How do we know what is real and what is not real?
and Howard asked:
Does there exist a purely objective realty? By objective I mean apart from some conscience entity.
I suppose that if we were to be strictly pragmatic, we could say that everything we know of, everything
we are consciously aware of is real. The way the question: "How do we know what is real and what is
not real?" is phrased, implies that there are two sorts of things in the world, things that are real and
things that are not real. Based on this concept, I find it rather difficult to deduce that real things exist
and things that are not real exist also. It seems that we are in a category error. The concept of
'existing' is vital to the notion of reality.
For the purpose of answering your question, I am taking the concept 'to exist' for granted; although
there is room for a debate in depth on what is meant by 'existence.' Even if we were to say that real
things exist but things that are not real do not exist, what are we actually saying?! We find ourselves
in the ridiculous position of inventing something like a unicorn or a dragon that breathes fire, simply to
deny its existence and hence its reality!
I believe it can be taken for granted that most people are content to accept the naive materialist view
that what appears to be 'solid' is real, whilst the reality of 'non-solid' things, like dreams, thoughts,
hallucinations, psychic phenomena, etc. are questionable. It is in these latter categories that
confusion arises owing to our predisposition to be selective. The materialist philosophy that we call
'science' has a very powerful influence over our thinking, and the selections made depend very much
on arguments put forward by science. Science has progressed through a series of paradigm shifts
concerned directly with what was accepted initially to be real, but in the light of advancing knowledge
then became unreal. Examples are the 'flat earth theory,' the 'solid particle theory,' 'the earth at the
centre of the universe,' etc.. Every paradigm change has brought about a wholesale change in what is
regarded as real.
Some of the complex events, like imagining and hallucinating expose the difficulty of separating the
real from the unreal. To imagine something is a real event, imagination itself exists, it is something we
can describe. However, the 'subject' of imagination can be denounced as unreal, or it could be made
real by a category switch. For example, if I imagine that I am physically flying, the actual imagining of
the event is real, but the subject — a flying human — is fictitious, unreal; science tells us that the
human being is not physically equipped to fly. However, if I relive in my imagination an event in which
I was involved some months ago, the imagining is a real event, but the subject matter is not now
fictitious, but takes on the reality of a 'memory,' memories per se exist. In the same way an actual
hallucination is real, people have hallucinations, but, again, the subject of the hallucination is claimed
to be fictitious or unreal.
Massive complications arise in philosophy when we divide philosophers broadly into two groups,
called 'materialists' and 'idealists'. These two broad categories are based on two different world
views. Materialists base their understanding of reality on the existence of a real solid world, made
available to us through our five senses. Idealists on the other hand generally believe that the real
world is somehow in the 'mind.' The latter far more flexible approach has a massive influence on what
is regarded as reality. The view invites the possibility of a sixth sense, and affords ways in which
psychic phenomena could be accepted as real events.
As you may deduce answers to questions about reality are not easily forthcoming. When we take into
consideration the influence of language in our lives and on our concepts of reality the problem is
further compounded. Do we live our real lives through our language? I don't know. Basically, the
whole question is centered on our world view.