What is real? The question cannot be
answered in the abstract, says Ian Hacking. A stone can be real and so can a
betrayal. But what properties do they share that make them both real? And how
can one tell that which is real from that which is not?
Perhaps we could agree on what constitutes reality and definite it thus. Mr. and Mrs. Pollard met online and married in both the virtual and real worlds, before their physical relationship ended after Mr. Pollard made a real-world decision to indulge in a virtual dalliance. If they had agreed that the same rules should operate in both worlds, then it would be clear that his betrayal was real. It is because there was no such agreement that the status of the indiscretion is interesting.
Yet as Douglas Hofstadter argues, agreeing on something does not make it true. As he says, it seems likely that every language includes the term “sunset” but none has a term for “Earth’s rotation making the horizon occlude the sun” despite the second description being a more accurate description of what really happens at nightfall. Can something that is untrue also be real?
Questions about the nature of reality have existed for millennia, as Elizabeth Grosz points out. She argues that what is real exists outside the human will or consciousness, and that it preexists human life. Reality is composed of billions of events, and people need not be involved in any of them. Humanity only becomes involved once people start trying to understand the nature of facts.
Perhaps. Is reality independent of humanity? If the real world is out there, does it exist when we are not looking at it, or do we need to observe reality to bring it into existence?
Truth is what humans produce as a means by which to interpret, make sense of, and render predictable the forces that constitute the real. Truth is nothing but an effect of statements, and although we may think we feel the truth, what we feel are forces of various kinds, forces that impinge on our perceptual systems. Truth is an attempt to approximate and contain the real in a cloak of the knowable, a mode of limiting and provisionally freezing the real.
The real world is not
out there. Rather it is we that are
“out there” in it. We are
immersed in the real whatever we do, whether we frame
predictable through the efforts of science to produce repeatability, or
knowable through statements and concepts as philosophy suggests, or
we grasp it through sensations.
We are immersed in the real even when we attenuate it through forms of representation and media that immerse us up to our perceptual limits: iPods booming our favorite music, cinema teasing our vision and our forms of making order, computer-generated networks bathing us in a different real than those which we live in even as we occupy a virtual world. We are nonetheless framed by and contained within an actual world, however much we may not notice it. (An online flirtation is provocative because it is framed within a real world where flirtations may have implications.) Even more significantly, if there is a real, then it must be in us, making us up, as much as it makes possible an “out there.”
We as living beings are as real as the forces that occupy us. And the real is that which generates such beings and makes possible all their variations and modes of creation.
The real is what resists our representations of it as unmediated truth. The real is itself before truth, before language, before living beings can come to inhabit and understand. It is the forces that enable life, language, and knowledge to be possible, even as they remain limited forms of access to the real. The real is the ongoing provocation of representation, of language, of truth, as well as the condition for the problematization of any existing representations, images, truths. It is what we feel, but it is also more than what we can possibly feel, for it is the condition for all feelings, all perceptions; that is, it constitutes a world, or the condition of many worlds.
Another name for the real, or the outside, is chaos. Chaos is not the absence of order but rather a plethora of incompatible orders. There can be many incompatible truths about any event. Its reality is the condition under which truths, images, and representations, compatible or not, are generated. The real is constituted by forces that affect living beings and material relations. It is what generates problems that science, philosophy, and the arts address and make livable without extinguishing.
“A stone can be real and
so can a betrayal. But what properties do they share that make them both real?”—so
asks Alison Goddard.
A real stone and a real betrayal have NO properties in common that make them both real. In my example, the point of saying that an object in Lee Ufan’s installation is a real stone may be to say it is not papier-mâché. That is very different from the point of saying that what Mr. P did (in one set of circumstances) was a real betrayal and not just a misunderstanding or (Goddard’s word) an indiscretion. Note that to say of the same stone, “That’s a real found object,” is to say something different, e.g. that it was not crafted by the artist.
something in common among many questions of the form, “Is that a real X?” First
thing: the X (not the “real”) determines the point of the question. The noun
“wears the trousers” (to use the nicely sexist terminology of J. L. Austin, a
linguistic philosopher writing 60 years ago). [Noun X = betrayal] directs us to
one set of alternatives, [Noun X = stone] to another, and [X = found object] to
yet another set of alternatives. Second thing: the context settles which
alternatives to X are appropriate to a particular setting. In my example, what
is not a real stone in a pile of rubble might be broken concrete; in the
Guggenheim, it might be papier-mâché.
The big mistake is to treat the adjective “real” as if it named a quality like “round.” The shapes we call round do share some properties. But “real” is not that kind of adjective. I know this is terribly unsatisfying to anyone who is caught up, as Elizabeth Grosz is, in thinking out “the nature of reality.” But the first sentence in my first post shows how different are the ways in which we do philosophy: “I am the kind of philosopher who prefers four-letter adjectives to fancy nouns built out of them. ‘Real’ over ‘Reality.’”
I believe Elizabeth Grosz has important things to say about the roles of art and science when we contemplate our experience, but I would not want to try to explain them by invoking “Reality”—or “Real.”
Douglas Hofstadter puts the word “real” in what are often called scare- or shudder-quotes, as if he were not happy using the adjective as he does. (I would not be happy either.) But a word about his last question: “What is ‘real’ about a sunset?” Asked in the abstract, out of context, there is nothing to say. But in context, I am holidaying in the badlands of Utah. “Now that’s a real sunset!”—as opposed to one of those pallid things we have in Toronto.
Maybe Alison Goddard was having me on, or being the “straight man,” when she asked what real stones and real betrayals have in common!
something that is untrue also be real?” asks Alison Goddard. I would go farther
and ask, “Can something that is unreal also be real?” And I would reply,
My favorite example is Holden Caulfield, narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve read the novel many times, and each time Holden, who never existed in the flesh, has become deeper and realer to me. To put it starkly: Holden Caulfield is a million times realer to me than nearly every living human being on this planet right now. I don’t know most people, but I do know Holden; I know him extremely well. He’s had an enormous impact on my life. When I was a teenager, Holden’s way of talking—indeed, of seeing the world—deeply influenced my way of talking and seeing the world, and over the years it gradually seeped into my adult way of talking and seeing the world. A significant chunk of my soul owes its existence to Holden Caulfield.
what is, or was, Holden Caulfield? There’s not now, nor was there ever, any
physical body corresponding to the description of Holden in the book, nor is
there any cemetery where Holden’s bones have been laid to rest. But there is a pattern in my brain, and in millions of
other readers’ brains, and in author J. D. Salinger’s brain most of all, that
was created, and this pattern reacts to the world with pain, empathy, outrage,
confusion, love, and so on. I’ll call it a “subself” inhabiting my brain (and those of others). So Holden is a kind
of smaller self inhabiting my brain—a representation of a certain extremely
human way of reacting to the world, much like my brain’s representations of my
friends and family members. In fact, this pattern is a very richly “fleshed-out” representation of a
person—far richer than my representations of many people I’ve met in the flesh. This ethereal entity springs to life
inside me not only when I read the book but also on many occasions when I’m
facing one of life’s infinitely many perplexities and recall Holden’s reactions
to analogous perplexities in life. And if my
representation of Holden is rich, it’s as nothing compared with the
representation of Holden in Salinger’s
brain. For that reason, I felt doubly sad when I read about Salinger’s recent
death. Not only did one of my most admired authors pass from this earth (requiescat in pace, J.D.!), but so did
by far the richest version of Holden Caulfield on this planet (requiescat in pace, Holden!).
What I’ve said about Holden Caulfield living inside my brain (and those of others) applies to all people we know well, whether they’re living or dead, whether they ever walked the earth or merely resided as “guest subselves” inside a host brain (such as mine or Salinger’s, but of course yours too). And in fact, the real me—the real Doug Hofstadter—isn’t some 65-kilogram hunk of flesh; it’s an intangible pattern living to varying degrees in many brains, including my own, my sister’s, my children’s, and those of my close friends. When the primary brain housing this entity goes the way of all flesh, the pattern that is I will subsist to various levels of fidelity in all those brains. So what is really real, here—the physical body, or the ephemeral, intangible pattern?