Thursday, January 31, 2013

What is Real?

An individual’s behaviour (“strategic conduct,” to be more precise, as phrased by Anthony Giddens, sociologist) is based largely on how s/he interprets his/her environment, or the reality around.  But what is reality?

How real is my laptop?  The ancient Greek philosopher (to start with our ancestral wisdom) Plato would say that the idea of the laptop is more real and this particular laptop. Ideas are more real for Plato than particular concrete things.

Modern science will tell me about the various components that make up my laptop which in turn are made up of atoms which consist of subatomic particles which are made up of more fundamental particles!  Which among all these is real?

This post is a sort of continuation of my previous one titled Truth is Beauty.  I think we cannot speak of truth unless we tackle the issue of reality.

People see reality differently.  Hence truth too varies according to people.  For most people the scientific world of atoms and subatomic particles will make little sense, although they may be making use of things invented or manufactured putting the scientific truths to practical use.  The whole science of electronics and information technology mean little to me and I understand little of it though I can make efficient and effective use of my laptop.  My laptop is real to me in a way significantly different from how it is to the mechanic who repairs it when it fails to function properly.  The laptop is almost a meaningless reality for an illiterate labourer in the granite quarries off my village.

I know I’m mixing up reality, truth and meaning.  They are, in fact, interrelated.  Cognitive scientists today argue that the human mind is embodied.  That is, human reason does not transcend the body.  Human reason is not as abstract as Plato would have us believe.  It is shaped “crucially by our physical nature and our bodily experience,” (Fritjof Capra). 

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, eminent cognitive linguists, argue that most of our thought is unconscious, and the argument is backed by scientific researches.  Most of our thinking operates at a level that is inaccessible to ordinary conscious awareness.  “This ‘cognitive unconscious’ includes not only our automatic cognitive operations, but also our tacit knowledge and beliefs,” (Capra).  Even without our awareness, this cognitive unconscious shapes our tacit knowledge and beliefs. 

That’s why reality appears differently to different people.  That’s why truth is not singular.  That’s why there are so many opinions on the same issue and occasionally violent conflicts too.

It is facile to insist that the reality shown by scientific equipments like the electron microscope is the real reality.  Real for whom?  Real for what purposes?

It is here the arts make their entry.  Literature, painting, music, etc express the non-scientific truth of certain reality in their own way.  When I assert the epistemological value of these handmaidens of human quest for the truth, I’m not devaluing science.  I’m merely stating that these too are as legitimate tools as science in the human pursuit of truth.  This is not condescension.  Nor is it schadenfreude.  And I’m aware enough of the limits and limitations of each of these as a method of inquiry into truth; hence not exultant about any of them.  


  1. That is perfectly fine Matheikal, but somehow I cannot accept statements of the kind, "Science cannot explain this." This has been done enough number of times in the course of history, and had to be withdrawn many a time, whatever "to explain" may mean. True, there are some statements of this kind that have carried their credibility thus far. But ... what tomorrow brings is anyone's guess.

    I cannot even accept that for so and so, truth is not philosophical or scientific understanding. That appears to me to be limiting oneself in the quest for truth. I just need some one, anyone, to tell me that trying to understand anything logically brings on a negative premium and why this happens.

    Reality for one is never the reality for another. OK. Moreover, such a reality cannot jump from one mind to another. Then, what exactly can be explained? It is not that I am looking at the utility value of a piece of artistic work. All I am asking is whether any two people can ever agree at all?

    Take the case of the photograph Piss Christ by Anders Serrano. I do not think the reality of this photograph will be the same for ANY two people! If Shakespeare has so many people interpreting him, does that not mean that his reality, as perceived by him, has mutated vigorously as it jumped from him to the others? This is perfectly fine. I have no problem. I do not shy away from interpreting any photo, any piece of writing, but I am capable of it only at the lowest level (I am metaphor-challenged, as you know). If you remember one Rajarumugam - I burnt my fingers repeatedly trying to interpret what he had written, the photographs he had posted. But, that never deterred me, because I understood that the reality he depicted is subjective. But, I know my limitations enough not to call literature a sour grape. This accommodation I do not see elsewhere.

    No scientist worth his salt will claim that what the microscope, even of the electron microscope kind, shows is reality. This was an unnecessary straw man.

    By the way, the "blue" in the blue sky you see, is it the same that someone else standing beside you sees? This is how subjective reality can be explained in simple terms. If you want to make it less subjective (remember, not objective), it can be said as EM waves of a specific frequency. That is it.


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  3. I am intrigues by both you article and Mandakolathur's reply. Both are talking about two side of coin. Reality, truth is indeed subjective. Even the blue thing appears 'blue' because it has absorbed every other colour but 'rejected' blue and sent it back. The blue thing is actually every colour but blue.

    This debate actually will always remain open ended, always throwing more questions than answers but it is worth the quest.

    1. Mandakolathur (Raghuram) and I love to debate on this issue and we have done it quite many times in different ways in the past. We have not succeeded in convincing each other of our views. So I've decided to call off the debate :)

      However, I stick to my guns. Reality, truth is highly subjective; even you agree on that.

  4. Replies
    1. Glad you found it interesting and not irrelevant.

  5. What exactly is Real? That is THE question Matheikal. I think the answer 'Reality is what you can measure or at least express using a mathematical model' has a very compelling logic. If two intelligent people cannot agree on something how could it be called 'Real'?

    But this answer is wrong. I agree this is just my subjective feeling and need not mean anything to a skeptic. I may be just hallucinating!

    There has to be a way to prove the reality of the 'subjective', and there is a way. Stay with the skeptic and go on to ask what exactly is 'objectivity'? How come there is objectivity in the world? All our experiences are subjective and how do we construct this objective picture that appears so solid and alluring?


    1. Because, Shajan, I think, the objective picture runs the world of technology, science, materialism... Secondly, rationality can satisfy the mind while the irrationality of subjectivity is quite certain to unsettle minds that demand perfection or at least systemic order.


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