What is real?
How do we know it is real?
What does “real” mean?
Does understanding the difference between what is real and what is not real give us any advantage in life?
These fundamental questions are ask by most humans at some point in their lives, but even the most contemplative philosophers disagree on the answers.
In this article, I’m going to attempt to persuade readers to reduce the common, yet debilitating, gaseous and bloated ontology (the study of what is real), and to slim down their conceptual schemes to include only those entities and concepts that have warrant.
I will first identify some of the impediments to an accurate construction of a mental representation of reality, then speak to the demarcation between objective and subjective realities that is too often ignored.
Here are some of the impediments to constructing an accurate mental map of reality.
- By the time we are old enough to critically assess our beliefs, our brains have already sublimated many assumptions deep into our conceptual frameworks. Prior to the existence of critical thinking skills, we, as young children, are taught by society the narratives that validate that particular society, and these narratives necessarily come with the baggage of concepts that are uncritically sublimated into the “common sense” module of our brains. Because we cannot remember the indoctrination process, we wrongly assume it was legitimately derived. We assume…
- the existence and permanence of the soul
- the existence of morality
- “rights” and entitlements for humans
- a teleological “purpose” for each human
- an administer of absolute justice
We are indoctrinated with these concepts during our formative years, and when old enough to critically assess their truth, we instead spend our mental energy on foraging for arguments in their defense since the denial of these concepts threaten our entrenched identity.
- A careful, rigorous assessment of reality is not very fun. The fantastical is much more interesting. Our creative brains quickly tire of mathematical and logical duties, and look for ways to add hues of delight to the often plain walls of living. There is certainly nothing wrong with imagination, but to employ imagination over reason in the assessment of what is real will inevitably lead to a delusion that, while producing immediate happiness, diminishes our ability to make decisions that result in our long-term well-being. The “magic” of Christmas is a game that I myself play and enjoy once a year, but the excessive expectations that emerge from unfounded hopes in Christmas magic, whether they include a genuine Santa or a magical romance, or even long-sought familial harmony, are certain to eventually yield deep disappointments.
The existence of space aliens is far more interesting than supposing the rest of the universe is uninhabited. Ghosts creaking around in the attic, in spite of the accompanying terror, is a much more interesting concept than a simple explanation such as the wind.
We want to paint our lives with as much color as we can get away with. But painting a green apple red does not warrant the claim that you now hold a ripe apple. Imagination is fine as long as the imagination is properly credited and acknowledged. But to allow the imagination even a foot in the door of ontological evaluation is to sacrifice all the rigor that protects us from self-delusion. Imagination is a subjective game. The discovery of reality requires unadulterated objectivity. We’ll come back to this later.
- Our emotions scream for certain assurances. We emotionally refuse to accept the notions that
- “bad people” will not be punished in either this life or the next
- “good people” (this category will be stretched as needed to include ourselves) often suffer and die without reward
- there is no higher entity who has handed us a “purpose”
- there is no absolute morality (that conveniently matches our own culture and emotions) that all of humanity must follow
- any belief that exceeds the evidence is unwarranted; there is no mystical direct channel to truth that is validated through the confirmation of our “hearts”
These are just a few examples of proper default positions that our emotions do not take kindly to. At our very roots, we are emotional. I don’t advocate uprooting those emotions. But I do claim that the insertion of emotion into an assessment of truth is always improper. Life is lived emotionally. Truth is most closely approximated through a wholly unemotional process. The skill of unemotionally assessing what is true does not come easily. It requires focus and practice. But its difficulty does not negate its necessity. Truth is neither cheap nor easy. It requires the expense of time and energy to hone our critical thinking skills to the point where emotions are eliminated from the equation.
Now let me address the oft-ignored demarcation between the objective and the subjective.
The objective world can be examined and quantified. The apple in our hand can be seen, felt, smelled, weighed and measured. This experiential data can distinguish it from a plastic apple, and lead to a decision to take the next step of tasting it believing that we won’t look like an idiot to others at the table. If our decision results in the right taste and nutrition, we can more strongly assume that the next object we examine that yields the same sensations and measurements will also be a genuine apple. This predictive power emerges from having reliable senses that examine the measurable attributes of the object in our hand. This is the way we approximate the objective reality of the world around us.
Subjective reality, in contrast, has no basis in anything apart from the human brain. Our preference of one variety of apple over another is not “universal”, “absolute” or “objective”. It is a brain-generated value, and does not, no matter how hard we try, apply to other brains. The same goes for the subjective sensation of guilt in eating an apple that fell from your neighbor’s tree into our own yard. The sensation of “guilt” does not create an objective category called morality that would lend legitimacy or attempt to improperly attach our subjectively experienced guilt to an invented objective moral category called “sin”. The guilt may be so intense that it feels tangible. But it will never promote the subjectively invented notion of “sin” to an objective truth.
Unfortunately, many notions that are now being marketed as objective truths are, in actuality, based wholly on subjective emotions. These include the following.
Let’s look at knowledge as an example. When people use the phrase “I know ‘x'”, what they are actually referencing is the emotional of confidence they are placing on ‘x’. There have been many attempts by philosophers to define knowledge in a way that is objective by invoking ad hoc objective criteria to legitimate the notion, but we all recognize that we, in fact, are only indexing our level of emotional confidence when we say “I know ‘x'” or “I tend to believe ‘x'”. There is ultimately no objective foundation available to knowldege.
Likewise for all the other words in the list above; as salient as our emotional sensations are, and as much as we try to devise clever criteria to christen these concepts “objective”, we ultimately find not a trace of objectivity upon close scrutiny.
This is not to disparage subjectivity! As humans, life is best spent in full acknowledgment and appreciation of our subjective emotions. Many philosophers and mathematicians who have attempted to shed their emotions and process life wholly objectively have lost all to suicide or insanity. Emotions are indeed the brilliant hues that make life meaningful. This meaning is not objective. It is created by the subject with the emotions. The fact that your subjective purpose does not extend to others does not diminish your subjective purpose. Likewise with your sense of values. The fact that you feel guilty when you cheat on your spouse does not generate a moral law or legitimize the myth of “sin”. It simply means that you may ultimately be happiest when you don’t break your promises. Adding to our ontology any objective notion beyond this subjective value is illegitimate.
So let’s stop pretending that our subjective emotions lend legitimacy to objective notions. Objective notions will be validated by objective evidence for their existence. Objective notions will yield predictive power that enable us to make optimal decisions to enrich our subjective existence. Once we have reduced our objective ontology to a legitimate set, our subjective lives can be lived more colorfully with the confidence that we are not deceiving ourselves.