The 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