Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is Reality?

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

Recently I have run into a string of theists who suggest that I am unable to perceive reality, or that my notion of reality is as much a fairy tale as I suggest theirs to be. These assertions are most aggressively made when I tell them that creationism and/or intelligent design are not scientific models and therefore do not belong in science classrooms. When I explain that science is based on observations of physical reality, observations that either of us can make for ourselves should either of us choose to pursue that avenue, they inevitably regress to the suggestion that I cannot even define physical reality. To this end, I’ve decided to take up that challenge.

Although reality would seem to be an objective, unequivocal truth, any attempt to conclusively define it quickly deteriorates into solipsism. One begins by trying to establish the certainty of one’s own existence by identifying with the thoughts that one perceives as arising in one’s own mind. From this definition of self (I think therefore I am) it becomes clear that there are perceptions that arise exclusively within the mind (thoughts) and perceptions that arise exclusively from without (senses). Continuing further, reality can be defined as an objective interpretation of that which can be perceived outside of the mind (sensed).

There seems to be no way of conclusively defining reality without acknowledging the role that one’s own senses, and therefore one’s own mind, play in determining that reality. In point of fact, one’s very notion of reality is nothing more than an internal model (thought) of that which has been externally perceived (sensed). To make matters even more complicated, there exists the possibility that the very notion of reality is nothing more than a dream, that it has all been generated internally (thought).

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated by my own mind, then I am the god of that reality: I have created it; I can manipulate it to my own will, without limit; nothing occurs within it that isn’t the product of my own will; and I am the only facet of it that will continue to exist when I have ceased to dream of it.

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated not by my own mind, then I am deceived. If my thoughts are even my own, which is questionable, then the senses that I have do not reveal anything other than that which the deceiver wishes me to perceive. Such a deceiver, therefore, is determining my notion of reality and therefore corralling my notions thereof. Under such circumstance I am unable to conceive of such a deceiver by any definition other than that of a malevolent trickster, a demon.

Finally, if in fact the physical reality of which I have a notion is not a dream, that is to say that it exists independent of my notions of it, then it is something which I can only come to know through my own senses. To this end, other people whom I encounter have their own minds, independent of my own, and they too have the ability to sense the same physical world of which I am a part. Furthermore, it is possible for us to compare what we have sensed to determine whether or not our models of reality match; that is to say that we can actually exchange thoughts about the nature of the reality which we have independently sensed.

Physical senses can often be deceiving though. I might perceive that there is a bat hanging in a tree only to later realize that it was a shadow. For this reason, determination of reality requires extensive investigation. The most powerful tool we have in determining physical reality is the model of collaborative investigation put forward by science. One need not be a scientist to benefit from the model it puts forth though.

For instance, to determine the amount of money taken in at a restaurant, several people act independently to count that money at different stages. Each server counts the money they have taken in and makes a note of that amount. The head server collects all their money and counts it, as well as calculating the sum of the values entered in their notes. The accountant makes another count of that money and the money is counted yet again at the bank. If, at any given point, the amounts counted and noted by different people do not add up, the discrepancy is not adequately explained away by simply declaring that one person or the other has a different perception of reality.

If the owner of the restaurant finds that the revenues are not to his liking he may have the thought that a thief exists. Simply thinking that the thief exists does not give rise to the existence of the thief, however. The determination of whether or not a thief exists requires an investigation, an audit of the paper trail and perhaps surveillance of the staff. If the investigation fails to prove the existence of the thief then a rational owner would have to at least entertain the notion that no such thief exists. He may cling to the notion that a thief exists simply because he does not find the revenues appealing, but that notion is not well grounded in reality.

Having such notions does not make a person less of a human being; on the contrary, I suggest that such notions are very much a part of what it means to be human. To be a rational human, however, one must accept that notions of reality do not always reflect reality and that there is in fact an objective reality to be investigated. It is this objective reality that I define as reality. It is the investigation of this reality that I call science, and it must, for the sake of rationality, remain unpolluted by notions that are not founded upon physical evidence. The notion that there is a god of some sort manipulating or propagating our reality is one that is not, and by most definitions of god cannot be, supported by the evidence and therefore it must remain outside the science classrooms of our children.

I realize that creationists and proponents of intelligent design feel that their notions of god are being discredited by objective investigations of reality, but like the aforementioned restaurant owner they should at least entertain the notion that no such god exists. It is important that young scientists learn what it means to investigate physical reality and follow the evidence as it becomes uncovered. If there truly is a god then physical evidence for that god will eventually be discovered or else god is a deceiver, a malevolent trickster – a demon, and therefore no god at all.

Objective investigation of physical reality shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that prayer does not have the efficacy of medicine, surgery, engineering, or even sound investment strategy. Objective investigation of physical reality has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the fallacy of the cosmological model, deluge mythology, historicity, and even some animal husbandry practices of several passages of religious scripture. Objective investigation of physical reality has revealed no evidence whatsoever that supports the notion of a god.

I acknowledge that reality is not easily defined and my own attempt at it may fall short in the opinion of many. I have, however, at least made a sincere attempt to define it and to question my own perception of it. The only answers I can arrive at are that I am god, I am deceived by a demon, or that there are no gods or demons. The last of those three answers surely seems the most reasonable and rational. If my definition and/or conclusions fall short, then I leave the ball in your court and ask: What is reality?

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