Reality

After what I said last time about ‘faith’ it was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask me what my conclusions are regarding ‘reality’.  The short answer is of course, I’ve no fixed conclusions – I’m still investigating through meditation and study. Nevertheless, in this post I briefly outline three main philosophical perspectives and where I currently stand with regard to knowing reality

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Reality (unknown image source)

‘Reality’
(image-maker unknown)

After what I said last time about ‘faith’ it was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask me what my conclusions are regarding ‘reality’.  The short answer is of course, I’ve no fixed conclusions – I’m still investigating through meditation and study.

However, it appears I have three main philosophical positions to choose from –

EMPIRICISM. Our perceptions and experiences are all that we can ever know, and to speculate about things that can’t be observed is a pointless exercise. Scientific theories aren’t a true representation of an independent external reality, although we can distinguish pragmatically between a ‘good’ theory and a ‘bad’ one. [1] [2]

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM. Reality is a socially constructed narrative. While the effects of, say, gravity or selective breeding are undeniable, a widely acceptable explanation is always going to be contingent upon historical circumstances (the unequal distribution of power, wealth and status within and between societies, for example) and so there’s no actual progression towards the ultimate truth. [3] [4]

SCIENTIFIC REALISM. Reality is a physical phenomenon existing independently of theories and measurements; unobservable phenomena really do exist and evolving scientific theories are bringing humanity closer to a true understanding. [5] [6]

If I don’t choose one of the above it seems that I default to NAIVE REALISM or ‘common-sense’ – i.e. our senses perceive reality as it actually exists; objects within the external world obey natural laws and retain all their properties whether or not anyone is there to observe them. [7] So if I was forced to put my money on just one of these it would be empiricism, though I can give no justification that would satisfy anyone demanding proof in the form of hard evidence. It would be an act of faith, trust or confidence in ‘my’ awareness of sensory phenomena.

Sometimes I stumble upon arguments over whether or not science is better at answering ‘how’ questions and religion is better at answering ‘why’ questions. [8] [9] [10] Maybe something similar could be claimed for the three competing philosophical perspectives? Perhaps empiricism is better at answering ‘sensory reality’ questions, social constructivism is better at answering ‘historical reality’ questions, and scientific realism is better at answering ‘material reality’ questions?

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama
(image-maker unknown)

I quite like the Dalai Lama’s observation –

“It is not that life IS an illusion; rather, it is LIKE an illusion. Therefore, we can speak of the many different types of discrepancy between the way things appear and the way things actually exist. For instance, something that is impermanent can appear permanent; also, sometimes things that are actually sources of pain appear to be sources of pleasure. These are types of conflict between the way things actually are and the way they appear. Also, in relation to the final reality, objects appear to exist inherently but actually lack such inherent existence; that is another level of discrepancy between appearance and fact.”  [11]

 

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REFERENCES

[1] Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Empiricism’.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empiricism>

[2] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Hondrich), Oxford University Press, 1995, s.v.  ‘Empiricism’, by Dr Alan Lacey.

[3] Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Social Constructionism’.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism>

[4] Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin, 1991.
(Alternatively, see Wikipedia, s.v. ‘The Social Construction of Reality’.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Construction_of_Reality>)

[5] Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Scientific Realism’.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_realism>

[6] Jarrett Leplin (ed), Scientific Realism, University of California Press, 1984.
<http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=UFCpopYlB9EC&lpg=PA189&pg=PA1&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false>

[7] Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Naive Realism’.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Na%C3%AFve_realism#Naive_and_scientific_realism>

[8] Professor Alister McGrath, ‘Religion and Science’, BBC Learning Zone Clip 451, 2013.
<http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/religion-and-science/451.html>

[9] Julian Baggini, ‘Religion’s truce with science can’t hold’, ‘The Guardian’, Friday 14 October 2011.
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/14/religion-truce-science-universe>

[10] Keith Ward, ‘Religion answers the factual questions science neglects’, ‘The Guardian’, Monday 31 October 2011.
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/31/religion-factual-questions-science>

[11] Dalai Lama, as quoted in The Wisdom of Buddhism (compiled by Mel Thompson), Oneworld Publications, 2000, p. 186.



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