16 October 2007


Let's ask that everlasting favorite question: what is reality?

We must begin any chain of thought somewhere, and since the question itself presumes that "reality" is our goal, not our premise, we can't start there.

So let's begin with what is sometimes taken to be its antonym, "appearance."

I submit that although there is a sense in which it is right to take appearance/reality as antonyms (and I'll get back to that) there is a broader sense in which our conception of reality has to be built up out of appearances.

Reality, broadly considered, has the following four constituents:

1)Everything that has ever appeared to anyone – whether the appearing has been long-lasting or fleeting, consequential or not – a wood stove keeping you warm or purple spots before your eyes indicating illness. Everything that has ever appeared to anyone has this much reality – it really has appeared! So we start with that. This is the "cogito" part of a famous formula.

2)Also, there are potential appearances. The noise the tree makes in the uninhabited forest. Of course, somebody might have been there. Somebody might be there the next time a tree falls. We ought to have a conception of reality broad enough to include such unrealized possibilities.

3)Invisible cosmic machinery. We postulate that various things must be happening or have happened in order to make sense of that which appears to us. After all, appearances are strikingly law-like and predictable. The sun appears to rise in the east every morning. We postulate the laws of gravity and inertia that make sense of this, and this machinery too is real.

4)Those to whom things appear. Conscious minds. Us. This is the "Sum" part of the formula.

So reality, I imagine you might say, has all of those constituents. But it is often used in a narrower sense, focused especially upon (3). This is what we mean when we say, “I’m not interested in the appearances, only in the underlying realities.” Some appearances are privileged because they fit nicely with one another into a coherent whole, and with the underlying cosmic machinery we postulate. Other appearances, like the strange sights I dreamy last night, or the purple spots that swim briefly before my eyes when I suffer from a fever, don’t have that privilege, and are “merely” appearances, nothing more.

We might also consider the English language term “realty” or “real estate.” Land and the buildings permanently affixed to it are more real than other forms of property, by common consent as suggested in the language used to describe them. Why is that?

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.