Author; correspondent for The Economist
Professor, Women's and Gender Studies Department, Rutgers
Former chair at Collège de
France, Paris, and professor at the University of Toronto
Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative
at Indiana University, Bloomington
When Amy Pollard suspected her husband was having an affair, she hired a private detective to investigate. Within weeks, she became certain of his infidelity and filed for divorce. It was a sad tale that has become familiar in the modern world, but with a twist: the transgression took place only in cyberspace. Yet to Mrs. Pollard, the betrayal was real. Actions taken in a virtual world had effects in the more tangible one.
What is reality? It is a fascinating topic that has been explored by physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, and psychologists who have examined the relationships between truth, belief, evidence and knowledge, and the roles of shared experience and of memory.
Reality can be transient. Unicorns used to be real, until the fossil record cast doubt on their existence. They are still discussed in stories, where they remain valid ideas agreed upon by storytellers and their audiences. Should the mineralized former skeleton of one ever be unearthed, or should a live specimen come trotting out of the forest, then unicorns would once again achieve a corporal reality.
Reality can also be shadowy. Physicists think that some 80 percent of the matter in the universe is “dark,” which they detect from its influence on visible matter. No one knows what dark matter is, but its reality is mostly accepted. One interpretation of the bizarre world of quantum mechanics contains cats that are simultaneously both alive and dead, while another has parallel universes, one of which contains a living feline and the other a corpse. Yet the theory provides a sound explanation of events in the real world.
Even the electrons that supply power to the computer on which you are reading this text are fundamentally mysterious, and some philosophers argue that electrons are not real. Is there any link between the former Mrs. Pollard’s version of reality, the communally agreed-upon definition envisioned by Wittgenstein, and the competing quantum-mechanical versions held by Niels Bohr and Hugh Everett? I am delighted to be moderating this discussion among our distinguished panellists, and I very much looking forward to reading both their thoughts and those of our readers.
It is significant that the distinction the Greeks developed between what is real, ontology, and what we know of this reality and how we know it, epistemology, has been strongly challenged over the last century: what is real is primarily addressed through what knowledge we may have. It is only in the last two decades that questions of the real, its nature, status, and force, have returned. There are now a number of competing ontologies just as there are many different concepts of epistemology: is the real what we access only through our senses? Does it require a knowledge beyond experience? Is it linked to the attainment of a model of order, a pattern?
For me, the most significant question in contemporary philosophy, one that flows over into not only the arts but also into new ways of understanding culture and pollitics, is how we can understand the real as full, as a positivity, as something that does and that acts rather than requires knowledge, order, or structure through some form of human agency. The real preexists the human; indeed, it must preexist life itself. This means that it cannot be reduced to our conceptions of it; rather, our conceptions, our very capacities to conceptualize and to make, are made possible by the active forces of the real.
The real is constituted through the interaction and alignment of forces that form events: temporary forms of coming together of objects, relations, and energies. Events make up the real. The real is composed of billions of events, of which we ourselves are only one living example. The forms of knowledge and human engagement with the real—philosophy, art, and science—are human (and animal) modes of living, forms of living with and in events. The real is that which resists our will or consciousness; the real is that which exists outside. It is the force of the outside. What we know, how we act and make, are forms of living with or surviving the forces of the real that we neither make nor control.
Art is one of the most consistent ways in which we can address the real, whether it is art associated with religious belief and the immaterial or art that aims to address imperceptible material forces that can in no other way be perceived. Art is the way in which the forces of the real can live and affect living beings. This explains both art’s prehuman origins in the songs of birds, the colors of flowers, and elsewhere, as well as its pervasive power in human existence. Art makes elements of the real that are otherwise inaccessible capable of being felt, lived, and represented.
I look at one of Lee’s Relatum pieces and ask, “Is that a real stone?” (as opposed to papier-mâché). “Is that a real plate of steel?” (as opposed to painted plywood). In general, one asks, “Is that a real so-and-so?” with some plausible something-else in mind. What’s plausible depends on context. In a pile of rubble on Long Island the worry might be, “Is that a real stone or just a fractured lump of cement?” Or in the Guggenheim: “Is this a real installation—or another type of art, a holographic image?”
Get real, I want to say. In real life and real conversation, “Is it real?” without a noun in the offing is an idle question.
What about the Pollards? You get into a philosophical mess if you think about them in the abstract.
To judge by photos, neither partner is the tanned, medallioned swinger one might imagine. I am happy they found each other, and sad that it all fell apart.
They met online, playing a Game in which each player chooses a character and simulates physique, relationships, and sex. Each Pollard became fond of the other’s virtual Avatar, so they arranged to meet in real life.
One scenario: They fell in love and said, we can now fulfill our emotional lives together and forget about the Game. Mr. Pollard, however, started on a new intense relationship, including simulated sex, with another Avatar.
Alison Goddard writes, “To Mrs. P, the betrayal was real.” Not just “to Mrs. P.” It was a real betrayal, as opposed to a misunderstanding. It was not real adultery, if that requires copulation, more than simulation.
Another scenario: They never had any such understanding. Mrs. P thought they had, but Mr. P thought their marriage did not exclude an open marriage in the Game. To Mrs. P it felt like betrayal, to Mr. P it did not. It was a tragic misunderstanding that would have been better brought to a marriage counselor than a detective.
Again: Mr. P knew full well that Mrs. P wanted total emotional commitment, but he enjoyed simulation cheating. That’s how he gets his kicks. Dump the guy! Good riddance.
In all these scenarios, it is what Mr. P did in front of his computer that is or is not betrayal. It only breeds confusion to say that what happened in virtual reality had an effect in, well, “reality.” (If after a while the Avatars ran themselves, Mr. P would no longer be responsible for what happened in the Game.)
My message so far is, look at the details. Go small. What about unicorns? That’s easy. What about Quantum Mechanics? That’s hard. For next time, maybe.
At life’s start, what’s “real” is extremely limited. It includes hunger, food, pain, noise, parents, toys, and smiles. Gradually reality broadens, encompassing cars, friends, houses, games, words. . . . A traveling toddler becomes aware of “something else” out there, but it remains ill-defined. Airplanes and airports become somewhat real, as do “distant places.” As we grow, geographical regions—blocks, neighborhoods, towns, states, countries, continents—come into focus. However, our expanding horizon depends increasingly on vicarious rather than first-hand experiences: books, movies, newspapers, websites. . . .
The reality of a hurricane in some faraway place comes from invisible sources in which we trust. Few people try to figure out how such trust arises, and what might be reasons for mistrust. The argument by authority tells us that a composer named “Bach” once composed certain pieces of music, and we assign great reality to this, and to thousands of similar notions—that there are hundreds of countries around the globe; indeed, that Earth is a globe; that there is a Solar System; that there are other planets; that the night sky’s bright pinpricks are inconceivably distant burning spheres, much like the Sun. We also trust findings about things too small to see. Our trust starts with magnifying glasses, revealing secrets of leaves and insects; some of us proceed to optical microscopes, which show things we’d never dreamt of; we believe in their reality because “seeing is believing”. In some people, a process of extrapolation starts—we jump to belief in things far tinier yet: cells, DNA, proteins, atoms, electrons, photons, quarks. . . . The evidence for these, however, grows ever more abstruse; most people give up long before this stage. Thus such submicroscopic “things” have at best a ghostlike reality for most people—often no reality at all.
Much realer to typical adults are salaries, movie stars’ romances, sales in malls—and sunsets. But does the sun really set? Everyone knows the earth’s turning makes the sun appear to go down in the west, but our language doesn’t reflect that idea. Probably every language on earth has a term for “sunset” but I suspect none has a standard term for “earth’s rotation making the horizon occlude the sun.” What is “real” about a sunset?
What each of us considers realest is inevitably egocentric, rooted in what’s easiest to see, touch, imagine. Thus for me, a hangnail is realer than thousands of starving people in a far-off land. This sounds pathetic, but I spend far more time biting my hangnails than in trying to save starving people—and I suspect the same holds for most adults. We live in a vast network of which the closest, most human-size things are realest. Huge invisible phenomena, such as the “wave” sweeping across America for years towards first-naming people one doesn’t know, are hardly what springs to mind when someone asks, “What’s real?”
People who believe in the power of abstraction and extrapolation via analogy may extend their realities far beyond soap operas and People magazine, but we all stop short at some point. The human mind cannot grasp more than a certain amount. What might be “super-real” if only we knew about it is nonexistent to us. Who ever thinks about the Andromeda galaxy’s hundreds of billions of stars, probably home to billions of planets, perhaps to millions of intelligent civilizations? Our hangnails win the competition for reality hands down (so to speak).