What is Reality?

At first glance, this seems like a simple enough question. The term ‘reality’ is widely used on a day-to-day basis, even to describe something as vapid and inherently unrealistic as ‘reality television’. It is when one really pauses to think about this question that the fluidity and abstract quality of reality comes to the forefront. How can we define reality? Observe it? Measure it?

The next logical step in the question is to consider the senses. Clearly, reality can be observed through the physical senses, and from there, measured and defined, no? That logic can only bring us so far, though, because human senses are inherently limited. Science tells us that there are millions of colors that we as humans cannot even comprehend because our eyesight is not sensitive enough to observe them. Not only this but things like The Dress Meme are salient enough proof in pop culture that shows each observer can be seeing different things while looking at the same image. Besides this exception, through the use of language, we have formed an agreement among ourselves about what to call various colors, though we have no real way of knowing what color another person is seeing! We may both call grass ‘green’, but what I truly see when I look at your ‘green’ can possibly look to me like your neon orange, yet we both assume we are seeing the same thing! In addition to this, there are audio frequencies so low and so high that most humans may not hear them. In fact, if all of us as humans could hear extremely low frequencies, we would constantly hear the drone of radio waves coming from the sun and other sources, potentially driving us mad. An example of that concept at work is discussed here.

So for some people, the low drone of radio waves is reality but for others, it is not? Can reality be subjective or can only things that are objective be considered reality? Let me pose a hypothetical situation—an individual was born with no senses whatsoever. If you put an apple in front of them, they cannot see its shape, smoothness, shininess, or hue. They cannot feel its waxiness, or taste its sweetness. They cannot smell its juice when cut, nor can they hear its crunch. This person has no faculties to observe this apple, but does the apple not still exist? It certainly does not for our unfortunate observer! Is the apple only reality for those who can observe it, or can we consider it objective?

In any case, the logical next step one might argue is that math and science can be used to discern what reality is. This is fair, as the purpose of such great disciplines is to measure and reveal the makings of our world in an objective and reproducible way. One can measure the weight of the apple in grams, measure the sugar content, the amount of light it reflects, and more, therefore we can say it is objective reality that this apple exists, correct? Possibly, but one of the limitations of science and math is that it can only theorize about what it can measure. What about something like happiness, though? The vast majority of people in the world would agree that happiness is objectively a part of human reality, hence it being a focal point in many works of art and the lives of individuals. Even so, how can happiness be measured? What effects can we scientifically attribute to happiness or lack thereof? It is possible that the chemicals said to create happiness can be measured, but this is removed from directly measuring happiness itself—we are measuring through a proxy. This is why psychology is sometimes referred to as “pseudo-science” because many of these psychological concepts cannot be directly measured and therefore cannot technically be scientific. But does that mean they are not reality? Many of us would not use this logic to disqualify the concept of happiness, despite this fact.

As I mentioned earlier, the human capacity to gather information sensually is infinitely limited. Our brain can only comprehend what our senses can observe, and because of that, we must assume there are infinite things we cannot perceive. If there are infinite things we cannot perceive, we must also assume that reality itself is infinite—it is only limited to us because of our inability to perceive it all sensually. Something else we must understand is that no matter what, reality is always subjective. Every person sees things through their lens and their lens alone. No matter how empathetic of a person you are, you can never truly see through the eyes of another. Even an attempt to put yourself into the shoes of another is merely projecting your lens on them in a way that you would merely assume their lens operates, but there is no way to be certain of the accuracy. Even the great art of language has its limitations—the greatest wordsmiths of all time can only give a glimpse through their lens with their writing as opposed to a full picture. The same is true with artists of all kinds. If you are not convinced of the truth of this concept yet, consider this: how would you go about describing the color red to a colorblind person in a way they would be able to envision it as if you were describing the same color to someone without color blindness? How can you describe your lens at all in a way that another can see it clearly? However complex and developed our languages currently are, such a feat is still relatively impossible, at least for the time being (though I have read that in millions of years, language might be evolved enough to do this!)People can observe the same event or object and see different things. This is irrefutable proof that reality is only objective to the person observing it and we can only truly experience our own reality. Therefore reality must be inherently subjective as it can only truly be observed through our unique and infinitely limited physical senses.

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