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 have one thing in common: they are all subjective. 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 that are so small 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 two realities, what they actually believe themselves and the one that they attempt to foist on their constituency, and this is true of others whose main job is influencing opinions. Religious believers’ reality is informed by information and faith regarding transcendent beings, transmitted by ancient scriptures of questionable provenance, and the teachings of their leaders. And so on.
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 particles that are not matter at all), physical reality changes, and those changes happen impossibly fast throughout the entire universe. Given that we cannot perceive them, and that everything has changed again innumerable times by the time we manage to think about it, there is — for practical purposes — no reality at all.
My reality is based on the sum of my experiences over six and a half decades, which in turn are colored by what I perceived them to be at the time, any physical effects they may have had, what I remember about them (both consciously and subconsciously), and how I process that information. It also varies constantly as I interact with and reevaluate it.
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-six 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 60 years (formally) and my entire life otherwise.
My thinking and 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 — perhaps more skillful than I at living her own life — whose education so far has come mostly from the School of Hard Knocks?
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 the “real” one, and for us it is. We live in different worlds, I in mine and the rest of you in your own. And yours is just as valid, for you, as mine is for me.
It is this multiplicity of worlds, and our conviction that ours is the “real” one, that make relationships of all kinds difficult from time to time. More accurately, it is our failure to understand the fact of our fellow Earthlings’ realities and our inability to influence them, save in minor ways. That is the problem — and there is no solution except understanding.
What we can do is recognize the central facts of this matter: each of us has his or her own reality, and no one’s is accurate. We each have only a general 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.