What Is Reality?

Originally printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard . "What Is Reality?
" Quest  100. 1 (Winter 2012): 25-27.

 by Richard Smoley

Theosophical Society - Richard Smoley is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and a frequent lecturer for the Theosophical SocietySince the word "reality" is bandied about in so many different ways, it seems appropriate to step back and ask just what reality is.

The answers to this question can be broadly divided into two types. One is the mystical view that only what is eternal and unchanging is real. Although this idea may look highly "Eastern" to us today, it actually has a long and distinguished ancestry in Western philosophy—for example, in Plato. He discusses it in a number of his works, but the best-known account appears in The Republic, where he contends that, in the world of sensory appearances, everything is relative. Something is beautiful in one context, ugly in another; an act that is moral in one set of circumstances is immoral in another, and so on. None of these things, then, can be counted as really having these characteristics; in a sense they both do and do not have them. As Plato's mouthpiece, Socrates, says, "It is impossible to form a stable conception of any of them as either being what it is, or not being what it is, or being both, or neither. . . . The welter of things which the masses conventionally regard as beautiful and so on mill around somewhere between unreality and perfect reality."

There is a semantic difficulty here that is often overlooked. The word in Plato's Greek that is usually translated as "reality" is ousía, literally, "being." If we understand this point, Plato's reasoning becomes much clearer. How can you say something "is" when you find that, in respect to anything you can say about it, it both "is" and "is not"? How can you say something is green when it looks green in one light and yellow or gray in another?

Nonetheless, the English terms are real and reality, and their etymology suggests how we native speakers of English view the matter. These words derive from the Latin res, "thing." In English, reality is inextricably bound up with thingness. We see as much in the term real estate. When you buy a house, you don't care that the materials composing it were not a house in the past and someday in the (let us hope remote) future will no longer be a house. Nor do you care that in a sense the house both is and is not white. What matters is that it is a house you can see and touch and live in now, and that the plumbing is in good shape.

Property matters aside, in the day-to-day world there are five criteria that something has to satisfy in order for us to accept it as real: 

  1. It must be perceptible to the senses in a stereoscopic way. That is, it must resemble what it is to all the senses and from all angles. Once when I was young, I was in my room around twilight, when I glanced across the hall into my father's bedroom and saw what looked like a dead mouse in the middle of the floor. I was puzzled, because I knew we didn't have mice in the house. I looked at the object for some time, trying to figure out what it might be, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not see it as anything other than a mouse. Finally I got up to take a closer look at it. I found it was a crumpled-up piece of tissue paper that had missed the wastebasket. In this case, what had looked like a mouse proved, from a more comprehensive point of view, to be otherwise. So it was not really a mouse.
  2. The object must have a certain stability. It can't appear and vanish or change form in unpredictable ways.
  3. It must be publicly accessible. Anyone who is present must be able to perceive it. Anyone here principally means a sane, rational, sober adult. The testimony of children, the insane, and people who are intoxicated is viewed with much more suspicion.
  4. It must be observed in waking life. Objects in dreams may appear to have many of the characteristics I've described, but even so they are not accounted as real.
  5. It must obey our preconceptions about what is and is not possible. If you say you saw something that is supposed not to exist, your testimony will be seriously doubted. You may even doubt your own senses, the power of whose evidence is often weaker than that of our preconceptions. In the case above, I doubted that what I saw was a mouse because of my (correct) belief that we didn't have mice.

 Anything that fits these criteria will generally be taken as real. If it fails to satisfy even some of these requirements, it will raise doubts. Take the typical sighting of a ghost. The apparition may not be entirely stable: it may appear and disappear suddenly. It may not seem substantial to all the senses: you may be able to see it but may also find that your hand passes through it without resistance. It may not be perceptible to everyone. One person may see a ghost standing in a corner of the room, but others who are present may not. Finally and perhaps most important, the existence of ghosts is highly disputed. Even if the experience satisfies all the other criteria—say there are several people present who see the same thing—it will probably be doubted later by those who were not there (and maybe by some who were) on the grounds that there is no such thing as ghosts.

The criteria I've given seem to be more or less universal, prevailing over most if not all periods and cultures. What is accounted as real must, among other things, accord with our preconceptions. Nonetheless, the content of our preconceptions may differ according to time and place, sometimes wildly. Many cultures today give far more credence than we do to such things as ghosts, spirits good and evil, possession, witchcraft, and similar things. So, for that matter, did Western civilization five hundred years ago. It's strange to read court testimonies from the era of the witch hunts and encounter a man who confesses to turning himself into a toad—along with a judge and jury who accept his testimony.

We can see how these criteria work by examining cases where the reality of a thing is subject to doubt. In his book Beyond Telepathy, the parapsychologist Andrija Puharich tells of a study of the Indian rope trick. Long a mainstay of fakirs, the trick runs so relentlessly counter to our views of what is possible—and even of what sleight of hand can accomplish—that some have denied it has ever been done at all.

Puharich describes a demonstration of this trick arranged by some scientists, who collected several hundred people to watch a fakir put on the show. Puharich reports: "They saw the Fakir throw a coil of rope in the air and saw a small boy climb up the rope and disappear. Subsequently dismembered parts of this small boy came tumbling to the ground; the Fakir gathered them up in the basket, ascended the rope, and both the boy and the Fakir came down smiling. It is astonishing that several hundred people witnessed this demonstration and agreed in general on the details as described. There was not a single person present in the crowd who could deny these facts."

But the scientists had also set a movie camera going to record the trick. According to Puharich, later, when the film was developed, "it was found that the Fakir had walked into the center of the group of people and thrown the rope into the air, but that it had fallen to the ground. The Fakir and his boy assistant had stood motionless by the rope throughout the rest of the demonstration. The rope did not stay in the air, the boy did not ascend the rope. In other words, everyone had witnessed the same hallucination. Presumably the hallucination originated with the Fakir as the agent or sender. At no time in the course of the demonstration did the Fakir tell the audience what they were going to see. The entire demonstration was carried out in silence."

How does this fit with our criteria for reality? Certainly the idea that someone might throw a rope into the air and climb up it runs contrary to our preconceptions of how the world is, so this alone would give cause for suspicion. What proved the trick to be a hallucination was the testimony of the camera, which gave a more stereoscopic view, in this case presumably because, unlike the minds of the spectators, it was not prone to suggestion.

For those who might trust in the camera, which is supposedly incapable of deceit, I might cite a phenomenon discussed on the Internet: orbs. To quote author Daniel Pinchbeck, writing on the Reality Sandwich Web site:

Orbs are best known as those mysterious balls of light that have appeared on digital photographs for the last fifteen years, though some claim they can see them with the naked eye as well. Orbs have spawned an enthusiastic subculture of people who believe the blobby wisps are not dust particles or lens anomalies, but angels, spirits, other-dimensional beings and so on...Most people first discover orbs when they are trying to photograph something else—friends at a party, a politician, their cat.

In this case, it would appear to be the camera that is suffering from the delusion. Again the doubt is triggered by our preconceptions: people generally don't believe there are orbs of light floating around the air. Moreover, orbs are not stable; they are evanescent; and they don't stand up very well to stereoscopic examination. Sometimes they show up on camera, sometimes they can be seen with the naked eye, but a rigorous criterion for reality would demand that they appear to both the camera and the naked eye and, moreover, appear in much the same way to both. A person who sees an orb, or takes a picture of one that cannot be explained as some fluke of lighting, may not be persuaded that what he saw was unreal. (I suspect that they can be connected with thigles or tikles, which is simply the Tibetan Buddhist name for this phenomenon, usually described as droplike and regarded as a side-effect of certain meditative practices.) But someone who hears about it secondhand will probably be much more suspicious.

Set down on paper, these criteria may seem utterly obvious and pedestrian. So they should. They underpin practically every move we make. They have been established as a solid basis for enabling us to function on the plane of existence we call the physical world. They have been hashed out over millennia of human life; no attempt at vindication on my part would validate them any further, and no attempt at refutation would weaken our reliance on them. Even so, looking at them as a whole, we might notice one startling fact: a great deal of what we experience is not "real" in this sense, including thoughts, dreams, and fantasies, and even ideas and concepts. If we confine ourselves to the ordinary, common-sense view, we have no explanation for these things. Indiscriminately using blanket terms such as "imagination" and "hallucination" are often intended to abort the discussion rather than clarify it.

The mystical traditions of the world, by contrast, do have elaborate systems of thought to help us understand these realms and what they might mean. But they argue something more. They say that what is real is not experience in any form—because that is subject to relentless change—but rather that which experiences—which does remain eternal and unchanging. But if we confine ourselves to a narrow view of reality, these insights will be of no use to us.

Adapted from The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe (New World Library), copyright © 2009 by Richard Smoley.