Tuesday, 12 February 2013

What is reality?

There is an element of personal freedom connected with physical reality, but it’s one we don’t often hear. I wonder why?

For example, when we see a rainbow, what do we really see? I depends how complex the answer we are looking for, but does the rainbow exist out there in the real world?

Let’s forget the science behind rainbows and think about how we see it.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Not my taste, so try this rather more prosaic quote from the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing save through ideas of modifications of its body.
Baruch Spinoza – Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata

What Spinoza means is both obvious and to my mind indisputable. Our direct perception of external reality comes through our senses, so it is an effect on our own body that we sense when we look at a rainbow – not the rainbow itself.

The issue is one of stimulus and response where what we experience directly is the response – never the stimulus. The stimulus is what we infer – or use as poetic inspiration.

So how did Wordsworth know the rainbow was a rainbow? For me it was his faith in what he saw and what social conditioning had told him to see.

The optical effect creating the rainbow is out there in the real world and in general we can trust our own eyes and what scientists and even poets tell us about rainbows, but the nature of external reality is always a matter of faith.

In everyday life, this faith may be so extremely dependable that we never think of it as faith, but faith is all it can ever be - unless we prefer to call it conditioning.

So how about electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus? Well, to begin with we know that whatever electrons do within an atom, they aren’t orbiting the nucleus in the same way our moon orbits the Earth. So I think it is easy enough to see, that belief in electrons and in their supposed behaviour within atoms is certainly a matter of faith. Scientific findings generally are matters of faith, however secure we may feel that faith to be.

I happen to think that much established science is a very secure – on a par with everyday life. I also think that some of our more recent, esoteric, state-funded and statistical science is not at all secure and my faith in these areas not strong.

Or maybe I should qualify this and say that my faith in the scientists who work in these areas is weak, because science is about people isn’t it? Science is not a magic knowledge net cast around the whole of reality as some seem to suppose.

The link to individual freedom is obvious, because in the end we have to fathom reality in our own way and to our own satisfaction. Only individuals respond to stimuli – institutions obviously can’t.

Yes there are social pressures, social conditioning and the boundaries imposed by language, but in the end my beliefs about external reality are a matter of personal faith – as are yours.

Everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed.
Baruch Spinoza - Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.


Demetrius said...

Youtube "Theres A Rainbow Round My Shoulder" the Dean Martin rendering is wonderfully kitsch.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - he never looks entirely sober to me. Still, by all accounts...

James Higham said...

So how did Wordsworth know the rainbow was a rainbow? For me it was his faith in what he saw and what social conditioning had told him to see.

But mainly what his senses told him he saw.

A K Haart said...

James - and his faith in them.