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18 June 2008

Reason Is The Illusion Of Reality

Things exist because they do
Debarshi Dey

Reason and reality: these are the two parameters we constantly invoke in our post modern lives to validate and justify all that we think and all that we do. Such is the absolute power of these two concepts on our minds that even our Gods and our innermost dreams have to pass the twin tests: Are they reasonable? Are they realistic? We might use other words in their place: “scientific”, “rational”, “practical”, “pragmatic”, but they all convey the same meaning. In all our experiences, and in all our conscious responses to them, we try to satisfy ourselves that they have the twin blessings of being reasonable and real.

When these ideas of reason and reality are of so paramount importance in the way we live our lives, or rather in the way we think and make sense of things that are happening around us, let us ask ourselves: what do these words actually mean?


What is reality? What are the things we consider as real, and what do we brush aside as unreal? In common parlance the state of things that actually exists out there are considered as real. How do we know what is actually existing out there? By our experience, we quip. But then do the dreams that we all experience while sleeping qualify as being real? No! we gasp! Dreams are imaginations of our minds, we reason, an experience that holds true only for the one who is dreaming, that too while sleeping. It has no truth once he wakes up. So for something to be real, it should not be an individual experience, it should be a shared experience. It should not be born out of the mind, it should be grasped by the mind. In fact, what we really mean is that reality remains reality whether we are observant or oblivious of it. It is that state of things which is out there in spite of us, independent of us.

Let us try to understand and analyze some universally accepted “real” events that pass these tests of objectivity. The rising of the sun in the eastern horizon and its setting in the west, is something we all experience. But the reality we know is on the contrary. The sun does not rise, neither does it set. It is the earth, and we by virtue of being its inhabitants, that go around it and delude ourselves with the experience of the rising and the setting sun. Though now this is primary school knowledge, humanity actually got to know and accept this “reality” only after much resistance and hesitation just five centuries ago. So we see, that shared experience can be far removed from reality. It is not experience per se, but a deeper understanding of that experience that qualify as reality.

There can be other examples: the blue ocean in reality is a colorless mass of water, the blueness though is the shared experience is not the reality, but reflection of the blue sky. The flatness of the earth, moving trees we see while traveling in a train, passage of time when waiting for a loved person, are all far from what the reality is. So we see this criteria of shared or personal experience as defining something as real may be misleading at best, delusional at worst.

Let us consider another example. A piece of cloth. Whether one has observed it or not, whether one has touched it or not, it does not alter the state of its reality a bit. It remains a darn piece of cloth. Now what is this piece of cloth in reality? Well one might say it is a collection of threads interwoven to give us something we call cloth. So a piece of cloth in reality is just a bundle of interwoven threads. Now it does not end there. One really persistent reality seeker will prop in that what appears as threads in reality is nothing but cotton. So what we observed as a piece of cloth, we have now realized in reality is nothing but cotton. So reality here turns out to be different levels of observations. Can this be called different stages of reality, where the higher stage does not contradict the earlier stage, but subsumes it with itself? Whatever it is, we see that there can be multiple way of making sense of the same reality. Reality is not a frozen and rigid thing.

But this idea of going to the next basic level of reality of a substance can be extended even further. Cotton is made up of molecules, molecules are made up of atoms, atoms are made up of empty space and a sprinkling of electrons, protons and neutrons, which are in turn made up of deuterons and other smaller particles, and finally if we believe and follow today’s physicists we conclude they are nothing but wave forms of energy giving us an illusion of matter. Lo and behold! Searching for reality we end up with illusion. But alas! This is the true picture of reality we obtain when we try to zero in on a substance removed from the personal experience of it, dissecting it with an impassioned zeal of objectivity at the altar of impersonal physics and mathematics. We wanted reality, pure and non-corrupt, and we got it.

Now surely this is not what we meant when we started out on our quest for reality! Matter may be mainly empty space and swirling waves of energy, but it is evidently not the first thing that comes to our mind when we talk of something as real as matter. What is then real in our everyday life, can be alternatively explained by two conditions: they are the information and impulses we receive though our senses that has the property of repeatability and a rational/logical meaning to it. Dreams are not real because they fail the test of repeatability. Rising and setting sun is not real because they fail the test of rationality- the earth is orbiting the sun, hence though it appears that the sun is rising and setting, that is not supported by the rational understanding of the earth and the sun’s motion. Matter, and not waves are real, as far as our every day life experiences goes, because our senses are not refined enough to pick up the subtle nature of matter.

Now agreeing with this definition of reality, let us consider we have a nice smooth red ball in our hands. If I hand over this ball to my friends, they would all agree with me that it’s a nice little red ball. The ball remains nice and red now, tomorrow, next week, as long as I don’t break it or paint it blue. So with our agreed definition, this little red ball is a real thing. The realness of it consists of its color, its shape and the material it is made up of. Let’s first look into the reality of the color. What is the reality of its redness? Redness is nothing but an experience that is triggered by certain receptors in our retina when light rays or energy of certain frequency or wavelength falls on our optic nerves and is carried as electromagnetic waves to them. The wavelength was not red in color, or the receptors, or the optic nerves. The redness is purely a quality that arises in the mind. So what is the real color of the ball independent of our experience, repeated, shared, logical? Similarly the shape of the ball which is so real to us is also the way our mind interprets the impulses it receives from the real shape of the ball. Is there any way we can experience the reality out there independent of our mind, independent of our consciousness?

Then of course there is the question of the real world out there: the real world where, we are told, every one is up against every one in their struggle for existence, the real world where material possession and power are the prime motivators of most human endeavors, the real world, where each one pursues his “self-interest”, where one person’s self-interest is mostly at odd with another person’s. The real world where every one goes on living a life as if death is the most unreal, uncertain thing. In this rush for accumulating and achieving, the fragility and fleeting nature of life do not register as real. But what can be farther away from reality? We all “know” death is the only certainty, the only constant factor of life. But in our conception of reality, we choose to remain oblivious to it. The mermaids, the fairies, the angels, the demons that were so real co-inhabitants of our world when we were kids, we realize were fantastic ideas and products of fertile imagination of our tender mind, which have no reality with our advanced understanding of the nature of reality. Is this not the case also that in our being grounded in “reality” as we understand it, the things we consider as so real, that we don’t even doubt their validity and take their existence as an unquestioned fact, is also an elaborate imagination we have constructed for ourselves to remain secured in the state of delusion we find ourselves so comfortably situated?


Reasoning is born out of the assumption that everything we see around us has a coherent and connected meaning to them, a meaning we have the cognitive ability to grasp and make sense. Barring a few self-evident events and phenomenona, like the fact that we exist and are self-aware, we try to understand everything within this logical framework of thinking we call reasoning.

But what is interesting to notice is reason is a product of our thinking, a “logical” way of explaining things we see around us. Let me illustrate with an example. The reason why planets orbit around the Sun, we were told by Newton, is the force of gravitation. But then almost three centuries down the line, Einstein came and explained, that the real reason the planets orbit around the sun is not because of gravitation, but it is because the space on which the planets rest is curved and hence it appears that it is orbiting round the sun, while it is only moving in a straight line on that curved space. So we see the reasons behind the things we observe and experience change with our increased understanding of them. So no more is the reason for an eclipse a huge snake swallowing the sun, but it is because the moon comes in between.

Every event we witness, every experience we have, we want to believe that there is a reason behind it. And more importantly that reason is comprehensible. Either we have already made it out, or with furtherance of knowledge, we are sure, we will make it out. This optimism about our power of reasoning is the motivation behind all scientific enquiry. In our ever broadening field of experience and reasoning, we come up with new reasons to explain the same phenomenon. What is today’s reason was yesterday’s fantasy and may be tomorrow’s naiveté. How can we be so certain about the rectitude of today’s reasoning then? All we can say is that this is how we understand it today. That’s all!

Now let us consider another situation. Let us suppose, in a room water is boiling in a kettle. Three persons come in and they are asked the reason for it. The first person, with all his scientific knowledge, says that it is boiling because the molecules are in an energized state. The second person walks in and reasons that it is the fire under the kettle which is making the water to boil. The third person, who actually put the kettle of water on the fire, has his own reason though. He says the water is boiling because he wants to have some tea. Now which reason is more acceptable? Or which reason do we put aside as unreasonable? Here we see an example of reason being subject to the observer. We find the reason for an event, that suits our subjectivity. If in the earlier example we saw one reason superseding another, here we see multiple reasons being perfectly reasonable at the same time.

But the most remarkable thing about reason is not that it is neither final nor is that it is not unique. It is this belief about reason that it has to accompany our every experience. What makes us so certain that every experience we have should have an underlying reason? And if there is one, how do we know we are so wired that we can make it out? Rightly that is?

The reason that we have synthesized with our reality, both stands on foundations that are far from solid. They are subject to subjectivity, interpretation and change. Both are intensely a product of human experience. Hence there is no way we can conclude there is a finality to them. The number of questions they answer are minuscule in comparison to the questions they have no answer for. This being the case, is it too presumptuous to say, “Reason is the illusion of reality”?

The writer is a PhD student of Statistics at the University of California, Riverside, USA

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.