Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0108, Febuary 3, 2017


Words, Words, Words

"Does this picture have anything to do with what follows?" asks Prickles. No.

Copyright 2017 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski

     "Reality" is a word. A word is an arbitrary pattern (usually vocal or graphic) associated (by consensus of all the users) with memories of certain experiences characterized by a particular quality common to them all. Evocation of that particular quality in the listener's/reader's mind is the intended meaning of the word. It's not an exact process and it is dependent on context and circumstance, but, with a little care and attention, it can be effective for the purposes of practical communication. Used carelessly, or worse, with intent to deceive, words can be not only misleading and confusing but positively dangerous and destructive.

     But back to "reality": what is the meaning of the word "reality"? As commonly used it seems to refer to "all those experiences that fit, without contradiction, with a self-consistent, universal explanation of all experience". Experiences that do not fit the generally accepted explanation are considered "unreal" (i.e., illusions, misperceptions). On the other hand, if persuasive enough, they may be taken as evidence that the current explanation is inadequate and needs to be revised.

      This seems to me as good a definition of "reality" as we can come up with using words. But some philosophers (people who specialize in explaining what we experience and why) are not satisfied with this definition. This definition, they say, identifies reality with mere perception. "Reality", they say, refers to the deep ultimate cause of our experience, whatever that may be, not the experience itself which they consider to be merely a "surface" phenomenon, no more than a shadow cast by the real world.

     To which Prickles, our resident philosopher and the only hedgehog lady philosopher I know, responds thus: "Gentlemen (and ladies, if there be any), whatever leads you to the unwarranted assumption that experiencing must have a cause outside of itself? You argue that there appears to be a vast world of phenomena not directly accessible to our organs of perception which you allege may be the "real" reality behind our experiences. But who said reality is limited to our particular experiences? Let me clarify the definition of "reality" by noting that "experience" does not refer just to the experience of humans and hedgehogs but to the universe's grand experience of itself, in all its parts, as it evolves. I argue, therefore, that experience is reality and the only reality, and that it is its own probabilistic cause as it evolves from past to present and on into the future. In other words, ladies (if any) and gentlemen, the surface is all there is and all that needs to be. There is no necessity to invent and postulate any 'deeper reality'." So says Prickles in the longest speech I have ever heard her deliver. The philosophers are, for once, speechless. (They have never experienced a talking hedgehog before.)

     All of which leads us to note that all we can know for sure is what we experience. Everything else is, as Hamlet said, "words, words, words". As long as we are careful with them words can be useful. We have to be especially careful to recognize that the word "reality" refers to something of which our actual personal experience constitutes a very small yet absolutely integral part. How to put it into words without losing its essence is our challenge.


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