What is reality?

Scientifically speaking, the lesser reality is the greater – assuming that an underworld of physical processes will provide a ‘theory of everything’.  But that ‘everything’ is not everything – because experience reveals that a universe which subsists beneath the threshold of self-perception is not the whole thing.  However, experience might be confined to a world of its own with no inkling of a ‘bigger picture’ beyond the images that happen to hold our attention.

On the other hand, whatever else reality may or may not be, we can know without further ado that it includes the perception of ourselves thinking.  And if our capacity for reflection is the thing that distinguishes our thinking, albeit in the absence of a definitive knowledge of anything else, then at least we can know that thinking exists as a feature of the way things are, though the wider reality may not be tied to the way we think about it.

Even so, this would be sufficient to tell us that we inhabit a sentient reality, as augmented by a power to be, which we can know but incompletely by its instantiation in the vagaries of our understandings.  And we can know as much because of the reflective experience of the vagaries of our understandings.  Then again, even if we could know everything in terms of ‘something else’ identifiable as the source, we would still need to ask ourselves: have we really identified the whole, or explained the something else?

Mike Laidler

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Hidden thresholds: The subtle fact of change

Change presents the eye with a paradox – because things can be seen to change without changing – because the flow of change reveals nothing of the step to come – because a fact may be seen as one thing and another.  Consequently, change raises more questions than answers.  Some famous examples from antiquity include the paradoxes of Theseus’ ship and the heap: A heap of grains can be reduced to nothing by removing one grain at a time, but there is no definite point of change – unless one grain constitutes a heap.  The paradox of the ship is more challenging: by systematically replacing every piece of the original it ceases to be the same ship, and yet it is.  In sum, these puzzles carry an enduring message because they point to a fundamental problem of explanation that we would rather not think about – that there is more to change than its observable causes.

Shifting to the modern era, we see the same problem redefined.  Science shows us that the universe is constituted of sub-atomic particles – a fact that includes ourselves – but there is no point at which we can see those particles becoming conscious.  Indeed we do not see consciousness as a feature of the physical world until we rely upon the end result as a means of observing a world that is constituted of nothing but physical processes.  So we observe the change as an effect that may be regarded for the sake of explanation as a variation on what is – which means that things do yet do not really change.  Either way, the putative cause, namely the changing configuration of physical processes, doesn’t actually explain the untypical nature of the result – even though, logically, it must if there is no other cause to be found.

Mike Laidler