What is Reality?


Imagine that you become shipwrecked and eventually reach a small desert island. You find the island is occupied by one other person who himself was shipwrecked some time previously. He is from Japan, you are from New York. You do not speak the same language, but by using signs and gestures you are eventually able to converse. To pass the time, your new friend whose name is Lee, describes his home and family. He points to a brown tree trunk and says that is the colour of his wife's eyes. He points to your red shorts and tells you that is the colour of his car, and so on. After a time you have built up a picture in your mind of Lee's home and family. Eventually you are both rescued and you promise Lee that you will visit him in Japan.

The day arrives and you visit Lee as promised. You are not at all surprised to find that Lee's wife does indeed have brown eyes, Lee's car is red, and so on. By the power of language Lee was able to communicate all these colours to you. By using the tree, your shorts, and all the other items available, you had handy 'colour charts' that you could both relate to. You have a pleasant stay and then return home, confident in the ability of one person being able to accurately describe colour to another.

What you never knew was that Lee was colour blind, he could only see in monochrome. Every colour to him was either black, white or a shade of grey. Lee was not even aware that he was colour blind, he thought that the shade of grey he saw your shorts to be was exactly the same shade of grey that you saw them to be. So in reality, you had no idea of the colours that Lee was trying to describe to you that he had in his mind. What does this tell us?


The Crab Nebula

What is your universe like?

It tells us about perception. Perception is simply how we, as individuals, translate the information our senses relay to our brain about the external world. To continue with the colour theme, for example. Visible light, as we know, is simply the range of electromagnetic radiation which human eyes are sensitive to, typically in the range of about 380 -750 nanometres. At the limits of this range are ultraviolet radiation, (at shorter wavelengths), and infrared radiation (at longer wavelengths), neither of which are visible to our naked eye. A colour then is nothing more than a particular wavelength of radiation within that visible spectrum, blue for example being around 420 nanometres.

The reality of a shade of blue for example, is that it is radiating at the wavelength of 420nm. How I perceive it however is known only to me. The background colour of this page is a shade of light blue, we would all agree on that, but I have absolutely no idea of how you perceive it, none whatsoever, even though you would also describe it as light blue. You may be colour blind and see it as a shade of, what I would describe as, grey. On the other hand you may have 'perfect' eyesight, but your brain may perceive it to be a shade darker, or a shade lighter, or as something completely different, compared to how I perceive it to be. There is no reason at all why our brains should all perceive the same things the same way. Our experiences of life differ, our first experience of a particular object, how it is 'translated' and 'catalogued' by our brain, is unique to us.

There is absolutely no possible way for us to communicate to one another how we each perceive the world. My world, the one that my brain has processed from the input from my five senses, is in all probability very different to your world. We can both look at a red rose and agree that it is a red rose, but that's just putting a handy label on an object, it does not convey anything at all about our perception of it.

So what exactly is reality? See The Matrix


What do I think?

Reality is the actual physical universe that we exist in. The universe is the way it is regardless of how we perceive it to be. See Is there more than our five senses? A truth is a truth, it doesn't require that you believe it is true to be so. Perception, however, is how we as individuals, translate that reality into information that we can use in order to relate to the external world. In other words, we all have our own personal version of reality that we carry around in our heads, and are totally unable to relate to any other persons version of reality, or them to ours. But it doesn't change reality.

Sad isn't it, that I will never know how my wife perceives the dozen red roses I give her on our wedding anniversary; to her they may be what I would describe as yellow. I wonder what they smell like to her? Does she hear the Atlantic rollers crashing onto the beach the same way that I do? or Beethoven's Fifth? When I hold her hand, how does it feel to her? I will never know. We can never know what anyone else in the world is feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling or tasting.

We are, each of us, in our perception of the world, both unique and totally alone.

See: I think, therefore I think?

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