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What is Reality?

What is Reality?

Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.

Reality. We experience it every day even if we are not always aware of it.

What is reality anyway? Do we make reality or does reality makes us? A little bit of both… maybe? How do we know what is real? Do we find out with our senses, our reason or by something an authority figure (God/your mother/a scientist/uncle Bob/etc.) said?

Truth is that as common as the concept of reality might be, at its core is by no means simple. And our senses, reason and authority figures may all be useful tools –in some kind of way at least- to help us define what is real.

For the purpose of our study, I would like to define reality as any objective process and experience.

A few lessons from history

Back in the age of Enlightenment, after Sir Isaac Newton brought an innovative new way to see the world with his calculous and new understanding of physics, a hope grew out in the hearts of many: the hope that soon enough, anything could be predicted and everything would be understood.

However, the twentieth century came with some surprises; Einstein´s theory of relativity and the development of quantum physics brought new layers into our understanding (or lack thereof) of reality. “Relative” became a big word for philosophical thinking and culture, and, “probability” turned into a new kind of objective reality.

It is well known that Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr would argue constantly (and very professionally too) about the nature of quantum mechanics. You see, quantum physics teaches us some very crazy things about reality. Things as crazy as the fact that two particles that are separated –by any given distance- can affect the outcome of each other without any force to link them in between. If you feel lost by this, you are only human. In fact, it is this very implication of quantum mechanics what troubled Einstein, and the reason he had so many discussions with Bohr.

Einstein could not accept these “spooky actions” as he called them, because as open minded as he was (relativity certainly could not have come out of a narrow mind), he couldn’t visualize physics as departing from the determinism that had characterized it for centuries. Bohr, on the other hand, was more of a pragmatic fellow. He too, probably, was surprised by what quantum mechanics revealed about the nature of reality. However, he cared less about the “why” and simply cared more about the results; about what the actual experiments revealed. This is probably why his answer to Einstein’s famous quote “God does not play dice” was: “stop telling God what to do”.

Something to think about

Here is some food for thought: as easy as it might be for Christians (like me) and other monotheist believers to sympathize with Einstein’s “God does not play dice” with the understanding that “God is a God of order”, I believe that Bohr’s answer is the most humble and appropriate one.

For those of you who might be skeptic about faith and religion, I will say that I am aware that Einstein and Bohr’s discussion was not so much a theological one as it was about logic. But, for the moment, I believe we could all agree on a very fundamental truth about reality: reality is what it is, independently of what we want to think of it. And this –I believe- is where Bohr was trying to land.

This single truth about reality is a very simple one, but also, one important to keep in mind. In the video (on the top of this article) we make a brief reference of the important role that observation has in the process of defining reality; Bohr also made big contributions in the development of this concept, but we will explore more about this (and authority figures) in my next article (“What is faith?”). However, right now, I just want you to think in two of those “useful tools” that we spoke early about: our senses and reason.

About our senses and reason

Both of this “tools” have their points in favor to demonstrate why they might be useful to determine what is real. For one side, our senses help us to “experience what is real”, while our reason help us to reflect on it. Nevertheless, there is something we must also not forget about these, and that is, that they both fail.

It sucks to admit it, I know, but remember our lesson of the day: “reality is what it is, independently of what we want to think of it”.

Our senses may connect us with reality, but if we are fair, we know they fail. We have all misheard, miscalculated, misjudged, misinterpreted, etc. time over time thanks to our senses. Now, let us imagine that we could become aware of everything at the same time to reduce our chance of error; according to many experts, quantum mechanics would also make this more complicated. If that was not enough, here’s another cool fact: our consciousness, our sense of awareness or “conscious access” –as world-class scientist Stanislas Dehaene would call it- lags in real time. So, for us at least, miscalculation with our senses is a given.

What about reason? Well, the cool thing about reason is that it can learn from the mistakes of our senses and logic to make better judgements. That is amazing! However, we must be aware that we cannot skip the process of learning, and here, our biggest enemies become health and time. It doesn’t matter how much humanity learns as a whole, no life can live long enough to learn and experience everything. And that is why, ultimately, reason also fails.

Now, I know some of you might also throw A.I. (artificial intelligence) into the equation. That is something I also hope to speak about in the future. But, for the time, let us start just with ourselves.

A few last words about this article:

It is very likely that you read this article looking for a precise answer on the question (“what is reality?”). As you could probably tell by now, with this article I was more interested in making the question that in giving the answer. But, if you want my opinion on the answer, as I mentioned earlier I believe that reality is any objective process and experience. Process because it happens within time; experience because it happens within space and objective because even if we have the power to affect how we observe reality, we don’t have power on the nature of reality itself. In summary: reality happens within space-time and it can only be defined by how we observe it.

Also, I would like to add that I don’t seek to discourage you from enjoying life with your senses or to develop trust issues with reason. I just hope that as we take this journey together, we are aware at all times that “reality” will always be greater than anything we can imagine. And that, is a good thing, because we can keep learning… forever.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Edjenn

    Pretty cool article

    1. EmersonO

      Glad you liked it bro!

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