What is Reality, Anyway?

 As a continuation of my last article regarding what we think and believe, I am often intrigued by the question of What is “Reality?”  Even deeper than that, Can we even know what “reality” is?  If so, how do we KNOW?
This common Internet meme seems to sum up the problem of just 1 set of perceptions about reality, but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg, really. What about politics?  Religion?  Philosophy?  Psychology?  Science?  So let’s grab the Dictionary.com definition and get rolling:
  1. The state or quality of being real;
  2. Resemblance to what is real, a real thing or fact
  3. State of affairs: the reality of the business world, vacationing to escape reality;
  4. Philosophy”
    1. Something that exists independently of ideas concerning it;
    2. Something that exists independently of all other things and from which all other things derive.

What’s Your Reality?

I find it fascinating that so many people seem to “know” what reality is, especially when it comes to politics, religion, and science, and most especially where these three intersect.  As a few examples:

  • Fox News or MSNBC? Holy cow……can there be a bigger difference in reporting of the news?   Devotees of Fox News tend to think of MSNBC as the bastion of liberalness and therefore unworthy of the term “news”, while the exact opposite can be said of MSNBC devotees and their opinions of “Faux” News and the conservatives.  How is it possible that people observing the EXACT same events can have such polar opposite views of them? On Fox News, the term “progressive” is an insult, but on MSNBC it’s the highest compliment.  On MSNBC, the term “conservative” is almost equated with “Neanderthal,” while on Fox it’s the highest level of evolution.
  • Newtonian Physics and Quantum Physics?  As a general rule, Newtonian Physics operates on a level that we humans are capable of perceiving – buildings, balls, cars, planets, stars, etc.  Once we learn the basics, we can usually predict how objects in our world will act under certain circumstances.  Delve into Quantum Physics, however, and it seems that this visible “reality” is turned on its head.  At the quantum level, quite literally, something CAN come from nothing!   Read just a little bit and I promise….your brain will feel ready to explode.
  • Science and/or Religion?   First of all, there are more religions on the planet through history than you can shake a stick at, and almost all of them have, at one point or another, claimed that THEIR religion was the only right one, and all the others are wrong.  Then there’s science, which is supposedly all evidence-based and testable (should be, at least), but even within the scientific community there is often debate about the interpretation of testable results.  THEN you start having the debates between scientists who claim religion is dead; the religious who claim science is meaningless; the religious who also accept science; the scientists who admit religion may be real; and the list goes on.  And everyone thinks that “their” reality is the “real” one.  But since everyone believes theirs is the only real one, whose is really “reality?” 

I Have No Idea What “Reality” Really Is

As I mentioned briefly in Paradox and Balance in Life, I am a scientist by choice and belief, but I also profoundly believe (by choice and experience) in the Infinite, although I don’t use the word “God” to describe what I believe.  Because of that very paradox (a statement of seemingly conflicting beliefs that may nevertheless hold an inexplicable or hidden truth), I really have no idea what “reality” is, because what I perceive as “real” isn’t the same as other people’s perceptions.  And if our perceptions are different, who is to say which is right, which is wrong, maybe both are wrong, maybe both are right!  If I claim absolute rightness because of A, B, and C……but someone else claims absolute rightness because of X, Y, and Z…..where do we do from there?  Is there a way to reconcile A, B, C, X, Y, and Z? Or some combination of some of them?  If so….how?  If not….why not?
Sure, I have my own version of reality, but if I’m completely honest – why should “my” reality hold any more validity than anyone else’s?

Does Reality Change, or Is It Immutable?

One of my Facebook friends and I had a number of interesting, albeit fruitless in the end, debates about science and religion.  Ultimately, we chose to discontinue those discussions to maintain our friendship, but I found them quite fascinating as an example of this question.  He will remain nameless out of respect, but I would like to use him as an example of just how perplexing this question can be.  In several political discussions, he made the point that, when he was younger, he was a passionate liberal, but he changed and now believes that liberalism is a lost cause and corrupt idealism that has no validity.  Interestingly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see liberalism as far more “realistic” than the conservative viewpoint, although it must be clearly stated I believe in some parts of “conservative” thinking as well as “liberal” thinking.  
But I am fascinated by the passion with which my friend now denounces “liberalism,” whereas he admits that he used to champion liberalism with the same exact passion.  So which is right?  Is one right and the other wrong?  Clearly, my friend no longer espouses the same views of “reality” that he used to do, yet why does he now claim that “this” reality is the “right” one and his previous reality was wrong?
Of course, my friend is one example of a person changing from a liberal to a conservative; quite clearly, other people have gone the opposite direction as they matured.  So if people can move in either direction, what makes one of them “right” and the other “wrong” in terms of their beliefs and “reality?”
I Create My Own Reality – Don’t You?
In a different FB discussion recently, this same friend made the comment to me, “Only if you’re one who believes you can “create your own reality”. The rest of us (or most of us) know that you can’t.” 
I find this a most fascinating comment, because to me, it seems quite obvious that each person creates his or her own reality by the CHOICES they make, whether simple or profound, such as:
  • Do you choose to get up in the morning or stay in bed?
  • Do you choose to exercise today or not?
  • Do you choose to eat healthy food or junk food today?
  • Do you choose the road less traveled, or the beaten and proven path?
  • What books did you choose to read, and how did you analyze them, or did you read at all, and even if you did, did you analyze them or accept them at face value?  Why did you choose those books, and not others?
  • Do you believe the wealthy are greedy scumbags or people worthy of emulation?
  • Do you believe hard work is necessary for success, or is it about working smarter, not harder?

Quite clearly, whichever choices you make on any or all of those questions, will change your reality from health to disease, mental stimulation or stagnation, activity or sloth, from being one who forges new trails or follows old, from poverty to wealth.  And no one else can make those choices for you, right? Or do you believe you have no choice?

Also, as a really challenging thought: did you stop even once during that list of questions to say, “Hey, he left out Option C that I picked?!”  If so, you immediately became aware of how I was limiting your choices, but you overcame the limitations! Just because these are the choices I presented, does NOT mean they are the only choices possible!

Quite frankly, if you don’t believe that you create your own reality every day, but that there is some immutable reality that is unchangeable, I don’t understand how you reconcile that with a simple examination of your own life and beliefs, which always change over enough time. If you can introduce me to someone who has remained unchanged in any way for their entire life….well, you can’t, since it’s never happened, but you can try, I guess.  But until then…..a very simple examination of the ways different people perceive identical events and interpret identical sources of information in radically different ways, or a simple examination of how you’ve changed over the course of your life…..well, it should seem rather obvious.

So What’s YOUR Reality?

  • Very cool article Chip.

    A few random thoughts.

    To address a spiritual aspect here. If we were made by God and for God, His reality for our lives is not complicated as may be presented. It may be in our very DNA. Religion on the other hand is (complicated).

    Also, scientific types (and religious types as well) sometimes insinuate that spirituality cannot be scientific. Or spirituality is not, or cannot be, empirical evidence based. That was NOT the case for the analytical thinking jewish man Thomas who HAD TO physically put his hand right into Jesus’ wounds on his side and literally touch the very nail wounds on his wrists. He had literally exclaimed: “I will NEVER BELIEVE unless…

    I love that story. Historically Thomas became one of Jesus’ greatest advocates sharing his empirical evidence based faith in Persia, and India until finally killed by a spear and buried at Edessa. They could not shut the guy up!

    What is my point?

    Take or leave the historical account, I too am, emphatically, an empirical evidence based person. I, like Thomas, have profoundly HAD MINE and in a way that would satisfy any skeptic or scientist. God has made His reality real to me, in a non ambiguous, non blind, non realitive and non naive faith. Maybe my story is quite unique, but the Thomas story has been sitting right there for 1,980 years and it seems to yell out the challenge: “just try me.”

    • Charles Payet

      Mark, thank you so much for the reply and your perspective, aka your reality. I absolutely respect your beliefs, however much I believe differently. Of course, there’s no truly empirical way to determine if “your” reality is any more valid than “my” reality, since we each believe that we have our own valid reasons for our beliefs, and nothing within the other person’s beliefs is capable of refuting the other’s. In my reality, when I studied historical Christianity and placed my metaphorical hands in Jesus’ wounds, I did not find the confirmation that Thomas did – the exact opposite from you. That’s why, essentially, the logic that each and every person uses to establish his/her own beliefs is circular, which is really the point.
      The way our brains work is so unique, each being made up of approximately 85-100 billion neurons, and perhaps up to 100 trillion synapses, itself seems to indicate that every person’s reality is different by necessity, as it seems inconceivable that any 2 brains could ever be identical. The number of possible configurations may be greater than all the stars in the known universe (don’t quote me on that, but it’s obviously big).
      Personally, I don’t believe that spirituality can be scientific; in fact, I’m not sure that it SHOULD be. I believe science and spirituality may influence each other, but in the end, they are simply different and should play different roles in our lives.

  • Thanks Charles for the respect. I appreciate that.

    “…placed my metaphorical hands in Jesus’ wounds, I did not find the confirmation that Thomas did – the exact opposite from you. That’s why, essentially, the logic that each and every person uses to establish his/her own beliefs is circular, which is really the point.”

    A hypothetical: if, literally, that was your need (Thomas’s) and if that literally (not metaphorically) happened to you, and you also needed even more confirmation and you got that by a room full of witnesses (or any other proof that sufficed your scientific analytical doubts) would you still call that circular?

    • Charles Payet

      Interesting hypothetical, Mark, and worthy of a genuine answer.

      IF I were literally confronted by Jesus in the flesh, and I could verify His reality/substance to the point that my doubts about His veracity were satisfied, and I could literally put my hands into His wounds as Thomas did….then no, that would not be circular logic – to me. Unless it could be recorded, however, I would not be able to make the claim necessarily to anyone else that what I experienced was real.

      Let me turn it around: hypothetically, let’s say that in 10,000 years (or 1 million years, or whatever number you choose) humanity has evolved to the point that we understand all of creation and can empirically say, “There is no God and it’s provable.” Would you agree that it’s impossible for us, today, to literally conceive of such a thing, but that it can not be definitively said that it can never happen? Just because we can’t now, does it mean it’s impossible? Or just that we can’t….NOW?

      • “Interesting hypothetical, Mark, and worthy of a genuine answer.

        IF I were literally confronted by Jesus in the flesh, and I could verify His reality/substance to the point that my doubts about His veracity were satisfied, and I could literally put my hands into His wounds as Thomas did….then no, that would not be circular logic – to me. Unless it could be recorded, however, I would not be able to make the claim necessarily to anyone else that what I experienced was real.”

        I agree wholeheartedly. You might be able to make the claim (as history records that Thomas did) and maybe encourage others to check for themselves and you might even be able to live your life in light of your experience.

        Now as far as your hypothetical. Yes, it is completely possible, of course, unless the previous hypothetical happened and contradicted it. 🙂

        • Charles Payet

          Mark, I’d be curious about the historical record (beyond the Bible) of Thomas’ story. Rather than turn this into a theological discussion, why don’t you send it to me via email?
          Since I have no such literal experience, and have checked for myself previously, and it’s quite unlikely that either of us will be physically around in millions or billions of years, I guess we’ll just have to each live our current realities as is. 🙂

  • While you can argue that we create our own reality I think it might be more accurate to say we are a slave to our own perception of reality. The more dangerous thought process is excessively trusting our perception, and letting those well established perceptions taint our evaluation of new information to the point where that reality is so rigid as to never change.

    Most beliefs are based entirely on the information we have been exposed to up until that point. Anyone who has traveled internationally has had experiences where they misinterpreted an interaction because they viewed it through the lens of their own culture, rather then through the lens it was intended. Your discussion of politics correlates quite nicely with this,as most of us are raised with a particular world view based on who we are surrounded with and the information we receive. If we are closed to alternative perspectives we never change, and all new information can be seen only through the predetermined lens.

    Here is a Fascinating ted video on the danger of the single story. It isn’t about politics, or reality, but quite poignant to the subject and beautifully told. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

    • Charles Payet

      David, that is absolutely another way it could be phrased. In fact, I believe that the huge majority of humanity is slave to its own perception of reality. The number of people who are willing to authentically question their own sense of reality is rather small, I think. At least those people have the ability to change their perception of reality and change their course if they desire, but that doesn’t mean they’re not simply a slave to their newest beliefs about reality.
      As it happens, part of my thinking on this topic was heavily influenced by my Study Abroad in Goettingen, Germany during my sophomore year of college. As it was shortly after the Persian Gulf war, I experienced first-hand the radically different perceptions of the USA and our actions in the war and learned to see us differently. Not that I necessarily accepted what they believed, but I was forced to consider different possibilities and world views. I still remember trying to dress more “German,” so I wouldn’t be seen as one of the “Ugly American tourists” that were so prevalent.
      Even learning a second language to the point of fluency, as I did in German, was an eye-opening experience. Quite literally, it is impossible to exactly translate many words or phrases, as there are underlying assumptions built into many of them that are based on language, culture, history, etc. The same holds true for the Bible or any holy book, which is why they are inherently untestable from an empirical standpoint. Anyone who speaks multiple languages must acknowledge this simple but fundamental challenge of communication.
      I’ll look forward to watching that video; I simply love TED Talks – so thought-provoking on so many levels.