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Reality: the definition

I was looking at the New Scientist website and came across this interesting article about how we can define reality. The conflicts that arise are things that I had never thought of before and are profoundly clever. I found the idea that the stock markets would cease to exist if no one believed in them. Here it is:Image

WHAT DO we actually mean by reality? A straightforward answer is that it means everything that appears to our five senses – everything that we can see, smell, touch and so forth. Yet this answer ignores such problematic entities as electrons, the recession and the number 5, which we cannot sense but which are very real. It also ignores phantom limbs and illusory smells. Both can appear vividly real, but we would like to say that these are not part of reality.

We could tweak the definition by equating reality with what appears to a sufficiently large group of people, thereby ruling out subjective hallucinations. Unfortunately there are also hallucinations experienced by large groups, such as a mass delusion known as koro, mainly observed in South-East Asia, which involves the belief that one’s genitals are shrinking back into one’s body. Just because sufficiently many people believe in something does not make it real.

Another possible mark of reality we could focus on is the resistance it puts up: as the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick put it, reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, does not go away. Things we just make up yield to our wishes and desires, but reality is stubborn. Just because I believe there is a jam doughnut in front of me doesn’t mean there really is one. But again, this definition is problematic. Things that we do not want to regard as real can be stubborn too, as anyone who has ever been trapped in a nightmare knows. And some things that are real, such as stock markets, are not covered by this definition because if everyone stopped believing in them, they would cease to exist.

There are two definitions of reality that are much more successful. The first equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. By this definition, a lot of things we usually regard as real – languages, wars, the financial crisis – are nothing of the sort. Still, it is the most solid one so far because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.

The second equates reality with the most fundamental things that everything else depends on. In the material world, molecules depend on their constituent atoms, atoms on electrons and a nucleus, which in turn depends on protons and neutrons, and so on. In this hierarchy, every level depends on the one below it, so we might define reality as made up of whatever entities stand at the bottom of the chain of dependence, and thus depend on nothing else.

This definition is even more restrictive than “the world without us” since things like Mount Everest would not count as part of reality; reality is confined to the unknown foundation on which the entire world depends. Even so, when we investigate whether something is real or not, these final two definitions are what we should have in mind.


TOK Presentation Ideas

  • How does the language we speak limit our search for knowledge?
  • Is there an overlap between the knowledge that literature and natural sciences gives us?
  • As humans will we always be able to dicover new things in science or will there be a time that we are limited by our technology and senses?


My History Quote

“History is more the study of why humans act the way they do rather than the study of what humans did before us”

The Man With No Emotions

I found this video as a link on a Theory of Knowledge website. The video is about a man who had a brain tumour removed along with part of his brain that deals with emotion and since the operation he does not ‘feel’ emotions.

It is a very interesting video and quite astounding. It links to the reason vs emotion debate as there is a psychologist in the video who invents a gambling test to show us the relationship between the two ways of knowing. Enjoy

Catullus 109- To Lesbia

CIX- ad Lesbiam

iucundum, mea vita, mihi proponis amorem

hunc nostrum inter nos perpetuumque fore.

di magni, facite ut vere promittere possit,

atque id sincere dicat et ex animo,

ut liceat nobis tota perducere vita,

aeturnum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae.

I have come up with this translation of the poem:

You declared our love will be delightful

in my life, eternal between us.

Great gods, make it so that she is able to promise truthfully,

and that she says it with sincerity and from her heart,

so that we may be permitted to continue

this immortal agreement of holy friendship through the whole our lives.

Catullus was well known for his love poetry and 25 of his 116 surviving poems are written to Catullus’ great love Lesbia. This is a literary pseudonym he uses so as to not reveal her real name. He uses this name because Catullus was a great admirer of the female poet Sappho at the time, and he actually uses some of her poetry as his own and adds a few lines at the end (Catullus 51). Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, and this was how the name Lesbia arose that Catullus used so often.

The woman that Catullus has named Lesbia is Catullus’ lover. The earlier poems discuss the romantic and whirlwind romance Catullus and Lesbia have and they are very happy poems. However as the poems continue Catullus starts to doubt the faithfulness and trust he has in Lesbia because he believes she is having an affair. Lesbia was said to be a very attractive woman and many men were in love with her. Catullus often writes about the hatred he has for the men that stare at her. To Catullus, Lesbia is the love of his life, but we get the idea from his poems that Lesbia is not as invested in the relationship as Catullus is. Catullus turns out to be one of a long list of lovers that Lesbia is juggling. The later poems of Catullus are him writing in a rage because of his hatred for Lesbia and how she has treated him.

I think this poem is written Catullus is starting to realise the truth behind the relationship he has with this woman, but he loves her so much he cannot stand to let her go. He hopes that she can “promise truthfully”  as he knows she can easily lie, and he also prays to the gods because he hopes their divine power can make her love him truly and be the only lover she has. He wishes so badly that they are able to stay together for the whole of their lives because he loves her so dearly but he is doubting whether this is possible and whether Lesbia can actually promise something truthfully to him at all.

TOK Presentation

Our group is Holly, Chidera and I and we came to discussing the idea of power and its link with happiness and how does our idea of happiness affect how we interpret the idea of power. After much discussion we have come up the title:

How do varying perceptions of happiness determine the exercising of power?

Well actually Mr Saha has tweaked our question so we are finally going to ask

“Is it justifiable for the government to aim to promote happiness?” 

To be continued…

Reason vs Emotion

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”

I think this debate has been discussed, argued and contemplated for centuries upon centuries since the start of philosophy itself. Does the way of knowing reason actually oppose emotion? Do they conflict in such a way that means the knowledge they ‘find out’ conflict each other? Or are they simply just completely different ways of knowing that can actually be used together to find the truth?

I think reason combines:

  • logic
  • rational explanation
  • reasonableness
  • finding the truth

It uses these things to come to a sensible conclusion with evidence. Reason is the ‘logical’ way to establish fact from fiction. Reason is often associated with thinking, intellect, and intuitiveness. It is the rational way of solving a problem and is immensely useful at solving problems.

Many people may hold the view that reason opposes emotion. Emotion is a complex way of our brains reacting to the experiences we have with our external environment. Emotion is made up of:

  • temperament
  • mood
  • personality
  • behavior

Emotions are very powerful things that I find are quite hard to get your heard around and understand what they actually are. I do Biology HL and we are simply made up of millions of cells that contain DNA, ribosomes and many other tiny things. To think that these minute units of life are able to stir up a reaction to an external event, whether it be happiness, anger, nervousness, admiration, sadness… the list could go on forever, I think is quite extraordinary.

Rationalism is a belief that emphasises the importance of reason in knowledge and it is the foundation of certainty in knowledge. This is often contrasted to empiricism. This is the belief that knowledge primarily comes through sensory experience and it values experience and emotion as a foundation for knowledge also. So how do both ideas relate to one another?

I think that 99% of the decisions we make, problems we solve, and conclusions we come to in life are brought about by a combination of reason and emotion. For example we do not just react solely to emotion e.g. you do not hit (hopefully) the person you are angry with, although you may be suppressing the feelings to do so, because it is not reasonable to do so. And of course it works the other way; you do not solely act through reason e.g. it may be reasonable to turn off the machine of someone with a HERE disease, but instead you give them respite care because it is not ethical to not do so.

Therefore I think that emotion and reason are completely different ways of knowing but need to be integrated to come to a sound and justified conclusion. When encountered with a situation that requires you to think what to do before you act, you first have an idea based on your emotion and reaction to the situation. These are our instincts.

For example you may feel angry as someone has said something hurtful about a friend and your first reaction is to shout at the speaker. However this is when reason kicks in in your brain. You realise it may not be reasonable to shout at this person because of where you are or what is going on, therefore you end up combining emotion and reason to speak to the person calmly about why you are angry. This of course is just one example; there are millions more. But I do think that emotion first, reason follows, fits in with the majority of them.

Animals are species that act completely on instinct as they do not have the brain capacity to reason a situation through. Their lives are very different to ours because of this. As we have become more civilised human beings as a race, I think that reason has increased more and more in our brains when dealing with everyday dilemmas.  It sounds silly, but throughout history someone may have just killed someone because they were angry with him. Since the introduction of ethics, reason has taken a higher stand in our decision making and meant that we do not always act on our instinctual emotions and we may think things through with emotion and reason before we come to a reasonable conclusion.