Game Inventories (5): EverQuest and MUDs
What is Reality? (2): Subject and Object

What is Reality? (1): Belief and Reality

The EncounterThe science fiction novelist Phillip K. Dick suggested that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion. It might be surprising to realise, therefore, that it encodes a perspective on reality that emerges in the philosophy of Plato some two millennia ago, and receives new codification in the last few centuries by Descartes and Kant. Given that the concept of reality has in effect been constructed by these philosophers, should we be cautious about thinking that questions of reality are merely matters of common sense?

Dick’s adage contrasts belief and reality, suggesting in effect two key relationships between the two: belief in reality, which is marked by nothing being changed in the world by that belief, and belief against reality, which is marked by creating something that is not real and that which thus disappears when it is no longer believed. Note that core to this understanding is not reality, which is admitted to be a blurred affair in this conception, but belief.

The twentieth century was marked not by challenges to this model of reality, but by ethical conflicts over the meaning of beliefs. On the one hand, the early twentieth century positivists proposed that we ought not engage in belief against reality since it is nonsense, a simple and honourable position sadly elevated to a cultural war by certain atheists at the century’s close. On the other, various kinds of anti-realists proposed that we ought to recognise that reality is constructed by belief, and thus ‘belief in reality’ is nonsense, a position taken by positivists as anti-scientific (and therefore wrong, both morally and practically).

What both positions have in common is that they are both modern, which is to say, they are a product of the philosophical changes wrought in Europe in the Reformation era (16th century) and by the Enlightenment (18th century), which bequeath us ‘the modern age’. One of the most fascinating things about early twenty first century philosophy is its obsession with creating distance from the modern, an ethos captured beautifully in Bruno Latour’s book title We Have Never Been Modern. If we want to understand reality – and thus see beyond the juxtaposition of ‘belief versus reality’ – we have to see where modern reality comes from, and also take stock of where it might be going.


The Porous Self in an Enchanted World

There was no reality prior to the modern era. It is not until the 1540s that the term was used to mark the quality of real, and a century later before it was first used to mean ‘everything that is real’. Prior to this, there was no such term in usage, nor any particular need for it. This can be a difficult idea to absorb since ‘reality’ is a central concept to our time, and it can be hard to imagine what came before.

In his epic work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the changes in our understanding of the world over the last five centuries, and provides an extremely detailed description of the European mythos immediately prior to the modern era. At the core of this is the notion of a porous self in an enchanted world, where the influence of spirits and things-with-power is a lived experience. This is a markedly different understanding to the distinction between self and world (mind and matter) that originates in Descartes. Taylor writes of this time:

..the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us… The porousness of the boundary emerges here in the various kinds of “possession”, all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to the various kinds of domination by, or partial fusion with, a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory”, or “belief”.

Here we have a way of being in the world that entails an intense vulnerability, and a corresponding anxiety. Dark magic and unseen spirits could enter into a person and change them, affect them, creating a need for protection from such influence. Thus, villages were grateful to the clergy for keeping a holy relic, since the power and influence of that item would suffuse the entire region, offering everyone living nearby some measure of protection. This is the essence of the porous self concept that Taylor back-projects from our own utterly contrary understanding of ourselves.

What happens immediately prior to the Enlightenment, and largely as a result of the philosophy of Descartes, is the emergence of a kind of buffered self that has no such permeability, and this in turn leads to what Max Weber in the nineteenth century calls the “disenchantment of the world”. Descartes work is itself part of a lineage of philosophy and theology, and inherits important influences from Augustine’s work, which (Taylor explains in The Sources of the Self) cross-bred Plato’s vision of cosmic order and reason with Jewish theism. It is Augustine, Taylor attests, who introduces an inwardness of our reflexivity, and this leads to Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’, I think therefore I am.

Descartes’ cogito, the individual mind, emerges from Descartes’ commitment to doubt everything, to discard all belief and then attempt to rebuild on sure foundations. This radical thorough-going doubt is very different from Plato’s philosophy, but takes from it a division into a true world ‘outside’ and an experience of the shadow of that world, now placed ‘inside’ a mind. Descartes radical doubt gives us the contemporary sciences, and thus the positivism that undermines belief, which is a great irony since Descartes was a dedicated theist and thought his philosophy was providing an ultimate proof to the reality of God.

Once the mind is severed from reality, as Descartes effectively pioneered, we gain the new concept of a buffered self that is not subjected to the porous influence of dark or holy forces around us. Instead, we gain a subject, and against it, the objects that it perceives. In this modern view, which we have inherited, our individual self is not vulnerable in the way the medieval mythos entailed since an insurmountable gap has been opened up between us, and the world around us. It is this gap that is required to make sense of the concept of reality.

Next week, the final part: Subject and Object

The opening image is The Encounter by Curtis Verdun, which I found here on his website, Art by Abstraction. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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Ask me for one picture of my images and your allowed them by given credit.
Interesting read as always.

These pieces are enlightening for curious and moderately informed persons. Thanks for posting this.

On the subject of "disenchantment," I was reminded of Tolkien, as that's essentially the subject of all his creative works: the process of conversion from a romantic and "glamorous" shared belief in a world filled with inexplicable and uncontrollable forces to a shared belief that everything has a comprehensible and controllable explanation.

For me, there are two consequences of this disenchantment I find most interesting. One is the loss of innocent faith in a kind universe. That's not only arguably Tolkien's primary concern, it's also what's dramatized in The Matrix: the stripping away of the veil of belief to reveal reality. This makes for a good story because it's a hard choice: do you prefer a pleasant illusion or an often brutal truth ("the desert of the real")? Disenchantment is the process of being forced to make that choice.

The other consequence of interest to me is the growth of faith in control. If there is a clockwork universe operating according to physical laws independent of belief, then if we can understand those laws -- that is, if we can create and spread beliefs that describe those laws with reasonable accuracy -- then we can control those processes. I suspect much of our modern world is explained by the adoption of the worldview that effective control is always possible. To understand a thing as an externally real object or process is to gain the power to control it.

Which leads me to wonder: in a pre-realism culture, is the thought "knowledge is power" even conceivable?

And with that, I return to my magical world of project management and its pleasant illusion of control. :)

Hi Bart,
The question of disenchantment is an interesting one, and Tolkien is a great figure to bring in here. Not only, as you imply, does The Lord of the Rings deal with the issues in turn-of-the-century Britain by projecting it into his legendarium, but he expresses concerns about this in ways that are not often taken into account. There is much more to be said here.

The question as to whether 'knowledge is power' is an adage that could be given meaning prior to the buffered self is cogent: we have to ask whether there is a relationship between Descartes' split into subject and object (which the second part of this looks at) and the 'faith in control' you reference. It seems to me your supposition has legs, that this is all tied up in the same transformation. The clockwork universe mythology failed - but its ideology kept rolling, because it was tied to the new epistemology, which never went away.

It is apparent that, prior to the Reformation and Enlightenment, knowledge was left to monks, who had little to no power. Afterwards, the nobility began to take their education much more seriously. There is much to ponder here.

Many thanks for commenting, and apologies for the delay in replying (I have been uncommonly swamped!).



And also, hello Malte!
Thanks! I am always looking for images... if you have some to share with me, or a link to where I can find them, please do let me know! It's been a while since I had a supply of images that I had direct permission to use, instead of just taking them. ;)

All the best,


It is good to note that the term existent (used usualy for reality) ( which means to emerge, appear is another form of extensive i.e that which has non-zero dimensions.

But what if it has zero duration, i.e it is NOT persistent? So persistent is also a necessary characteristic of reality. Note that extensive is used and NOT infinite (we dont know that it is infinite, what infinite means anyway, we know it is extensive), and persistent instead of eternal (we dont know it is eternal, what eternal means anyway, we know it is persistent).

One could say now ok, what else is needed?

Actualy what is still missing is what correlates the extensive (global, non-zero dimensions) with the persistent (non-zero duration), i.e consistency.

Maybe some would like to attack the consistency characteristic of reality for a number of reasons. But it is what correlates the necessary extensive and persistent characteristics. If these are not correlated, they do not unite. And this is consistency (one can go on here and link this to other fields like physics but this is a whole study).

Does the above mean or imply that reality is (necessarily) static? Nope.

(following a line of argument from another post discussion here)


I live in a lousy lab and have a lousy vat for a body for crying out loud!

-- Brain in a Vat (

Hi Nikos,
Interesting commentary, although definitely tangential to the thrust of this piece! I think you're talking about reality in a way most people would recognise and appreciate, but it's not where my head is with regards the real, as this two-parter indicates.

Cheers for getting involved! Apologies for slow response times... horribly busy right now.

All the best,


No problem Chris, but it would be good to expand a bit on that other argument we developed, and you were also a bit interested. So this seemed a good place to expand abit on it.


A summary of approaches to reality (or philosophy for that matter), would need at least some reference to approaches like dialectical materialism, Hegelian dialectics, and the likes of continental philosophy.

Some object due to other reasons, but intellectual honesty should not be influenced by this. If not for anything else, that if there are criticisms tangential to these approaches, which then are used as reasons to not be discussed, similar can indeed be made for other or more popular, modern, etc.. approaches.

In any case, all the best,

Hi Nikos,
I am not seeking in these two pieces to provide an exhaustive catalogue of approaches to reality, but only to provide the background to the contemporary concept of 'reality' (part 1), and discuss the pressures currently upon it (part 2). A complete summary of approaches to 'reality' would be a giant undertaking, and would take me far beyond my interests. I just wanted to make the point that (a) reality is a relatively new concept and (b) it is a concept we can change.

However, I perhaps came close to attempting a catalogue in this piece A Deck of Realities. But my thinking on reality and ontology was still quite vague at this point, I think, and I would probably approach this differently now.



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