Some Observations about Reality

by Maurizio Bisogno

My first line, then, will be a question about reality and sense perception. Without making any erudite reference, I should phrase it as it follows: is what I call reality given to me by my perception? (I do not mean only external perception, but internal perception as well).

What I see, what I hear, what I touch, what I smell, what I taste, what I feel, what I remember, what I know: all those aspects contributes to my idea of what is real. And in this sense, the idea of reality can be subjective or relative to me. Then I found myself wondering: how do I know that what I think is real is not just a product of my mind?

Suppose that I am convinced, as in fact I am, that there is desk in front of me: I can see its colours, its shape etc.; I observe something outside of my body and of my mind and I know this thing it’s there. In the case of a dream, for example, I seem to know that something is happening during my sleeping time, then I wake up and I tell myself “it was only a dream”; does it mean that it was not real? But during the dream I had sensations, I saw things, I had feelings, I was scared, I was happy, I heard voices, nearly in the same way I do when I am not dreaming. Does it mean that if I am scared during a dream, it is not “really” happening? Or should I say that the dreaming context is of a different kind of reality, but my psychological state is a real one indeed?

Let’s go back to the observation of the external world, when we say that we are not dreaming, so when, we could say, our consciousness is in a state of awareness: I immediately see one thing: I use my system of perception, I move my body, etc. intentionally. The intention is the word. I open the eyes, moving them around me or closing them intentionally. But I can’t shut my ear. I can’t avoid feeling pain if I am burned. So some part of my system perception remains unintentional, while I have a high degree of control on the other. Then my question becomes:

How important the unintentional part of my body and perception system is in creating my concept of reality?

If I go on with this kind of question I will meet the crucial series concerning the Other: how do I know that WE have the same concept of reality? And how can relate with the others if we don’t have a common vision about what is real? There must surely be some way to understand each other on this point, otherwise how can I even hope to be understood by someone else? When I ask to somebody something like “Can you switch on the light please?”, if this person moves and the light goes on, then we have some kind of understanding: we both know what is a light, what is switching on the light, etc. So I believe there are concepts and objects the meaning of which cannot be grasped so easily. For example, if I try to describe my dream I am not sure of what the other person is going to grasp. Am I then entitled to say that there are different levels of understanding?
Who can say for example which is the right definition of normality? What kind of reality has for us what we see on a television screen? If there were no mind or body to perceive those signals, what kind of reality would they been? When we watch a film we believe that what is on the screen is happening, even though we know that “it is only a film”. If I am sceptical I can’t really watch that film, but I start to look at the screen itself, at the stream of light going trough the room, at the heads of the people around me, I hear the noise in the room more than the film noises, etc.

It seems that my concept of reality depends from the state of the mind, from what we believe; and we can believe in something, even though for a limited time, which we know is not real. Or something is real when we believe it.

I would say that to start in establishing our concept of reality we should start by improving our understanding of concrete things: the material objects around us, our body itself; we start by having a clear perception of this level of reality. Then we look for the agreement of others people about those things, we ground our believes on a solid layout.

What happens then when we wish to go beyond this level, when for example we wish to find an agreement about the Good, the Evil, when we search for a common concept of a Value? When Socrates and Plato in their dialogues searched for the definition of abstract things like the general concept of Justice, they aimed something that our senses could only partially discover or not at all. My eyes cannot see the Justice itself, but they can see a particular context in which I think there is something just which is working. When I see a picture I can understand and judge it beautiful, but I have never seen the Beauty itself. And I can even wonder if the Justice, the Beauty itself exist at all.

It appears to me, more and more, that the concept of reality depends on my consciousness, on my awareness even though I cannot say that this latter is free to build independently a concept of reality. I would go further and say that, the more my consciousness depends on the others and on the external world in the process of constructing my concept of reality, the more this concept is “sharable”.