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.