Does Reality Exist? If It Does, Can We Know Anything About it?

We have a responsibility to balance the known and the unknowable

By Ben Callif

The ideas in this article are based on this video, Subjectivity and Objectivity by The Paradox Perspective.

It may pain you to hear this if you are scientifically-minded, but some things are simply outside the scope of rationality — knowledge can never be absolute. Our beliefs about objective reality seem to be indefinitely split between faith and doubt. Even highly rational people can agree with this, because it’s a kind of faith to believe that everything can be known.

On this topic, Albert Einstein once wrote:

… a conflict between [science and religion] appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be…

Einstein

And while scientific and religious methods cannot technically conflict, rational and mystical thinkers are often at odds with each other. Where science and mysticism inevitably clash is over the concept of objective reality (i.e., some unchanging, external place that exists independently from any and all perception).

Image Credit: Max Pixel

Many people make the mistake of thinking that there are absolute facts, or knowable truths that exist independently of subjectivity. In other words, we imagine that there are things we could know that would continue to be true if every human suddenly disappeared from the universe. These facts are contrasted with opinions, or beliefs that are disconnected from a verifiable objective reality. But, in a logical, scientific framework there are no facts — there are only well-evidenced theories. Nothing in science is ever proven, because the scientific method works through falsification. Science is not like math or symbolic logic in which statements can be definitely true or false. Within the framework of scientific theory, a fact is simply something that has been shown repeatedly and has yet to be falsified; scientific knowledge is a set of not-yet-falsehoods constructed from the results of repeatable tests.

Despite what some scientists might say, the goal of science is not to determine the ultimate and final nature of reality. Science actually works through consilience, which means the convergence of evidence across independent viewpoints (a form of precision rather than accuracy). In other words, the worldview constructed from scientific results is nothing more than our current best guesses composed from many empirically tested opinions. But this description is in no way meant to deconstruct the power of scientific theory. Unlike religious beliefs — which are more or less determined by the whims of a small set of powerful men and texts — scientific opinions are democratic and tend to be mutually reinforcing due to their rigor, reproducibility, and falsifiability. This does not make science foolproof, but it does provide scientific consensus with a predictive ability that cannot be matched by religious frameworks.

On the flip side of the coin, spiritual, religious, and otherwise mystical thinkers make the mistake of thinking that their personal experiences and subjective perspectives are equivalent to objective reality. Many people assume that spirituality can be studied, or even explained in the current framework of science. This assumption characterizes scientific results as somehow approximating a true or objective reality — a characterization that I consider to be a serious error. Instead, I prefer to take subjective experiences and beliefs as their own form of data, in what Daniel Dennett calls the study of heterophenomonology. This means that (for the purposes of pragmatism) each individual perspective gets treated as a reality of its own. In this framework, objective reality is not some place that exists independently from conscious perspective. Instead, reality is simply the holistic totality of all perspectives. In a more mystical parlance, this is known as the principle of mentalism, which states: All is mind. The universe is consciousness and consciousness is the universe.

The Millenium Simulation: a model of the evolutionary history of the cosmos created by the principal supercomputer at the Max Planck Society’s Supercomputing Centre. The simulation evokes a visual comparison to the structure of the neuronal networks in our brains.

One reason that subjectivity and objectivity may seem opposed is because the convergence of scientific evidence often conflicts with our personal realities. For example, one study might say that spanking predicts domestic violence in adulthood, and our subjective experience will respond: “I was spanked and I’m not violent!” Another study might say that all matter is made of extremely tiny particles that are mostly empty space, and our subjective experience will respond: “well, I’m not mostly empty space! I’m solid!” And yet, both the scientific objective consensus and the personal subjective experience can be true at the same time. Our personal experience may differ from the results of rigorous studies, but there is no need to assume that scientific statements are the end-all-be-all of objective reality. After all, the universe as we know it is nothing but perspective — even the interpretation of any scientific result is inherently based on perspective.

By definition, we can’t know anything but our own viewpoint. But this does not make our perspective perfect. Anything we think we know about some reality outside of ourselves is nothing but an approximation of ourselves. This is what I call the paradox perspective — the inability of any perspective to know anything that is not itself. All paradoxes are an emergent result of this paradox of consciousness, that perspective can never entirely know its own being. As soon as a perspective describes the entirety of its own existence, there is suddenly a new thing that the perspective must describe: the holistic description of the holistic description; describing yourself creates a new version of yourself that is not described by the initial description.

Conscious identity as a holistic description of a holistic description of a holistic description… Image Credit: Jennifer Garcia, Wikimedia Commons

In this way, our perceptual reality is broken down into two distinct aspects: the thing that does the describing (what some have called ‘the self’ or ‘Zen’) and the resulting description (what some have called ‘the ego’ or ‘persona’). One is untouchable, indescribable, and holistic, while the other demands to be divided and reduced. Truly, these two aspects are one in the same: yin and yang, feminine and masculine, the forest and the trees. And while both elements are present in all things, the current historical moment is highlighting the differences between the duality. It seems as though the polarization has never been more obvious, and both holistic and reductionistic extremism is running rampant.

So what is there to be done about extremism? Personally, I uphold my own standards by striving for balance between the known and the unknowable. From my studies and experiences I have concluded that dangerous fanaticism arises from one of two imbalances between these forces: 1) when reverence for the unknown is not informed by what we know, and 2) when what we know is not kept in check by the awareness that we cannot know everything. Skepticism is clearly useful for avoiding danger and deception, and belief is undoubtedly valuable for living a life of purpose and meaning. But nothing good can come from the transformation of skepticism into cynicism or the distortion of belief into zealotry.

I’ll leave you with another quote (technically two quotes) from Einstein:

…let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. … The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it.

Einstein

I won’t go so far as to tell you what you should do, but I know that my personal morality hinges upon the interface between subjectivity and objectivity. I feel responsible for maintaining a perpetual state of conflict within myself through two equal and opposite principles: 

  1. uncertainty through the acceptance of other people’s subjective realities, and 
  2. awareness that my subjective reality has an impact on my surroundings, other people, and myself.

To me, the interplay between these forces is as close to objectivity as I can hope to get.

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