“Reality” is a term frequently used, yet it may be poorly understood and unhelpful. As a concept, it represents that which exists independent of mind. In using the term I think we are trying to make a distinction between that which is objective, observable and measurable from that which is subjective, hidden and unmeasurable. Common sense suggests that we can easily make this distinction. The “real” is valued, seen as superior and is equated with truth. Our language suggests that something which is not real is subordinate, counterfeit or fictitious. If someone is out of touch with reality, then they are considered insane.
It is quite difficult to communicate or carry on a relationship with someone who does not see reality as we do. Communication depends upon finding some common ground. Relationships and societies are built around shared perspectives. The concept of reality is explicitly or implicitly at the center of almost all interpersonal conflict whether at the micro or macro level. From marital conflict to disputes between global powers, disagreement about “truth” and “reality” are at the core. As individuals, we crave understanding and empathy from others in part because we want our view of reality validated. When others do not see life as we do, we start to feel isolated, alone and somewhat crazy. This activates our innate stress responses of “fight or flight.” Globally this can lead to terrorism, war and a host of other crises. Interpersonally, it can lead to ongoing conflict, fighting, divorce and alienation.
If reality is “really” out there and it feels so real, why do we have such a difficult time seeing it the same way? That it actually exists can be disputed, and because it can be called into question, it makes me think that reality is not a very helpful concept. Physicists and other scientists strive to identify the fundamentals of matter, which for most of us are at the heart of what is real. Unfortunately, the closer they look, the more bizarre it appears to be. Social scientists increasingly understand the impact of gender, culture, language and personal experience on our worldview.
Since language influences our perception and our thinking, we might look for ways to get away from using terms like reality. If we can achieve this, the need for common ground will be no less important, but the way we think about that common ground will need to change. I suggest this shift will highlight subjectivity and move away from concepts such as reality towards terms such as empirical and intersubjective. The former term already involves the latter. Since the scientific method involves observation and measurement along with peer review it already incorporates and tries to account for the impact of the subjective. With science, observations can be confirmed and validated but an awareness of error remains.
The more our vernacular can incorporate the impact our biology, experience and who knows what else has on our perception, the easier this change can be achieved. While this transformation can happen quickly at the individual level, there is evidence it is gradually transpiring at the global level.
Moving away from reality, in this sense, is not insane. It begins to level the playing field among Earth’s creatures. It moves us away from leaders who claim to know the truth and want to define it for the rest of us. It moves us away from shame and judgment. This moves us towards dialogue. This moves us towards consensus and cooperation. This moves us toward peace.
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela