How do you recognise ‘Reality’

This essay question is extremely subjective, as reality or the perception of reality can differ greatly from one individual to another. In this context defining the ‘accepted meaning’1 of the words ‘reality’ and ‘real’ is helpful however it does not provide an answer to the above question. According to the Collins English Dictionary;”‘reality’ is that which exists independent of human awareness (and) ‘real’ is existent or relating to actual existence (as opposed to nonexistent or potential). “2 These definitions should not be accepted without question instead they should be seen as a view-point which is free to be contested.

To aid me further in the consideration of this question, I am going to use the two orders of Plato’s theory. These two distinct ideas offer the two main standpoints on recognising ‘reality’. It then becomes a question of whether ‘reality’ is related and affected by everyday life or whether it is an independent, pure form. It has also become apparent, from my research that both the limitations of science and the limitations of language need to be discussed in order to understand our ‘reality’.

Plato’s first order of reality is that which links to, “everyday experience, visible and sensible things”. These ‘experiences’ are recognised and interpreted by our senses and apply to material objects and events happening to, or around us. This order of reality is contested and considered a fallible approach because it relies on the five senses, which can be confused or deceived. However, I am inclined to support Cypher’s4 statement that, “what is real is that which provides the most vivid and pleasurable experience”. 5 After all if ‘reality’ cannot be recognised by the senses, then how can it be recognised at all?

It makes sense that the most noticeable experiences are those that define one’s ‘reality’. This is supported by the ‘average persons’6 understanding of ‘reality’. The majority of people asked how they recognise ‘reality’ replied, ‘what is around you that you can see and touch’. This means that most people would ‘recognise’ Plato’s first order of reality, as ‘their reality’. The public response emphasises the role of the senses in making ‘reality real’. As I have already mentioned, an issue raised over the credibility of Plato’s first order of reality is the reliability of the senses.

It becomes evident with, for example, optical illusions that one’s eyes can be tricked into seeing things which are not there. If this is the case then one can never be sure if what one is experiencing is ‘real’ or if it is a manipulation of one’s senses. Most people would not describe their dreams as ‘reality’ however one can experience dreams that cannot be distinguished from waking experience. This provides a good example of how the senses cannot always be trusted, but also raises the question of ‘how ‘real’ dreams are’. The Hmong dream scenario can be used to provide evidence linking conscious reality with subconscious reality.

From 1981 to 1990 the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta received reports of over 120 mysterious deaths. The victims were mostly male members of the Hmong community who died in their sleep. No medical cause for these deaths was ever established; however the Hmong people believed that the men’s fates were linked to their dreams. There was evidence of violent nightmares and struggling before death, which subsequently encouraged the idea, “that dreams could kill”. 8 If this is the case then perhaps our senses are not being manipulated whilst we are asleep.

If our dreams have an effect on our existence, then is it so strange for our senses to recognise it as ‘reality’? Therefore is it fair to say that ‘reality’ is ‘real’ when it can affect us physically? The physical effect of ‘reality’ can signify that something is ‘real’ but should mainly be regarded as a symptom of ‘reality’ because the physical effect cannot necessarily provide an accurate picture. It is the ‘real’ objects and events etc taking place, which provide the basis of the first order of ‘reality’. These tend to be more reliable, as this case study shows.

People suffering from depression, which can affect us physically, have been known to create a false history in their minds. According to the PubMed website, there have been many false accusations of childhood sexual abuse especially concerned with Priests. This is diagnosed as the False Memory Syndrome which is often initiated by ‘repressed memory therapy’. In these cases the exploration of a physical symptom has created a false ‘reality’ involving events that never took place. 9 This suggests that ‘reality’ should be explored from the core and not from the symptoms.

Another question stemming from the issue of ‘reality’ and how reliable our senses are, is whether we exist in body at all, or if there is a chance that we exist only as brains in a vat? 10 This argument has been rejected by most schools of thought on the premise that if we were simply brains in a vat, “we would not have the ability to make reference to that world because the controls on us would stem freedom of thought”. 11 This idea suggests that to be able to recognise ‘reality’ being ‘real’ we must have ‘freedom of thought’.

This indicates that we are only ‘real’ if we can think. This can be coined in the phrase, ‘I think therefore I am’. Yet does this idea encompass life around us? Are other organisms, including other human beings, that we recognise in everyday life actual, or are they a symptom of a misguided perception? I am inclined to believe that they do exist, as The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real tells us, “sensations are not in all cases just interpretations of brain stimuli but also are indicators of an external reality that demands attention and respect”. 2 The final idea that needs to be addressed when discussing Plato’s first order of reality is the hierarchy of the senses. Carolyn Horsmeyer states that the, “hierarchy of importance … reflects an elevation of mind over body, of intellect over emotion and of knowledge over pleasure”. 13 Out of the five senses, there are those which are seen as more accurate and subsequently more trusted, and then there are those which are seen as more animal qualities. The more reliable senses are recognised as sight and hearing as ‘they are more removed from their objects’14 .

It is also interesting to note that sight has been linked, in Western culture, for many years, with ‘insight and knowledge’15, thus implicating it as the most important sense. Whereas, “The physicality (of) touch (is) … associated with the more animal side of human nature”16, making it much less trustworthy. Therefore the reliability of the first order of Plato’s theory fluctuates depending on which senses it is relying upon. Plato describes his second order of reality as, “the unchangeable eternal world, the world of the Platonic ‘forms’, apprehended by the intellect, not the senses”. 7 This links to ‘essential realities’ that have an independent existence of their own, e. g. goodness. Bertrand Russell agrees with this idea, he says that “pure essence is ‘the form'”18. He uses ‘whiteness’ as an example, as it applies to a number of particular things “because they all participate in a common essence”19. This idea of a ‘pure essence’ does not however extend to the idea of ‘justice’. I personally do not understand how ‘whiteness’ can be described as an essential reality but ‘justice’ cannot. Both ‘whiteness’ and ‘justice’ need to be interpreted by someone, in order to exist in our ‘reality’.

These interpretations are subject to change depending on the interpreter’s qualities and experiences. As the anti-foundationalist view in Theory and Methods in Political Science explains, “no observer can be ‘objective’ … because they are affected by the social constructions of ‘reality'”20. Therefore one could say that the essence of ‘justice’ is just as reliable (or unreliable) as the essence of ‘whiteness’. If these common essences are this vague, as well as diluted by the interpretations that they necessitate, then can they be used effectively as a tool in the recognition of ‘reality’?

There is also the problem of whether religion is defined as an ‘essence’. A strong case can be put forward in the defence of this. There are many different faiths across the world, with different beliefs and traditions, yet they all share the idea that there is a higher being in existence and that we are not alone in the world. However according to the Daily Telegraph only forty four percent of the British public have a religion21, therefore can this be ‘reality’ even though it is irrelevant to many people’s lives? It is a spectre, which may or may not exist and can never be proved.

There is no physical evidence to back up religion; it relies on faith which for many is unacceptable. This leads to a subjective choice supporting the idea that we choose our ‘reality’ and it differs for every individual. The lack of evidence supporting religious theories shows the emphasis we place in science to explain our lives. “Science describes not just the observable world but also the world that lies behind the appearances”. 22 In this way science should give us a much better grasp of ‘reality’ because it is not just based on human senses.

Scientific theories are created, that can predict events and provide explanations, which in turn will be able to prove our ‘reality’. Science deals with the individual things in everyday life, which Comford describes as the ‘images or reflections’23. Although Comford describes ‘reality’ as ‘unalterable’ and ‘independent of our minds’, this idea of ‘images and reflections’ brings the comprehension of ‘reality’ closer. Science may be seen as more reliable and accurate than human assumption alone, as it is based on theories, experiments, tests and results. However, it should not be forgotten that science is a human invention.

Everything documented in science is linked to people and their perceptions and interpretations. A discovery cannot be made without a human-being, there to witness it. The results recorded are interpreted by people, or by machines that people have made. Although, “two normal observers viewing the same object or scene from the same place will ‘see’ the same thing”24, they may not interpret it in the same way; hence, “(science is) fallible and revisable”. 25 Even theories that have been accepted for years can later be proved incorrect, e. g. the first theory of the atom.

Science can go some way in understanding everyday ‘realities’ but can never be fully trusted. If the theory of Plato’s cave is accurate, then most people will never truly be able to ‘see reality’ because they will be stuck in the cave looking at shadows. Thus when a scientific study is carried out, the raw data used will, in theory, already be distorted. When one thinks of how a shadow appears, it is devoid of any colour and the shape which it conveys is a warped image of the original object. Consequently it is difficult to trust the study of the ‘images and reflections’ of ‘reality’.

The core idea of Plato’s second order complies with the Positivist position; “the world exists independently of our knowledge of it”. 26 If this is the case then trying to label ‘reality’ is futile, as any attempt will automatically lead to an amended version. Therefore we can never fully ‘recognise reality’. On the other hand if one agrees with the anti-foundationalist view that “a ‘real’ world does not exist independently of the meaning actors attach to their actions”27. Then inaccuracies brought about by the interpretation of ‘reality’ become ‘reality’ themselves.

Basically this means that ‘reality’ should be recognised as ‘pure essence’ plus interpretation. The trouble with human interpretation is its limitations. These are summed up in a quote from ‘What is this thing called Science? ‘; “We can view the world only from our humanly generated perspectives and describe it in the language of our theories. “28 The ‘limitations of language’ is often seen as a fussy argument, when discussing the finer points of ‘reality’. Nonetheless it is worth considering how any ‘pure essence’ of ‘reality’ can fail to be marred by an insufficiently ‘pure’ way of conveying it.

As ‘What is this thing called Science? ‘ notes, “We are forever trapped within language and cannot break out of it to describe reality ‘directly’ in a way that is independent of our theories”. 29 This is because our understanding is based upon a language that was built through observation. The inaccuracies brought about by our imperfect perception are simply added to by using an unclear method of describing them. In conclusion it seems that the recognition of reality is linked to both pure knowledge, which exists independently of the social climate and also to the perception which is needed to analyse this ‘pure knowledge’.

The idea that there are certain forms which will always be recognised in the same way by each different observer is impossible to comprehend, as everybody views life differently. For example how would a blind person recognise ‘whiteness’? In my personal opinion, the only answer to the second part of the question, ‘what makes reality real’ is your experience of it. For each individual, ‘reality’ is a personal and unique thing. The only aspect which is shared with others are the raw materials which provide the basis for personal interpretation.