What is Real?


This essay will explore the fundamental question of ontology. As I go, I will speak for myself (whatever 'myself' means, and whatever 'I' means) and tell you what I think about the question. But I will try to do it in such a way that you, the reader, should be able to follow my thoughts and come to the same conclusions. If you don't, then I would dearly love to hear from you so you can tell me where your conclusions differ from mine.

To start with, I do my thinking in vague concepts which I then try to express in English language statements. It is only those statements which I can record here, so you will have to use your imagination to guess at what concepts I might have had in mind when I wrote the statements. Neither of us will know how closely your concepts will have matched my concepts, if at all, but our objective should be to try to get them to match as closely as possible. If I have been careful and successful, you will get the feeling that you "understand" what I wrote and you will have a feeling of some confidence that the concept I had in mind when I wrote a particular statement is the same as the concept you imagined when you read my statement. If you don't get such feelings, then you should pose questions for me asking me what I meant, or you should tell me why you think what I said is inconsistent or doesn't make sense. I am sincerely interested in hearing this kind of feedback from each and every reader of this essay. Yes, this means you too. So here we go.

The word 'real' means actual, or extant, or existent, or to be. Could it be that nothing is real? That would mean that nothing exists, or that there is nothing. Well, I know that can't be true because I know at least that thought happens. I don't know exactly what 'thought' is, but I know I am having experiences which I call thought. I also know that those experiences change, so I used the word 'happens' to try to express the concept that the concept of thought changes. The experience of change means that there is a concept called 'time' which includes all those changes, both in the 'before' state and the 'during' state. We can use the word 'present' to refer to the experiences in the during state, and the word 'past' to refer to the before state.

I have no doubts about the reality, or existence, of the present. I am having such thoughts and experiences right now as I am typing this word. Actually, I was having the thoughts all along as I was composing and typing the previous sentence in an attempt to articulate the concept of the experience of the present moment that I was having. Of course, as I began typing the sentence, the moment and the experience I was trying to describe was no longer the moment and the experience I was having at the time I was typing. The present moment sort of stayed right with my cursor as I stared at it while I was typing.

The present moment was always the thoughts that were occurring to me as I stared at the blinking cursor, or as I watched the non-blinking cursor move across the screen as my fingers caused letters and words (these very ones you are reading now) to appear.

When I stop typing and let the cursor blink, I can look back on what I have written and see that the paragraphs represent the past. When I look at the blank white part of the screen to the right of and below the blinking cursor, I have a feeling of expectation that more words and paragraphs are going to appear there later. It is this concept of later that makes up the future.

So how much of this is real? I know for certain that the present is real. That is, I know that I am experiencing thought right now. But the past and the future are less certain. The past seems to have left traces, such as the words in this essay above those of this sentence, so at least something exists that represents the past or that contains information that seems to have been generated in the past. So while we can't say for certain that the past "is" real, it seems fairly certain that the past "was" real. That is it sure seems like some things that seem to have happened in the past actually were experiences at a time when that moment was the present.

The future is even more uncertain than the past. We don't have any extant traces of information generated by the future. The best we have is concepts like predictions, expectations, forebodings, and plans. Although these concepts don't prove the reality of the future, we can still experience feelings in the present that time will progress to the point that some of those predictions, etc. will actually happen.

Let's pause here and try to summarize what we know about reality at this point. (I will switch from using 'I' to using 'we', in the hopes that what I have been thinking and concluding has been adequately expressed here so that you, the reader, will agree with what I am saying. Please let me know if I am wrong.) We know there is something and not nothing. We know with certainty that we experience thought in the present. Since we can't be so certain about the past or the future, we really can't say we know that the past or the future exist. We can't even be certain that past "did" exist, although it seems likely that it did. Similarly, even though we can't be sure, the future probably will exist too.

In light of the uncertainty clouding the past and the future, it doesn't seem appropriate to use the word 'know' to talk about them. I might say something like "I know the sun will rise tomorrow.", or "I know what you did last Summer.", but I can't be certain. So instead, let's use the terms 'believe' or 'think'. Thus, I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, and I think you went to Spain last Summer. We can think of the terms 'belief' and 'think' as falling somewhere on a scale from 0 to 1 where 1 means that we know for certain, and 0 means that is a pure guess about which we know absolutely nothing. (My thinking that you went to Spain last Summer falls at near the zero point.)

So I know the present experience is happening, and I believe that past experiences did happen. I also believe, with a little less confidence, that future experiences will happen. Now, what might be real about the experiences themselves? Well, let's break the experience down into components if we can and then consider the components. Some of the things I experience are concepts, feelings, perceptions, and memories. These experiences are very hard for me to describe in words. One way to do it is to suppose that there is something real which I will call the world.

(Addendum, 8/31/15):

Sir Roger Penrose has called this world of experience the Mental World. He also posits that there is a separate world which he calls the Physical World, and he agrees with Plato that there must exist a world separate from those two which he and Plato call the Ideal World. In the interest of completeness, I suggest that we also consider the possibility of a Spiritual World, simply because it has been, and still is, believed to exist by so many people. So now, after having laid out the playing field for exploring reality, I will close this essay and develop the ideas in future essays, assuming there will be a future.

Paul R. Martin

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