With great difficulty.
The granpappy of this kind of thing is pretty much my favourite author. Philip K Dick spent most of his life exploring the notion of reality, and the possility that it wasn’t real, or wasn’t all there. He got so stuck into it that he ended up having a religious experience/mental breakdown (matter of perspective, some of the facts of the matter make it harder to distinguish than you might imagine) which both saved his son’s life and led him to believe that the last 2000 years of history (or thereabouts) were an illusion, and that he was still living in the years just after Christ.
Anyway, he once said that ‘reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away’.
It’s definitely a good starting point.
Reality must be something that doesn’t require faith to exist. It should not be dependent on our attitudes and ideas. By it’s very nature the real must be something outside of ourselves. Something we’ve not made up.
But then you just end up saying reality is anything that isn’t fantasy.
Fantasy is perhaps much harder to define.
The imagination shapes the world we percieve. We choose to imagine certain patterns and structures that overlay what is actually there (assuming anything is actually there) and that is what we see.
These are our fantasies, our hopes and dreams, our schema and stereotypes, our routines.
Without these reality would just be a jumble of randomness, maybe.
It’s impossible for us to see the world without them.
Try it though, try to look at a busy city seen without recognising the things there, without trying to label them as what they are. Reduce everything to the colours and shapes that they are, those things we believe we can rely on.
The world can get scary (and wonderful) pretty quickly if we lose our preconceptions.
Phil Dick also talked about the notion of the Koinos Kosmos, contrasted to the Idios Kosmos. These translate roughly as the shared world and the world of self. The argument here is that the Koinos Kosmos is the world that everyone see. Or at least that other people see. Dick was writing about schizophrenia, saying that a schizophrenic essentially draws further into the Idios Koinos, a world that other people can’t see. We see it as unreality, but it is not so for them.
And once you really blur the lines, the struggle against unreality begins.
I’ve been there. For the record. I’ve been in a world that not everyone was seeing, slowly realising that it was not real. It’s a terrifying experience and I don’t recommend it.
I’m not sure how comfortable I am with a worldview that says that reality is crowdsourced.
Something isn’t true just because a lot of people believe it to be.
But maybe truth and reality are different things also.
The shared world is more real for most. But it is still a rickety construction.
Don’t let it get to you.
Illustration by Anna-Kaisa.