What Is Reality like?

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

A Philosopher’s Stone

The way you imagine the world around us looks like and works determines what you can know about it, and in turn how you go about gathering that knowledge. Philosophers like fancy terms and call it ontology, epistemology, and methodology respectively. It works the other way round too; the way you go about finding truth determines what you know, and what you know confirms your description of reality. One’s perspective of reality is a belief and therefore cannot be proven.

It is impossible to know anything with certainty to which one may respond in two ways. Popper’s approach is if all the evidence points to something being true, we accept that as the truth until such time as we can disprove it. The test of truth is it withstands all attempts to prove it isn’t. The pragmatists and particularly Peirce’s approach is we can conclude something is true if it works in practice; if it no longer works, we must investigate until we find a solution to our problem, which becomes a new truth.

The basis of modern science is experimentation to prove theories and hypotheses emerging from scientific knowledge, with both resting on a foundation of a reality that looks like a clockwork. Things consist of connected parts causing each other to move in predictable ways. To know the thing, scientists take it apart and study the parts. One can count and measure the parts and make accurate predictions about them, and can use mathematical models of reality to create theories and hypotheses. Scientists do controlled experiments in laboratories as observers apart from and not influencing the experiment.

The philosophers’ stone of science is finding a God particle from which everything is constructed and a unified theory connecting all theories. Once we achieve that, we are gods and the rest is mopping up after the battle.

Biology and cybernetics created the first challenge for this model. It suggests not only that parts interact, but also a chicken and egg cause and effect to which there is no beginning or end. Observers are not apart from observations and influence what happens in experiments. One can no longer make accurate predictions and must therefore use statistical predictions of the likelihood something will happen and the confidence we have it will. This reality looks more like bodies, we are less certain about what we can know, and creating experiments and drawing accurate conclusions from them becomes more challenging.

Another perspective about reality is our world is complex. Things consist of any number of parts ranging from a few to billions, the parts interact with each other exchanging matter, energy, information, etc., and phenomena emerge from the interrelationships and interactions of the parts that is more than the sum of the parts. Complex entities don’t behave like clocks; the parts and interactions adapt and change with ongoing interactions and retain a memory of it, the same starting conditions don’t necessarily lead to the same end conditions and similar endings can emerge from different beginnings, they are sensitive to small changes which can escalate into large and unpredictable endings elsewhere, etc.

Observers are parts of complex entities and their observations and interaction with the entity change it unpredictably. Laboratories are social entities differing in small and big ways in which humans are interrelated and interact influencing the method and measurement, which makes experiments fundamentally impossible to accurately repeat as called for by the scientific method. Which in turn makes what we know more provisional and open to challenge and change.

Complex phenomena are difficult to measure and unpredictable; theories and hypotheses based on mathematical models assume relative stability, but in a context of constant unpredictable change those predictions become provisional and open to change. By the time you do an experiment, conditions may already have changed hence the findings and conclusions only apply to conditions exactly the same as the ones chosen for the experiment. Which means you don’t know what the right method is for examining a complex phenomenon of interest until you interact with it.

Some, the Cynefin model for example, suggest you can classify things of interest into simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic suggesting complexity is a category of reality as opposed to being reality. It assumes a pure clockwork reality. Flipping that around and making reality complex suggests approaching phenomena as complex, complicated, or simple is a design choice. The scientific method works perfectly well for phenomena we can reduce to simple and complicated but is useless when we can’t. The most complex phenomenon biologically and socially on earth is our human world which is why science can’t crack the nut.

The Western world dominates thinking and its only model of reality is clockwork. Turning it upside down and acknowledging that is wrong and it is complex instead is scary and destabilizing, creating cognitive dissonance, which is why we resist it at all cost. We won’t make headway against the big challenges of our world until we shift that paradigm to one better reflecting reality as we experience it; our world is complex, not simple.