Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


What is Reality? Lead: Chris Ives


Summary by Amy Conroy

What is Reality: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Chris Ives led the class in a discussion concerning reality on Tuesday, April 3, 2007. Ives began the discussion by noting that reality encompasses the universe, biology, and genetics, all topics which have been recurrent in the course, and that reality is both general and complex. The Merriam Webster dictionary defined reality as:

“1 : the quality or state of being real 2 a (1) : a real event, entity, or state of affairs <his dream became a reality> (2) : the totality of real things and events <trying to escape from reality> b : something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily 3 : television programming that features videos of actual occurrences (as a police chase, stunt, or natural disaster) -- often used attributively <reality TV>” (

These definitions proved unsatisfactory for our pursuit, and in the search for clarity the definition of “real” was also attained. The Merriam Webster dictionary offered many definitions for the word real, the best being “not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory.” However, this definition was also found to be lacking.
This discussion on reality was approached in a philosophical manner. René Descartes was a seventeenth century philosopher who offered ideas on reality. Descartes argues that one should not always take what one perceives as truth, “from time to time I have found the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.” If individuals are unable to trust even their own senses, Descartes continues, “…so what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain.” We use our senses to observe our environment; however we cannot be certain that our observations reflect reality.

Ives played a scene from the animated movie, The Waking Life. In this scene a man and a woman were contemplating reality as they perceived it. At one point, the characters questioned the possibility that everything they were experiencing was in their minds. They also inquired about dreams, specifically questioning how one can know if an experience is “real,” in that it occurs in “real life.” This clip reiterated the idea that we cannot be certain that our perceptions of the world align with reality.
Next, the philosophical concept of the “other” was introduced. Ives described the other as “the very thing completely outside ourselves.” Ives continued to say that we know ourselves better than anyone else, therefore the “other” is the very opposite of what we know to be true. And by merely naming the “other”, we have removed its “otherness.” After introducing the concept of the other, Ives led the class in an interesting exercise entitled “Who are you?” The class paired into groups of two and spent a short period of time looking directly at their partner. During that time, everyone was instructed to contemplate who that other person was. Ives explained that what you think about an individual is a projection of what you know and have experienced about others, onto that individual. Someone raised the point that you define all other individuals in relationship to yourself. Ives agreed, noting that one interprets what they have experienced of an individual to define that person, and to generalize those observations to others.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said, “the face signifies the infinite.” One’s knowledge of an individual is based on their experience with that individual. You know that individual only through your concept of them, and thus one cannot know everything about another individual.

Ives stated that, while we are unable to fully know everything about another individual, we do know everything about ourselves.

Professor deVries disagreed with this statement, pointing out that one’s concept of one’s self cannot be any better than their own consciousness of the self. Professor Moebius offered that there are some universal concepts that everyone shares knowledge of. By following scientific methods, everyone can reach the same results, and it is not dependent on one’s own self concept. Ives responded that what truly mattered in such a situation was the experience of performing that experiment, the process by which one gained that information that mattered. Professor deVries and Ives continued to debate. Professor deVries stated that one develops one’s own concept of self and of others, out of a communal setting. Ives retorted that an individual living in isolation would still be the number one authority on the self. Again returning to the idea that it is not the information one has, but the way it is obtained that is important. Professor Moebius offered the clarification that objective reality includes models and data, while subjective reality is one’s own experiences, tainted by their own observations. Science uses models to interpret information, as a means to understand reality, while our individual perceptions of reality are the only clue we have to true reality.

Joe Collins questioned the manner in which we are the number one authority on ourselves. Collins mentioned that we are not cognizant of many of our actions and mannerisms, which people separate from us are able to observe. Collins offered for example, the concept of a Poker “tell.” defines a tell, “In poker, a tell is a detectable change in a player's behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player's assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if he observes another player's tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable.” Collins gave a second example, the individual is likely not the absolute authority on the back of his or her own head. We are unable to observe the back of our head nearly as often as someone sitting behind us may be able to. For this reason, those individuals likely know more about that particular aspect of you, than you do about yourself.

At this point, Ives clarified that what you know about your own self is more than anyone else will know. Erica Westerman questioned if we know ourselves better, or if we know what we are thinking better? Professor deVries brought up the idea that we have entire institutions, the medical field for example, predicated on the notion of others knowing more about us than we do. Ives disagreed, stating that the individual provides doctors with information and the doctors then direct that individual based upon the information you provide.

Westerman inquired about the ability to be the number one authority on ourselves for things that are not thoughts, actions, for example. Westerman illustrated her own knowledge of her roommate’s actions, actions that her roommate likely was not aware of. Philip Fernandes offered that while one may know another’s actions and routines, there are many more things that individual knows about herself, that you do not know. An individual knows more about every aspect of her life, whereas you only know about that specific portion. Professor Moebius summed up the part of the discussion by noting that the key difference in each of these situations is personal experience.

Existentialism is described by as, “a philosophical movement in which individual human beings are understood as having full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives. A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, that is that a human being's existence precedes and is more fundamental than any meaning which may be ascribed to human life: man defines his reality. One is not bound to the generalities and a priori definitions of what ‘being human’ connotes.” Ives continued on the topic of existentialism, that the world exists without people perceiving it, but it has no meaning in itself. Something becomes “something” when an individual perceives it and bestows meaning upon it.

Ives stated that “things that have no meaning, are things that you haven’t thought of or experienced.” The class then discussed such things as the “big bang” which existed before humans, but clearly had meaning. Others countered that something cannot have any meaning until you experience it. This prompted further discussion. Professor deVries offered that the death of a parent has meaning, even if an individual is not aware of it, right when it happens. Ives argued that the death would not have meaning until the individual learned of it, experienced it. Professor deVries disagreed, adding that “life is more than what you experience, one’s whole life is not trapped in one’s mind, it extends into time and space around you.

The group then entered a discussion about existence and experience. Professor deVries questioned how the self could exist without experience. Professor Davis responded that “everything we acquire in life experience is part and parcel of memory, but is not part of the subjective entity that is the experiencer.” Professor deVries countered, “what is left after you have gotten rid of experiences? Nothing. Experiencer and experience is so tightly tied, you’ve got them both or nothing.” Sam Meehan wondered, “if the experiencer doesn’t exist without the experience, how do you participate in the first experience?”

Friedrich Nietzsche was a nineteenth century philosopher and major contributor to the philosophical standpoint of Nihilism. Ives defined Nihilism, basically stating that there is no meaning, morality is made up by everyone, and nothing matters, except in relation to us. The discussion briefly touched upon Hans-Georg Gadamer and his extension of the idea that the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Absolute ideas can exist only when saying there are no absolute ideas. Finally, the discussion concluded in Ives stating that reality is in the eye of the beholder. No one knows you as well as you know your self, and nothing is static, so there can be no absoluteness.