Reality, Complexity, and Wisconsin

Reality, Complexity, and Wisconsin January 3, 2019

Disclaimer: I’ve never been to Wisconsin.

In my Enemies of Freethought post, I claimed that we should be skeptical when people use the words reality and truth, because they’re typically invoked by those who want to make their beliefs seem self-evidently valid and resist having to enter into a process of justification with their peers.

Rhetorical Service

Chuck Johnson disagrees. His response describes the many ways we define reality, and the rhetorical uses of these definitions. First off, he makes a distinction between informal and scholarly use of the term:

For casual conversations, we have a perfectly serviceable word, “reality”.

The problem is that this “perfectly serviceable word” is usually doing heavy lifting for which it’s not equipped. We always refer to reality when we mean whatever we happen to believe about things. This is okay when we’re making a distinction, for instance, between Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody and Freddie Mercury in reality, but most times when I see the word on a meme I know it’s just self congratulation:

Does anyone deny that pretty space pictures are awesome? Is that the same as assessing reality in its entirety?

Reality Bites

Chuck then offers a more comprehensive set of definitions:

For serious scientific and philosophical conversations, that word won’t do unless we provide a useful and agreed-upon definition of “reality”.

Reality(1) Reality is the actual, real physical existence and workings of our universe.
Our universe is a perfect representation of itself, therefore, it perfectly represents Reality.

Reality(2) Reality is the existence and workings of our universe as understood by some perfect intellect (a God).

Reality(3) Reality is the existence and workings of our universe as understood by a human or a group of humans. Human intellects are always less than perfect.

He then critiques each of his definitions:

Reality(1) is true, but trivial. Of course, the universe is a perfect representation of itself.
Reality(2) is a superstition, and to believe in it causes a world of problems. It is an obstacle to discovering truth.
Reality(3) is a good, scientific way of referring to human knowledge and understanding.

Use the Reality(3) definition to promote human discovery of truth.

Getting Real

Personally, I have more problems with Reality(1) than Chuck does. I don’t consider reality just the sum total of matter and energy in the physical universe. What about things like meaning, mathematics, the play Hamlet, the character Hamlet from the play Hamlet, or democracy? These things aren’t spatio-temporal, they’re not physical in the same way planets and trees are. They’re part of reality too, just not in the same field of sense as physical objects.

Chuck admits that Reality(2) is problematic, because it seems like an ideal more than a genuine reality. No atheist believes there’s a perfect intellect to define the totality of reality. However, as I’ve said before, the God’s-eye-view is just as much a human creation as gods are. Philosophical realism proceeds from the assumption that there is one true and complete description of reality, and I’m probably not alone in wondering what such a description would look like.

And this brings us to Reality(3), which seems just as inadequate to me. Chuck calls it “a good, scientific way of referring to human knowledge and understanding,” but that’s not what we’re talking about here. No one here disputes that plenty of real things existed before there were humans around to perceive and understand them. Furthermore, it’s conceivable that there are certain phenomena that can’t be perceived or comprehended by humans; as futile as it would be to try to describe these things, it would be equally futile to try to deny that they’re part of reality just because they’re beyond our means to define them.

The Map and the Territory

This is where Wisconsin comes in.

We have maps of Wisconsin that show its counties, its roads, its population density, its topography, and various other features of the state and its inhabitants. We remove a lot of complexity from Wisconsin so we can fit it on the pages of an atlas and display the properties we consider relevant. Although no one confuses a map of Wisconsin with the physical and civic reality of Wisconsin, people make that mistake all the time when it comes to reality.

Whenever we’re talking about reality as understood by humans, we’re not talking about reality anymore. We’re describing reality as filtered through the conceptual schemes according to which we make reality comprehensible to human consciousness. One aspect of what’s real is physical presence; however, there are also ideas and concepts about reality that we’ve created, and how we conceptualize reality is also part of reality. I’m not trying to be obscure or Kantian about reality here. Quite the opposite, I’m admitting that there are things about reality that we can know. However, that’s exactly what makes it impossible to come to a mind-independent conception of reality, because the only way we can relate to it is through the means we’ve developed to perceive and study it.

If there’s anything we can know with certainty about reality, it’s that we do it a disservice by denying its complexity. Thanks to Chuck for his contribution!

What do you think? What do we mean when we talk about “reality”? Can we separate reality from the means we use to study it? 


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