What is Real?

It is a common philosophical habit to ask the question posed in this essay’s title. Philosophers believe they are delving into matters of the greatest importance when they discuss the nature of reality, a branch of philosophy that is denoted by the important-sounding term “metaphysics.” But in behaving in this silly manner, philosophers are merely demonstrating the common tendency for human beings to confuse, perplex, excite, and agitate themselves for no reason.

I very much doubt that there exist any other organisms that try to determine the nature of reality. Those organisms that perceive, as we do, take the perceptual world in which they live as the real world, since it is the only world they can ever know. For humans, the problems only began when they started to speak, for language differentiates and artificially separates the world into distinct groups, classes, and categories. Hence, our human perception of reality became increasingly fragmented as language became more and more complex, with ever-greater numbers of categories, as well as distinctions between already-existing categories. The fact that these sounds, which denote different things, exist was taken by some ancient Greek philosophers as a sign that these distinctions also exist in the real world. Aristotelian logic also contributed to this fragmentation of the world by assuming that these categories are mutually exclusive. In other words, philosophers have made the mistake of assuming that the structure of language, which is an entirely human construction, also reflects the structure of reality in a precise, one-to-one manner. And it is precisely this mistaken belief that is the cause of so much of the confusion in Western philosophy, including the false duality between mind and body, or the spiritual and the material.

Just as the ability to perceive helps organisms to survive, language also served, and continues to serve, this practical function. The ability to shout “Snake!” to someone who does not see the snake, but who understands what the word means, can, if it is a venomous snake, save that person’s life, or at least save one from an unpleasant experience. To be able to talk about where food or water is located, without actually going there, can help a member of one’s group acquire the ability to find these vital things. In other words, at its origins, the function of language was probably primarily practical, when human survival was much more precarious than it is now, and depended on our ability to convey useful information to others, or acquire such information from them. It is only in recent centuries and millennia that language has become more and more complex, abstract, and detached from its original intimate connection to the things of everyday life. The way that children and the members of non-literate societies use language is much more concrete, practical, and rooted in their daily existence than the way that language is used by people who have learned the art of the written or printed word, which innovations allowed language to become more abstract, impersonal, non-practical, and detached from people’s daily lives. Even in literate societies, those persons who read regularly are more likely to speak abstractedly or in a general manner than those who read little, whose use of language is usually more personal and concrete. Of course, this also depends on the kinds of things one reads.

If one is able to consider the world we live in without all the artificial distinctions and categories that are entirely due to language usage, a cerebral feat that most people will probably find very difficult or impossible to perform because of just how thoroughly their worlds have been permeated by the structures, categories, and distinctions of the language they have grown up speaking for as long as they can remember, the question of what is real and what is not real does not arise. Now most of you will probably object that this statement is preposterous, for even without language we can be perplexed by certain phenomena in the world, and wonder whether something that we may have experienced, such as the vision of a dead or far-away person, actually occurred. But the problem with philosophy is that it wants to be able to make definite and categorical general statements about the world we live in. In other words, philosophers want to force reality to fit into the artificial and arbitrary human categories – truth, beauty, reality, goodness, being, existence, and so on – which they have devised or found in general usage by the people around them, once they have reached the age at which they are able to reflect on the features of the world they live in.

Rather than trying to force reality to fit their conceptions of reality, primitive peoples and other perceiving organisms simply accept the world as it appears to them, or as it is. Of course, this attitude will not satisfy those who have read philosophical texts and, like their authors, agree that the problems of philosophy are important, if not from a practical point of view, then in order to know what the world is really like, what our place in it is, and what is the nature of our relationship with everything else in the world.

Even Eastern philosophies and religions that reject the duality of Western philosophy nevertheless make the mistake of declaring that the sensory world is nothing but illusion. For the fact is that, contrary to what Descartes and some Eastern philosophies claim, we can distinguish between our dreams and waking reality. The fact that we may not be able to demonstrate conclusively to the satisfaction of a philosophical sceptic that, at this moment, we are not dreaming does not mean that we must nod our heads in agreement that the world is therefore nothing but illusion, or that we can never be absolutely certain that we are not dreaming. The fact that our dreams sometimes resemble reality does not mean that reality is nothing but a dream or illusion. This is merely a case of mistakenly generalizing from a particular experience to the whole, which may be very different from that particular experience. It is like saying that, because the colour pink is similar to the colour red, we cannot tell with certainty whether a colour is pink or red; or that, because photos of people resemble actual people, we cannot tell these two things apart; or that, because we are sometimes mistaken about what we want, it follows from the inviolable rules of logic that we can never know what we want; or that, because philosophers utter so much nonsense and falsehood, they are therefore never capable of sometimes speaking the truth. Clearly this is a very silly way of proceeding, which only a logically-confused philosopher would follow and insist is correct.

Unlike all other kinds of organisms, human beings have been guilty of seeking to become what they are not, or to escape from the limitations of their physical existence. Thus, we delude ourselves into believing that we are godlike or possess an immaterial part, however it is called, when the daily facts of our existence show that we are mortal and material creatures that can be physically harmed and will one day die, never again to experience the world or participate in it. This basic fact of life, which all other organisms accept stoically, without question or rebellion, is considered by many of us to be an enormous and intolerable injustice, to compensate for which we have fashioned all manner of chimeras and illusions to validate, protect, and confirm our belief that we are superior to the mundane facts and transient nature of earthly existence. We humans would be much less likely to deceive ourselves if we were content, like all other living creatures, to accept the world and its limitations, instead of thinking that we are somehow better than this earthly world or can overcome its strictures and limitations.

To say that the world of the senses is nothing but illusion is wrong, for the way that we perceive the world is a part of reality. It is this artificial separation of the way we perceive the world from the world that has led philosophers into the impenetrably thick fog of semantic confusion in which they have gotten themselves and their readers hopelessly lost. And the fact that this perceptual world differs for different organisms, as it also does, to a lesser extent, for different human individuals, does not alter this basic fact about existence or reality. It is only if one assumes that there exists one unchanging, monolithic world that is the same for all living creatures that one becomes confused. For to distinguish the way we perceive the world from the world, as philosophers and others do, invites the question, “Which of these two worlds or existences is the real one?” – which is a completely spurious way of considering reality. This mistake is due to the Western belief that we can best understand the world by making it fit into our human categories and distinctions.

The world of the senses is not inferior to reality, for it is a part of reality. There is no hierarchy of realities or existences, as some philosophers, theologians, and mystics would have us believe, for they all form parts of one and the same integrated whole. And it is precisely, as Ludwig Wittgenstein understood, the bewitching effect of language that leads many a gullible philosopher into mistaking words – those completely arbitrary human sounds or signs that have become associated, through long and regular usage, with certain things that exist in the world – for reality that is the root of much of the confusion which goes by the disreputable name of PHILOSOPHY.