We talk about reality a lot. According to Princeton’s Wordnet, reality is
- all of your experiences that determine how things appear to you; “his world was shattered”; “we live in different worlds”; “for them demons were as much a part of reality as trees were”
- the state of being actual or real; “the reality of his situation slowly dawned on him”
- the state of the world as it really is rather than as you might want it to be; “businessmen have to face harsh realities”
- the quality possessed by something that is real.
All of these definitions lack one thing: precision. They all imply varied meanings — subjective meanings. To a child, reality is one thing; to an adult, something else. The “functional reality” by which we guide our lives varies from individual to individual.
A physicist’s or cosmologist’s concept of reality is determined by the positions of subatomic particles so infinitesimal that they cannot be directly observed, their presence and activity only inferred.
Sociologists would have us believe that the conditions described by interpretation of their surveys and studies represents at least a valid approximation of the time and place where the studies were done.
Politicians have at least two realities, what they actually believe themselves and the one that they attempt to foist on their constituency. Often, over time, they become confused about which is which. This is true of others whose main job is influencing opinions.
Religious believers’ reality is informed by wishful thinking and faith in mysteries regarding transcendent beings, transmitted by ancient scriptures and the teachings of their leaders. And so on. How real are any of those conclusions?
Although there is such a thing as “physical reality,” it is even harder to pin down. All we can do is average the results, for it changes in increments of time so small as to be unimaginable. With each change in the particles of individual atoms (and myriad other particles that are not “matter” at all), reality changes — and those changes happen impossibly fast in every tiny part of the universe. Since everything has changed again innumerable times by the time we notice the results, there is — for practical purposes — no reality at all.
I was taught by people whose lives preceded mine, and whose world view was formed by that of their teachers and forbears, combined with perceptions of what they had experienced and learned during their own lives. In my sixty-five years I have done many things, had multiple careers and a number of odd jobs in between, and an education that was spread over about 40 years (formally) and the entire six and a half decades otherwise.
I, my thinking, and my reality are the sum of all those things. How could my perception, as an older male trained in the sciences and logic, be the same as that of a fifteen year old street kid whose education so far has come mostly from the School of Hard Knocks, and who is, regardless, far more skillful at living in her reality than I would be?
My reality — and yours — are based on the sum of our experiences, which in turn are colored by what we perceived them to be at the time, any physical effects they may have had, what we remember about them, both consciously and subconsciously, and how we process that information. It also varies constantly as we interact with and reevaluate it.
It is true that similarities among human beings are more important than the differences — but some of the differences are, nonetheless, vast and seemingly irreconcilable. We all believe that our reality is “real,” and for us it is. We live in different worlds, I in mine and the rest of you in yours. And yours is just as valid, for you, as mine is for me.
It is this multiplicity of worlds, and our convictions that ours are the “real” ones, that make relationships of all kinds difficult from time to time. More accurately, it is our failure to understand the fact of our fellows’ differing realities and that, while we are a part of them, we have only limited ability to influence them to agree with ours. That is the problem — and there is no solution except understanding and trying to work around it in constructive ways.
What we can do is recognize the central fact of this matter: We each have only a rough idea of what the world is really like. Therefore, pooling our resources — each to his own expertise and understanding — makes a great deal more sense than arguing about the details.