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The Reality of Reality


Robert Stanton

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 23.3, May / June 1999

Although the conflict between objectivity and relativity is old, it’s not hopeless. There is a way of defining the conflict that can win some converts to the cause of objectivity.

Several articles in the Skeptical Inquirer have discussed a view currently popular in our universities, claiming that every value judgment or assertion that one statement is more objective or true than another (such as that science provides our most reliable account of the universe) is merely a subjective expression of personal bias.1 This view is usually attributed to deconstructionism, postmodernism, feminism, or some other recent movement. It is older than these.

I taught literature in universities for many years. I retired before postmodernism and its ilk became fashionable. From the beginning of my career, I heard views like those above, usually from students trying to persuade me to raise their grade on a test or critical essay. Typically they argued the view right after I said that their evidence did not support their conclusions. If I questioned the validity of their reasoning, they usually responded, “It’s valid for me.”

Many of them were merely trying to justify sloppy work. (Paradoxically, they justified it by denying the need for justification.) But sometimes I heard similar arguments from students whose sincerity I respected. One year I taught a small graduate seminar on Contemporary American Fiction. Each week we read a novel by a different modern author (Pynchon, Barthelme, Hawkes, Vonnegut, et al.) and one student would prime the class discussion by surveying the published criticism of the work and presenting a few questions for the class to talk about.

The discussions were fresh and fascinating because the works had not been exhaustively analyzed in print and the students were hard working, intelligent, and dedicated. But sometimes the students bogged down in an impasse they couldn't resolve. Some would still be trying to uncover the central core of the work, but others would argue that this effort was pointless because, they said, every reader experiences a work differently.

I thought about this impasse but couldn't find a way past it. Finally, in the hope that even stating the problem might help, I defined for the class what seemed to me to be the two opposing points of view. I admitted that I favored one of these, so I expected objections. To my surprise, there were none. More to my surprise (since I wasn't trying to be persuasive), I had the impression that I had won the class over to my view. Still more to my surprise, the impasses seldom occurred during the rest of the term. When similar problems occurred in other courses, I told those students about my experience in the seminar, and again, the explanation usually seemed to reduce the conflict.

I now believe that I had unwittingly defined an Hegelian synthesis of their views that both groups could live with.

We all agreed that a basic difference between the two positions was that one group believed that there are many realities, whereas the other group believed that there is only one. I called these groups “pluralists” and “monists” and described the pluralists’ position like this: “The only reality we know is what we experience. Since your experience differs from mine, your reality is different from mine. Hence there are as many realities as there are people. Those multiple realities are the only reality there is.” I think the pluralists agreed with this description. At least, they nodded. (Maybe they were just sleepy.)

The disparity appeared in our respective notions of what the monists believed. Apparently the pluralists assumed that monists-by definition, people who believe in only one reality-must also believe that they (and only they) know exactly what reality is. To the pluralists, monism sounded like bigotry.

But the monism I described, which I and the other students seemed to share, was this: There is only one reality. We don't know it completely or perfectly. We can't know it completely because it’s too big. Our spacecraft can never investigate every planet. We can't know it perfectly because our instruments aren't good enough. Besides, according to relativity and modern quantum physics (which most of us currently consider the most reliable descriptions), the universe is so weird that our minds cannot possibly form a clear image of it.

We can't even see our immediate environment directly. Instead, we construct a mental image of it and “see” that. Although there’s an image painted on our retina by light rays, we're not like cameras. We ourselves don't see an image until our optic nerves have sent their individual little bits of data up to and through a series of centers in our brain that combine and interpret these bits with the aid of knowledge stored in our memories. Our feelings help us to construct the image, but also distort it. Our emotions and cultures make some things beautiful and important, other things ugly and trivial. We continually make mistakes.

But the very fact that we know that we make mistakes and can detect and often correct them shows that there’s a reference reality out there, a “real” reality, and that we can improve our image of it. We can learn by experience and history and knowledge we get from others. None of us is always right, but some people are right more often than others (at least within their “fields”), and the rest of us would be wise to consult these people and respect and weigh their advice. We can test our knowledge with double-blind experiments and peer review. We have assembled a large and generally (though not perfectly) reliable body of information. If it is contaminated with bias, we can reduce the contamination.

I didn't say all this in the literature seminar. I didn't even explicitly connect these philosophical abstractions to the study of literature. It didn't seem necessary. Probably the students saw for themselves that one purpose of their literary analysis was to improve their image of the author’s image of reality. Anyway, it was clear that the central idea of our monism was that objectivity, truth, and reality exist, even though we can't master or define or know them perfectly.

I believe that the pluralists in the seminar decided that their position was not so different from ours after all. What they called personal realities, we called mental images. What they experienced as different realities, we experienced as limitations in our images, streaks on our windows. All (!) we were adding was that out there beyond the windows exists the real thing. We'll never see it directly or wholly, just as we'll never see Mt. Rainier or Mt. Fuji from all sides at once. But we can get closer and closer.


Skeptical Inquirer articles:

  1. Is science concerned with truth? Estling 22(4);
  2. Science, scientism, and anti-science in the age of preposterism, Haack 21(6);
  3. Antiscience in academia, Gross and Levitt 19(2);
  4. The antiscience threat, Kurtz and Holton 18(3);
  5. Science: The feminists’ scapegoat? Walker 18(1)

Robert Stanton

Robert Stanton is an associate professor of English emeritus who has taught at the University of Washington, Seattle (1956-82); Northwestern University (1953-1956); and universities in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Germany. He lives in Seattle.