Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or may be thought to be. In its widest definition, reality includes everything that is and has being, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible.
Historically, philosophers have sometimes considered reality to include nonexistent things such as “gold mountains” in a sense referred to as a subsistence, as well. By contrast existence is often restricted solely to being (compare with nature).
Reality is often contrasted what is imaginary, delusional, in the mind, dreams, what is abstract, what is false, or what is fictional. To reify is to make more real, and to abstract is the opposite. The truth refers to what is real, while falsity refers to what is not. Fictions are not considered real.
“Reality” could alternatively refer (1) only to what is in the present, or (2) only to what is in the present and past, or (3) only to what is in the present and future, or (4) to what is in all of the present past and future, but it is always contrasted with what is not so included, as baing not real, so the term is somewhat amiguous in its contradictory usages.
On a much broader and more subjective level, private experiences, curiosity, inquiry, and the selectivity involved in personal interpretation of events shapes reality as seen by one and only one individual and hence is called phenomenological. While this form of reality might be common to others as well, it could at times also be so unique to oneself as to never be experienced or agreed upon by anyone else. Much of the kind of experience deemed spiritual occurs on this level of reality.
Phenomenology is a philosophical method developed in the early years of the twentieth century by Edmund Husserl and a circle of followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. Subsequently, phenomenological themes were taken up by philosophers in France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl’s work.
The word phenomenology comes from the Greek phainómenon, meaning “that which appears”, and lógos, meaning “study”. In Husserl’s conception, phenomenology is primarily concerned with making the structures of consciousness, and the phenomena which appear in acts of consciousness, objects of systematic reflection and analysis. Such reflection was to take place from a highly modified “first person” viewpoint, studying phenomena not as they appear to “my” consciousness, but to any consciousness whatsoever. Husserl believed that phenomenology could thus provide a firm basis for all human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, and could establish philosophy as a “rigorous science”.
Husserl’s conception of phenomenology has been criticised and developed not only by himself, but also by his student and assistant Martin Heidegger, by existentialists, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and by other philosophers, such as Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, and Dietrich von Hildebrand.
Truth vs. Fact
The term “truth” has no single definition about which a majority of professional philosophers and scholars agree, and various theories of truth continue to be debated. Metaphysical objectivism holds that truths are independent of our beliefs; except for propositions that are actually about our beliefs or sensations, what is true or false is independent of what we think is true or false. According to some trends in philosophy, such as postmodernism/post-structuralism, truth is subjective. When two or more individuals agree upon the interpretation and experience of a particular event, a consensus about an event and its experience begins to be formed. This being common to a few individuals or a larger group, then becomes the “truth” as seen and agreed upon by a certain set of people — the consensus reality. Thus one particular group may have a certain set of agreed-upon truths, while another group might have a different set. This allows different communities and societies to have very different notions of reality and truth about the external world. The religion and beliefs of people or communities are one example of this level of socially constructed reality. Truth cannot simply be considered truth if one speaks and another hears because individual bias and fallibility challenge the idea that certainty or objectivity are easily grasped. For anti-realists, the inaccessibility of any final, objective truth means that there is no truth beyond the socially accepted consensus. (Although this means there are many truths, not a single truth.)
For realists, the world is a set of definite facts, which exist independently of human perceptions (“The world is all that is the case” — Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), and these facts are the final arbiter of truth. Michael Dummett expresses this in terms of the principle of bivalence: Lady Macbeth had three children or she did not; a tree falls or it does not. A statement will be true if it corresponds to these facts — even if the correspondence cannot be established. Thus the dispute between the realist and anti-realist conception of truth hinges on reactions to the epistemic accessibility (knowability, graspability) of facts.
A “fact” or factual entity, on the other hand, is a phenomenon that is perceived as an elemental principle. It is rarely one that could be subject to personal interpretation. Instead, it is most often an observed phenomenon of the natural world. The proposition that “viewed from most places on Earth, the Sun rises in the east” is a fact. It is a fact for people belonging to any group or nationality, regardless of which language they speak or which part of the hemisphere they come from. The Galilean proposition in support of the Copernican theory, that the sun is the center of the solar system, is one that states the fact of the natural world. However, during his lifetime Galileo was ridiculed for that factual proposition, because far too few people had a consensus about it in order to accept it as a truth, and at the time the Ptolemaic model was just as accurate a predictor. Fewer propositions are factual in content in the world, as compared to the many truths shared by various communities, which are also fewer than the innumerable individual world views. Much of scientific exploration, experimentation, interpretation and analysis is done on this level.
Reality, world views, and theories of reality
A common colloquial usage would have reality mean “perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes toward reality,” as in “My reality is not your reality.” This is often used just as a colloquialism indicating that the parties to a conversation agree, or should agree, not to quibble over deeply different conceptions of what is real. For example, in a religious discussion between friends, one might say (attempting humor), “You might disagree, but in my reality, everyone goes to heaven.”
Reality can be defined in a way that links it to world views or parts of them (conceptual frameworks): Reality is the totality of all things, structures (actual and conceptual), events (past and present) and phenomena, whether observable or not. It is what a world view (whether it be based on individual or shared human experience) ultimately attempts to describe or map.
Certain ideas from physics, philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, and other fields shape various theories of reality. One such belief is that there simply and literally is no reality beyond the perceptions or beliefs we each have about reality. Such attitudes are summarized in the popular statement, “Perception is reality” or “Life is how you perceive reality” or “reality is what you can get away with” (Robert Anton Wilson), and they indicate anti-realism — that is, the view that there is no objective reality, whether acknowledged explicitly or not.
Many of the concepts of science and philosophy are often defined culturally and socially. This idea was elaborated by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). The Social Construction of Reality a book about the sociology of knowledge written by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann was published in 1966.
Philosophical views of reality
On the one hand, ontology is the study of being, and the central topic of the field is couched, variously, in terms of being, existence, “what is”, and reality. The task in ontology is to describe the most general categories of reality and how they are interrelated. If — what is rarely done — a philosopher wanted to proffer a positive definition of the concept “reality”, it would be done under this heading. As explained above, some philosophers draw a distinction between reality and existence. In fact, many analytic philosophers today tend to avoid the term “real” and “reality” in discussing ontological issues. But for those who would treat “is real” the same way they treat “exists”, one of the leading questions of analytic philosophy has been whether existence (or reality) is a property of objects. It has been widely held by analytic philosophers that it is not a property at all, though this view has lost some ground in recent decades.
On the other hand, particularly in discussions of objectivity that have feet in both metaphysics and epistemology, philosophical discussions of “reality” often concern the ways in which reality is, or is not, in some way dependent upon (or, to use fashionable jargon, “constructed” out of) mental and cultural factors such as perceptions, beliefs, and other mental states, as well as cultural artifacts, such as religions and political movements, on up to the vague notion of a common cultural world view, or Weltanschauung.
The view that there is a reality independent of any beliefs, perceptions, etc., is called realism. More specifically, philosophers are given to speaking about “realism about” this and that, such as realism about universals or realism about the external world. Generally, where one can identify any class of object, the existence or essential characteristics of which is said not to depend on perceptions, beliefs, language, or any other human artifact, one can speak of “realism about” that object.
One can also speak of anti-realism about the same objects. Anti-realism is the latest in a long series of terms for views opposed to realism. Perhaps the first was idealism, so called because reality was said to be in the mind, or a product of our ideas. Berkeleyan idealism is the view, propounded by the Irish empiricist George Berkeley, that the objects of perception are actually ideas in the mind. On this view, one might be tempted to say that reality is a “mental construct”; this is not quite accurate, however, since on Berkeley’s view perceptual ideas are created and coordinated by God. By the 20th century, views similar to Berkeley’s were called phenomenalism. Phenomenalism differs from Berkeleyan idealism primarily in that Berkeley believed that minds, or souls, are not merely ideas nor made up of ideas, whereas varieties of phenomenalism, such as that advocated by Russell, tended to go farther to say that the mind itself is merely a collection of perceptions, memories, etc., and that there is no mind or soul over and above such mental events. Finally, anti-realism became a fashionable term for any view which held that the existence of some object depends upon the mind or cultural artifacts. The view that the so-called external world is really merely a social, or cultural, artifact, called social constructionism, is one variety of anti-realism. Cultural relativism is the view that social issues such as morality are not absolute, but at least partially cultural artifact.
A Correspondence theory of knowledge about what exists claims that “true” knowledge of reality represents accurate correspondence of statements about and images of reality with the actual reality that the statements or images are attempting to represent. For example, the scientific method can verify that a statement is true based on the observable evidence that a thing exists. Many humans can point to the Rocky Mountains and say that this mountain range exists, and continues to exist even if no one is observing it or making statements about it. However, there is nothing that we can observe and name, and then say that it will exist forever. Eternal beings, if they exist, would need to be described by some method other than scientific.
Platonic realism holds that the universals of mathematics do exist in a broad, abstract sense, although not at any spatial or temporal distance from people’s bodies. Thus, people cannot see or otherwise come into sensory contact with universals, but in order to conceive of universals, one must be able to conceive of these abstract forms.
Most modern Platonists avoid the possible ambiguity by not attributing material existence to universals, but merely claiming that they are.
A tension exists between Plato’s version of reality, and other versions, in that to reify is to make real, and also the opposite of to abstract, yet Plato’s reality goes in the opposite direction, with more abstract being less real.