem. The feeling is in you, not in reality."

Sources quoted:

1)     The Big Questions: New Scientist: The Collection, issue1; (2014)

2)     The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p204-212: Brian Greene

3) Touching a nerve: The Self as Brain (2013): Patricia S. Churchland

still faithless 2014-08-19 08:02:39 AM
Great read! Mentally invigorating. Thanks for sharing. Reality creates a sense of insignificance and in turn, a humble approach, at least for me. Religion created a sense of intitlement, and in turn, a condescending approach, at least for me. I regard myself as far better off living in reality, not to mention the feelings of the people around me.
Colleen 2014-08-19 08:16:16 AM
Excellent read Pieterpompies! "The quality of your mind determines the reality that surrounds you" Author unknown. For all living creatures, the only reality that matters to them is the reality they perceive.
MerryMartin 2014-08-19 08:23:41 AM
A good read, Pieter, thank you... much food for thought.
Rammsteen 2014-08-19 08:58:14 AM
You basically described my thoughts which helped me break the chains of religion in my mind. I suppose we all choose and experience our own "reality" since nobody is to tell another what his reality should be. The danger is when we accept someone else's visions, emotions or dreams as reality. Thanks for an excellent read!
ThinkingApe 2014-08-19 10:23:02 AM
I enjoyed this article. I like this definition of reality: "Reality is what remains after all beliefs have been removed"
Johnny B Goode 2014-08-19 11:11:22 AM
Brilliant article. Two thumbs up!
CharlieC 2014-08-19 01:09:32 PM
Interesting read. To my mind it does show how we have different layers of reality. On the one hand you have the seen and on the other the unseen. Generally people can agree on the seen but on the unseen not so much. “Claims for anything supernatural as being part of the fabric of reality……..until verifiable evidence for them emerges.” Well said. I’ll leave you with one thought. What if all that we are is a three dimensional holographic projection at the edge of the universe and the ultimate reality is out there somewhere?
GMitch 2014-08-19 07:22:25 PM
A really good article! And I cannot agree more....... "Science - testing, being guided by the facts, revising, testing again - is the best deal we have for getting a bead on reality."
CyberMatix 2014-08-19 07:26:09 PM
>>> An interesting (and disturbing) question relates to quantum theory and the proposal that the act of observation causes a wave function of possible states to collapse into a single state or particle.  There are some ideas floating around that this is how consciousness works. As the wave function of all possibilities collapse on the quantum level in our brains it creates this thing that is up to now mostly unmeasurable and ununderstandable. I find the concept interesting but will reserve my judgement for now. The woo woo promoters like Deepak Chopra pushes this idea of the "observer effect" quite hard in their new age ruminations and of course millions are swallowing it hook line and sinker. I tend to think it's mostly BS. Einstein said he likes to believe the moon is there even if he doesn't look at it. Nice read pieter, about fits my personal wordview to a t. Ps: I read "Immortality" by Cave and agree 90 something % on his take. I however have a problem with his take on transitive identity. There is some logic problem there that I still need to figure out.
Owen Walker 2014-08-19 10:31:53 PM
Seriously dude - when a guy with an empty stomach sticks a knife between your ribs and takes your wallet your reality will be very different to his reality. Yet both are scientifically measurable and both emotionally terrifying. Sometimes people can write a lot but actually say very little .. my reality after reading your article twice to try to figure out what I had missed after reading the 'glowing' comments the first time round. The science of everyone's reality at every point in time for each individual is immeasurable therefore unscientific for all practical purposes. Emotional reality is very real when someone kills your friend in the name of ....(fill in your emotional cause here). Revenge is a reality yet very unscientific. Wars, battles, sports / games have been won when scientific reality has indicated otherwise. 'Against all odds' is in defiance of predictive scientific reality, yet it happens. For example, the earth spins for 400 million odd years evolving hundreds of supreme predators yet in the blink of an eyelid and 'against all odds (a 0.0005% chance at best)' of creators ever existing, we exist. Now that's a measurable reality that does not make scientific sense unless ... 'there's more to life than meets the eye'.