What is Reality?

by Fred Foldvary

Reality is what actually exists. The philosophical question is how can we know reality. Idealists say that all we can do is perceive, and we cannot prove that objects exist in the way we perceive them, and so there is no objective reality. Some idealists go further and claim that all knowledge is based on language. In contrast, realists claim that there is indeed an objective reality apart from our perceptions.

In my judgment, the two methods that best justify a view of reality are foundationalism and coherentism. In foundationalism, truth is founded on a foundation of premises from which a structure of proposition is constructed or derived using on logic and evidence. In coherentism, truth is based on the logical consistency of observations. Coherentism has to have a foundation in order to judge consistency, so the two methods are perfect and necessary complements.

The outcome of coherent foundationalism is what philosopher Edward Pols calls “radical realism.” As I analyze it, the proposition of radical realism is that there is an objective reality apart from any perceptions. However, all that human and other living beings can know is logical propositions and observations. The problem with observations is that they can be false, and that facts are necessarily interpreted.

Reality is derived from observations that are filtered by logical consistency. A person can judge the consistency of objects over time. If I wake up and see a picture, and it is also there the next day, and every day, then this consistency leads me to believe that the picture is actually there. Consistency also involves agreement by a group of persons that their observations are the same. If I see a cat, maybe I imagined it, but if you see it also, and so do many others, then the conclusion that the cat is there is warranted by consistency across persons.

An idealist will reply that even if many people agree about some object, and it is observed consistently over time, it could be a continuing mass illusion. It is still no more than an observation. Radical realism does not deny that what is observed – seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled – are sensations in the brain. What makes this realism radical, going to the roots of the issue, is the proposition that this is what reality is. Radical realism is the proposition that empirical reality consists of consistent observations and their logical deductions.

Radical realism differs from merely empirical realism in claiming that the observed objects actually exist, so that perceptions are not merely accepted as being useful. Idealists say that when an ordinary person accepts observations as real, this, what is called “direct knowing,” is “native realism” or “vulgar realism” because one cannot logically derive from observations the objective reality of the objects. But radical realism does not blindly accept the reality of observations. It sieves the observations through a filter of logic. It then proclaims that the results of consistent observation is reality, because reality cannot be anything better. We could call it “coherent reality.”

Radical realism also recognizes that facts are always interpretive. Facts are theory-laden. If I see a man wearing blue clothing and a badge, I interpret this as not just a man, but a police officer. But interpretations are also subject to logical consistency. The man might be going to a costume party. But if the actions of the man are consistent with that of a police officer, such as citing people for infractions, we can conclude that the interpretation is reality. Contrary to idealism, reality is not created by thoughts, but rather, reality consists of conclusions from consistent mind observations filtered through logic.

Radical reality recognizes that what we perceive as solid objects are actually made up of molecules, atoms, and other particles we cannot directly observe. But the existence of atoms derived from the observed tracking of the their effects, hence from consistent observation.

The foundation of radical realism is the acceptance of cause and effect, of inductive and deductive reasoning, and the criterion of consistency. If all human beings are somehow fooled into thinking that water exists even when it does not, the consistent perception of water and conclusions from its consequences become the coherent reality.

Radical realism is radical in going to the roots of how we can know reality. This grounding saves it from being merely vulgar or naive. There is much more that we can analyze regarding idealism and realism. Two good books on this topic are The Slightest Philosophy by Quee Nelson, available at Google Books, and Radical Realism by Edward Pols. Most folks handle their daily activities with naive realism, but they fall victim to perverse ideologies ultimately derived from idealism. Thus is it good philosophy to question your beliefs with the Socratic questions, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?”

One thought on “What is Reality?

  1. Hi Fred. I see the issue as being more simple. Aristotle says ‘True knowledge is identical with its object’. Anything other form of knowledge would be open to doubt and incomplete. So the only thing we can know that is real is us, if we are.

    From there it’s a short step to the idea that meditative practice is a better way to investigate what is real than physics.

    These philosophical ideas you mention would be relevant, but if Aristotle is correct then we cannot learn what is real by just by thinking about it, whatever our method.

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