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The Fantasy of Reality

Why belief in reality is a dangerous mistake

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Most of us, most of the time, have the sense that we are connected to the real.  The immediate world around us, the objects and people, the buildings and the natural world seem unquestionably present.  Not only in the sense that we are experiencing them but in the sense that they exist independently of us out there in the real world.

Some, we imagine slightly crazed, philosophers may have doubted the existence of those objects and the real world and proposed that it is all a dream and a product of our subjective imagination.  We feel we know better.   Aside from moments of mental instability or those who have taken rather too many psychoactive substances,  we have an abiding sense that the world we experience is for the most part only too real.

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"Philosophical Realism is a mistake that limits our ability to intervene successfully in the world and encourages division and conflict."

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This notion of reality is so close to us and so central to our culture that it is hard for us to imagine how it could be otherwise.  It has not always been so.  Our confidence in our access to the real is no doubt in part a product of the success of the Enlightenment and the remarkable achievements of science over the last three hundred and fifty years.  Philosophical realism - the idea that such an independent reality can be described by us - has within academic philosophy been supported by many in the analytic school.  I have argued however that it is a mistake.  A mistake that limits our ability to intervene successfully in the world and encourages division and conflict.

The idea of a reality that we can uncover through precise observation and reason is at the heart of the Enlightenment and enabled its advocates to champion human capacity over the authority of the word of God.  As children of the Enlightenment we are taught the story of Galileo with the metaphysical moral that by peering through his telescope he was able to observe the reality of the Jupiter’s moons and challenge the power and authority of the Church.  Reality though turns out itself to be theological notion.  For the real, like God, is not in the end observable.  Nor can we give an account of how our theories are able to reach through our experience and our particular context to describe an independent reality that we can identify as the ultimate character of the world.  Realists often imagine that they are the ones with their feet on the ground.  The ones without attachments to strange metaphysical frameworks.   Yet realism involves the presumption of something that accounts for all there is, supports our theories, is found everywhere, but is inaccessible and indescribable.  Such descriptions are strangely similar to those that have been used by monotheists to describe their god.  For a simple reason.  ‘The real’ is the god of the Enlightenment.

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"Reality turns out itself to be theological notion.For the real, like God, is not in the end observable."

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Of course, the vision of the early scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment was a great and profound one that was to transform the circumstances of everyone.  Instead of the idea that the world was either unknowable or our knowledge of it came from a higher authority, the proposition that we are capable of uncovering the character of the world from our own observations and investigations was a liberating and transformational shift that propelled research and discovery.  It heralded a new age in which we could see human history as a continuous form of progress that gradually provided a more and more accurate account of the world.  It led to the great theories of science that seemingly uncovered the underlying laws that governed the universe and accurately described its development.

The problem is that the Enlightenment strategy of observing the world and applying reason to determine what is actually the case has uncovered its own limitation and failure, identifying our inability to describe reality. Once only a concern of those with an unusually rigorous turn of mind, it has more recently invaded much of our cultural space as a result of the widespread recognition of the importance of context. We have come to see our theories and accounts of the world as the product of a particular time, a particular culture, a particular language, a particular organism. It is no longer clear to us how these theories can escape their particularity and their context in order to describe the character of the world independently of those constraints.

In addition, the idea that we are able to accurately describe an independent reality requires a theory about how our theories and language are hooked onto the world.  Yet no such theory to support realism has been forthcoming, indeed there has been a shortage of any theories that lay out clearly the metaphysics required to make a realist account of the world possible.  At a commonsense level we assume our words refer to things out there in the world.  Providing an account of how they do so and what sort of things there must be to make this possible becomes more perplexing the more it is pursued.  Wittgenstein, close to the beginning of analytic philosophy, was one of the few to follow through the metaphysics required to make a realist account of language work. Critically however he concluded that any attempt to describe the relationship between language and the world must fail.  It must do so because such a theory would itself have to stand outside of language in order to catch sight of how language itself relates to the world.

Despite Wittgenstein’s identification of the impossibility of a realist theory of language, many philosophers of the analytic school have continued to pursue the realist project, though usually without making any serious attempt to develop an ontology that could make sense of how this could be achieved.  Instead a narrow piecemeal approach has often been adopted, as if in a scientific manner it is possible to make small inroads towards a bigger overall theory without needing to have in mind how the overall theory might be formulated.  All of which would be fine if it wasn’t for the problem that in principle, due to unavoidable paradoxes of self-reference highlighted by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, such a theory cannot get off the ground. Not surprising therefore that the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, who had spent his career within the analytic school and was one of its leading proponents, concluded, ‘the project to describe the relationship between language and the world is a shambles’.

Meanwhile more broadly in Western culture there is increasing scepticism of the Enlightenment idea that we are progressing towards a better and more accurate theory of the world. Almost every humanities discipline, with the possible exception of some philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, has been absorbed with this question of perspective to such an extent that in some cases, sociology and anthropology for example, it has changed the very character of the discipline itself.  And now more widely in culture as a whole, post truth has invaded our news and politics highlighting our seeming inability to find an uncontentious frame for truth.

Given the profound challenges to the notion of the real why are some philosophers still so attached to it?  And why are most of us still convinced at an everyday level that we are able to access that reality?  There is I think a straight-forward explanation.  Despite the lack of a decent theory, and despite our increasing awareness of the impossibility of an objective account, we are inclined to think that without the notion of reality there is no explanation for the success of our theories and in particular of our scientific theories. Furthermore, realists often assume that the abandonment of the real has the consequence that anything goes, that each perspective is equally valuable.  The strengths and successes of the Enlightenment, our understanding of the world and our culture is imagined to be at risk if we give up on the real and with it the notion that there are correct and incorrect accounts of the world. 

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"Our theories and our language are a means to intervene successfully in the world; we do not have to imagine that they are uncovering an ultimate truth."

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But we do not need the Enlightenment god ‘reality’ to make sense of the success of our theories, or to direct our future researches and investigations.  Any more than we need a religious god to make sense of the diversity and wonder of the natural world.  Our theories and our language are a means to intervene successfully in the world, we do not have to imagine that they are uncovering an ultimate truth, a transcendent reality, in order to be effective.  Heisenberg, the quantum physicist, who along with Einstein is perhaps the most influential scientist of the twentieth century, came to the same conclusion.  In his book, Physics and Philosophy, strangely - or perhaps on reflection not so strangely - largely overlooked by realist philosophers, Heisenberg gives up on the notion that science is the uncovering of an ultimate reality.  He argues: ‘We have learnt that exact science is possible without the basis of dogmatic realism’ and goes on to say that in the interpretation of quantum mechanics now central to contemporary physics and with which he is associated, the Copenhagen interpretation, ‘objective reality has evaporated’. 

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant started from the assumption of knowledge and the success of science, and attempted to create a philosophical framework that would account for how that knowledge was possible.  Our current predicament is the reverse.  We have to start from the assumption that we have no knowledge of an independent reality and formulate a theory that accounts for how nevertheless we are able to be so precise and effective in our interventions in the world. I have sought to put forward such an account.  It proposes that we abandon the idea that the world is a thing or a combination of things and instead that we hold the world as open.  Through sensation, thought and language we close the openness of the world and we realise - we make real - the things that enable us to intervene.  Sensation, thought and language are not therefore descriptions of the world but forms of closure that we adopt, refine and abandon in response to their ability to satisfy our desires.  Such a post-realist theory cannot of course put itself forward as the one true account of reality, and will critically need to explain how the theory itself is possible without reliance on an implicit notion of reality.

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"Through sensation, thought and language we close the openness of the world and we realise - we make real - the things that enable us to intervene."

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Now this post-realist framework of openness and closure, that I first outlined in ‘Closure’, is often misunderstood.  I am not saying that we make up the world or that it provides no constraint on our theories.  That would be absurd.  Indeed, some of my critics like to paint me as a caricature of an idealist philosopher denying that the world exists and proposing that we make it up in our heads.  This is not the case.  I am not arguing that the world is created by us.  Nor do I wish to contend that there is nothing independent of experience or language. But instead to argue that our language and senses do not describe or depict an independent world of objects or things, a reality, that lies out there waiting for us to discover. 

It is not belief in the real that drove the success of the Enlightenment but empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism is not about being able to see directly through to the real.  Instead it is about observing the world in the context of our current perspective with its current closures, and considering how it might be with alternatives.  Similarly, rationalism is not a technique for enforcing a single line of thought as if it was unavoidable or unchallengeable, but a means to explore the consequences of a given closure on the wider network of belief that we use to make sense of the world, to see where it might lead and whether it might be desirable.

A post-realist world is full of potential.  It draws our attention in Feyerbend’s phrase to the abundance of the world.  Not all closures are equal or appropriate to the circumstances and the desired outcome.  We have to explore any given set of closures to see if they are effective.  Not by observing reality directly but by identifying whether they are successful in enabling interventions we desire.  In a post- realist world we cannot impose our narratives simply by insisting they are true.  We have to argue for them.  We have to point to their strength and their potential.  We have to show that they enable a positive means of intervening and that alternatives are less effective and potentially damaging.

In a post-realist world there is no belief that is sacrosanct, no belief that cannot be abandoned, but new alternatives have to undergo the same challenges and meet the same requirements.  Our uncovery of the failure of the Enlightenment has led many to be critical of observation and reason while still holding on to the real.  This is a dangerous and misguided strategy which risks leading us to a divisive and chaotic world.  Instead we should abandon the fantasy of reality, the illusory god of the Enlightenment, and double down on the techniques of observation and reason that were the key drivers of the Enlightenment's unique success.  Not in the mistaken belief that they will lead us to a single true account of the world, but that they are capable of leading us to new ways of holding the world which can help us overcome our current difficulties and open new possibilities. 

Giving up on the real, giving up on the notion that our dominant conventional ways of seeing the world are right, in favour of a world of potential that might enable us to create new forms of living and better ways to organise society seems to me to be a valuable shift and not something of which we should be afraid.

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Peter Brooks 20 December 2019

An enjoyable article.

The Copenhagen interpretation is a fairytale and certainly not central to modern physics - it was a mistake engendered by the dislike of non-locality, which is something we’ve plenty of evidence is still the case,

Still, the article makes good points despite this mistake.