The reality is the set of phenomena considered to actually exist. This concept designates what is physical, concrete, as opposed to what is imagined, dreamed or fictional. Although its use is initially philosophical, particularly in its ontological branch, it has integrated common language and given rise to specific uses, particularly in science.
Reality: essence and sensitivity
For the philosophers of antiquity, reality is manifest in two worlds: that of essences, and that of the sensible.
The reality of the world of essences is in particular the domain of metaphysics and religions.
For Plato, it is necessary to go beyond the sensible, fleeting and changing appearance of things, to reach the world of ideas, which founds all that exists in the sensible world, and allows its knowledge. The sensible appearance is therefore a form of illusion, in any case imperfection of the perfect archetype. Kant, on the other hand, considers that the reality for the human being is nothing other than that which appears to him, his sensitive manifestation; it is therefore phenomenal, the thing in itself being unknowable. As a result, because of this dissociation, reality is not conceived as identical or equivalent to the truth.
The philosopher Karl Popper proposed a different approach to reality. He cut the real into three worlds (Three worlds):
- the world 1 of physical objects, living or not
- the world 2 of feelings and experiences, conscious and unconscious
- the world 3 objective productions of the human mind (objects as well as theories, or works of art)
According to this approach, the contents of thought such as dreams, fictions, theories are part of the real. Reality is therefore taken in a sense of “all that exists”. However, Raynald Belay stresses in the Dictionary of Philosophical Concepts that “even if it conceptually assumes identity, permanence and univocity, reality can be invoked only against the background of a first difference between it and what one distinguishes from it (appearance, phenomenon, simulacrum, dream, illusion, idea or ideal …), which raises a difficulty, since what is not the reality and is sometimes confused with it must participate of this to demand this discrimination”.
Reality and real in psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis studies a “psychic reality” associated with the psychic apparatus: it gives reality status to the mind and studies it as a place or an apparatus, composed of different phenomena, systems or instances. For example, Sigmund Freud compared this reality to a city of ancient monuments and modern buildings. Psychoanalysis, however, does not discredit the idea of an “external reality”; it is in fact to give back its place to the psychic. The notion of relativity of reality is also studied by René Laforgue in a work of the same name.
For Jacques Lacan, the real is what objects is to knowledge. Thus, the knowledge process consists of investigating the real to build knowledge that constitutes our reality. The real is thus imposed on the subject and is characterized by the disturbing strangeness (Unheimlich). Reality, on the other hand, is part of the imaginary dimension.
Reality in science
For Max Planck, “the question of what a table really is is meaningless. The same is true of all physical concepts. The whole world around us is nothing but the totality of the experiences we have. Without them, the outside world has no meaning. Any question relating to the outside world which is not based in any way on an experience, an observation, is declared absurd and rejected as such”. Therefore, the red color is the reality for the seer and is not the reality for the blind. The notion of reality depends on lived experiences, so it is necessarily variable according to individuals.
Richard Dawkins believes that we can define reality as what can make the shots (“Reality is what can kick back“). It is, according to him, the only criterion which makes it possible to distinguish it, without possible discussion, from the illusion.
This particular definition has the effect of defining as real:
- Virtual reality (which justifies the use of the term “reality”).
- Prime numbers; indeed, no arbitrary decision can prevent a prime number from being, nor two people who have never communicated together and live on two different continents to discover the same without ever having consulted.
This position is close to that of the writer Philip K. Dick for whom “the reality is what continues to impose itself on you when you stop believing it”.
The notion of reality in constructivism
According to constructivist thought, which partially opposes realism, reality would be an experience inevitably relative to the one who apprehends it. Knowledge does not allow, in this logic, access to a “truer” perception of things; it would be rather a datum, a reality in itself, that of the experience of what is. Constructivism thus postulates reality as a construction of the mind that would always remain relative to the one who perceives it as a reality.
Edgar Morin prefers to speak of coconstructivism to avoid the image of a reality resulting from an exclusively mental construction. It expresses a “collaboration of the outside world and our spirit to build reality”.
In 1981, the collective work entitled The Invented Reality presents what the feeling of reality is, and also explains how it can evolve. This exploration is established under the direction of Paul Watzlawick, analytical psychologist, Jungian of formation, who himself wrote on the subject, in 1976, in How Real Is Real?.
Recent work by neurologist David Eagleman, and his peers, highlights the difficulties of understanding the real world. New medical imaging technologies allow to see the effects of perception at the cerebral level.
The reality according to religions
In Buddhism, which before being a “religion” is part of the heterodox schools of Indian philosophy, the relative reality is differentiated from the absolute reality which is the true “nature” of phenomena. For Buddhism, which is a “middle way” between “nihilism” and “eternalism,” this ultimate nature of reality is the absence of self or ego (anatman), emptiness. There is no thing that exists in itself (or absolutely) for a Buddhist. According to the schools, the emphasis will be more on the interdependence of phenomena, non-duality, on the mind or consciousness (citta, vijñāna) as the only reality (Cittamātra), on the “nature of Buddha”, on Transcendent Knowledge (Prajna), Awakening (bodhi), etc. Theravāda Buddhism affirms a dualism (which is of a soteriological rather than an ontological nature) between the conditioned (and ultimately unreal) phenomena (saṃsāra) and the Absolute (the only reality, the “other shore”, “Nibbāna), while Mahāyāna Buddhism affirms the ultimate identity of both as emptiness and non-duality: “all dharmas are characterized by emptiness” (Heart Sutra).
For the Abrahamic religions, reality was created and shaped by God, the creator of the world and living beings. All this is a truth revealed by the prophets of God so that believers remember where they come from and that nothing is the result of chance.