Monday, November 3, 2008


What is "reality"? Why do we see things and expect things to be the way they are (that is, the way we do)?

An interesting way to understand our concept of "reality" is Darwinian--looking at it from an evolutionary perspective. Our species' early years were fraught with danger. Our early ancestors were plagued by predators; beaten down by natural forces (storms, fires, earthquakes, ice ages, etc); savaged by fellow members of our own species; and eternally pursued by thirst, hunger, injury, disease, and death. Life, from the time one got up in the morning until one lay down the mantle of struggle and called it a night, was a series of challenges to be met, problems to be solved. (OK, if it wasn't this way all of the time, it was some of the time, and those "some" were the times one was likely to drop off the evolutionary ladder--as an individual or as a species--if one didn't handle things right.)

How can an emerging consciousness best solve problems? What mental perspectives best equip an early simian climbing down out of the trees to confront and overcome new kinds of threats? Well, as I see it, seeing the world as things and forces (rather than a continuum), as actions and reactions (causes and effects), and as a continually forward progression of time (rather than frozen, non-progressive existence or "being"). In other words, developing and using a picture of "reality" in which challenges and problems had meaningful parts, a flow of changes, and outcomes and solutions.

It is easy to say, "Reality is the way it is because it (obviously) just IS that way." But this overlooks that we create and respond to a mental image of the sensory inputs that flow in through our eyes and ears and fingers, etc. When we solve problems or handle difficult situations in life, we do so by conjuring up internal pictures, imagining scenarios and outcomes, and choosing from among these just how to "be" in the world and how to respond--what further input to seek to enrich the mental pot and to decide what steps to take.

Surely it is clear from close encounters with our dearest animal friends--with dogs, and cats, and birds--that they do not see and understand the world as we do; they do not fantasize and problem-solve and decide among alternative courses of action as we do. Sure, they have their own perceptions and thoughts and expectations, which in some ways seem much like our own, but they also seem significantly different.

Even different cultures see the world significantly differently. The Hopi, for example, do not distinguish "before" vs. "after" or "earlier" vs. "later" from "near" vs. "far." Something imagined from "long ago" is in the same mental category as "far away." Recently a primitive language stock was delineated in South America that essentially counts "one, two, few, many" without a more extensive series of number names.

Certainly religious mystics, fully indoctrinated scientists, and psychotics have different senses of "reality" from what is considered stock in trade in Western European and American culture.

And what about the "reality" of quantum physics with mysterious instantaneous action at a distance, time reversal, and determinative action of observation? Responsible nuclear physicists have said that "quantum mechanics has a well-earned reputation for being weird." In fact, "it is not just stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine" because its "reality" violates so basically and dramatically our common concepts of "reality."

There is a humorous oxymoronic quip that goes, "Objectivity is whatever I say it is." Perhaps "reality" is best defined similarly--"Reality is whatever I believe is real." That is certainly the way most people, in fact, define it, though there are quite a number of good reasons to think more relativistically about it.