How real is Reality? – Part 1 of 2

It isn’t. I know two words cannot make you disbelieve reality and chances are, you’re probably scoffing at the moment. But let me tell you why reality is not as real as you think it is. Magicians and illusionists trick the senses to create a sort of ‘cardboard reality’, while the real magic is actually going on in the heads, the eyes and the ears of the spectators. Movies are primarily, a large number of still images projected at a rapid rate to produce the illusion of movement. But what we actually see are characters moving and dancing and talking on the screen for we cannot distinguish between the separate images. Governments are actually a group of people passing laws in fancy buildings. What you call money is a piece of printed paper. They are what they are because we collectively assign a power or an extended reality to it. This is what is implied by the statement, ‘Perception is reality’. This perception is what differentiates between a scrap of paper and a 100 rupee note. So, in a sense, we are capable of creating our own reality, either individually or collectively. That being the case, how can we know how much of this reality is actually real, that is, independent of human perception, or is it even real in the first place?

Quite understandably, you would say that in all of the above cases, we have knowledge of what is actually going on behind the scenes even if we do not remember it every minute of watching the movie or magic trick. But how can that in any way, take away from the reality of what we touch, see and feel every second? I know the 100 rupee note is merely paper, but surely this paper is real and it exists? Consider this. You pile up your plate with Chicken Manchurian at a buffet, only to realize that they’re just veggies fried to look like chicken. You feel a vibration in your pocket and reflexively reach out for your phone only to find that you have no new notifications. You follow the killer to a decrepit building only to wake up on your bed in your own apartment. We have been deceived by our senses on multiple occasions. Yet you were so convinced that those were chicken Manchurian balls you were stacking on your plate! Most of what we believe to be true is based on the information interpreted by our sensory organs and as you can see, senses are fallible.

One could of course, argue that these are stray incidents and most of the times our senses do feed us the correct information. But the question is, how can we verify the correctness of this information? While copying out from the blackboard if you cannot clearly make out a word, you check with those sitting around you. The scriptural law of Jews states that the testimony of at least two witnesses can be considered true and is sufficient to convict the accused.  Analogically, you can conclude that something is real when a large number of people say it is so. Or, can you? For eons, we believed that the earth was flat, that it was the centre of the universe and that the sun revolved around it. The world ostracized and condemned anybody who claimed otherwise. But today, the idea that the earth is flat would sound funny to us. To put it in another way, the idea that the earth is anything but round would be preposterous! So we may have advanced marvelously in science, but we (scientists and philosophers excluded) are still pretty much orthodox when it comes to questioning our current reality.

Socrates is the first recorded person to have encouraged this question way back in the 4th century BC. In Plato’s ‘The Republic’, he presents the allegory of the cave. In this dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people whose legs and necks are chained to the wall of a cave from birth. There is a fire behind the prisoners and objects moving in front of the fire throw shadows on the wall facing the prisoners. The prisoners cannot look behind them or at each other. Consequently for them, the world looks like the silhouettes on the wall – dark and two-dimensional. He further supposes that one of the prisoners is freed and he sees the fire, people, animals, trees and mountains and he realizes that they are nothing like the shadows he believed the world to be. They have colors and occupy volume and are real. When he comes back to the cave to tell the other prisoners about the whole new world outside, they do not believe him and only notice that the freed prisoner is unable to see clearly in the dark, now that he had seen light, and so infer that escaping from the cave would harm them instead. Through this allegory, Socrates wanted to probe the possibility that reality is not like we have constructed it to be and we, like the prisoners in the cave, are refusing to look at the complete picture. So if we cannot treat the material objects of the world as real things, from where should we start to question reality?

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, started by ‘upending the apple basket of beliefs’, that is, disbelieving everything and examining each belief before accepting or discarding it. Though a lot of his deductions are disputed, his philosophical basis cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) is convincing and widely accepted. The essence of this statement is that if I am doubting, if I am thinking, then I must exist as a thinking thing in the least. This assertion, however, does not entail that we are physical beings with hands and legs and feet. So what are we? Are we just a ‘brain in a vat’ responding to electrical signals generated in a laboratory? Do we live in a Matrix-like world where all our experiences are results of computer simulation? Or are we living in a dream or a dream within a dream like Leonardo Di Caprio in Inception?

Can we ever answer these questions? Can we ever be sure that our objective world is real? So we are right back at where we started. The nature of reality is still an unanswered question in philosophy. And every thought process keeps ending in many more questions. But these are all thought experiments; mere conjectures you would say. Is there conclusive proof to say that the world is unreal? Yes. Or that is what quantum physics claims that the double-slit experiment does.

More on that in the next part…

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