What is real?

Two separate questions: What is real? And, what is “real”?

The former is a grand metaphysical question. The latter, a question about the definition of “real”.  Because we should always attempt to define our terms, here is a standard definition of “real”: “Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence”.

If we use that definition, however, we might not like some of the conclusions that follow. Do we know what “occurring in actuality” means? What is meant by “actuality”? Perhaps this means physical reality. Well, come to think of it, what do we even mean by “physical reality”? Existence which can be reduced to some form of material existence. Let’s go with that.


So, a “real” thing is something which “occurs in some form of material existence”. Chairs, tables, planets, grass, etc. Are there any things which might challenge this definition? What about thoughts? Can thoughts be reduced to material existence? Are there little atoms which, grouped together, make a specific thought? Does that mean thoughts have some kind of weight? How much does a belief in Zeus weigh? With enough precision, is it actually possible to point to a thought-particle or particles? Hmm…

What about first-person experience? Is that real? Can experience itself be reduced to material existence? Of course, a being might have an experience of the material world, but does that mean the experience itself is material? Yes, you might be able to explain the physical correlates of experience (chemical X interacting with chemical Y…), but why is this accompanied by first-person experience?

You can explain the third-person phenomena of rocks colliding into one another fully by just talking about physical matter. The two rocks had a mass of X and a velocity of Y, they collided with force Z…  there is no information loss. However, you can not explain beings colliding with one another in purely third-person terms without significant information loss. (How did it feel to collide? This is a question we don’t posit to rocks.)

One might say, “Well, when the two people collided, there was a certain amount of force applied to their nerves, which in turn sent electric signals to the brain, and so on…” This is insufficient. You can explain material phenomena all day long without ever being able to convey the information of how something feels to someone. (Try it.)

Now, this is a long way of saying, “If first-person, subjective experience can not be ultimately reduced to third-person, objective material existence, it is not real.” At least, according to our definition. But how absurd! Our experience is not real? What could be more real to us than our own experiences (or our thoughts)? Perhaps we need to change our definition?

Let’s revisit the definition of “real” once again: “Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence”. Perhaps the problem is how we defined “actuality”. Reducing “actuality” to a kind of brute, material existence might be a mistake. Let’s loosen that up a bit and see what happens. We can have “actual”, “real” physical phenomena (rocks, chairs, stars), as well as mental phenomena (experience, thoughts, beliefs). Sounds good, but I am afraid the conclusions which follow from this are also troubling.

If we accept this definition, how would we deal with the question, “Can you experience something that is not real?” If yes, what would that look like? Surely, I can experience the thought of a unicorn, but does that mean unicorns are real? Well, by our definition, a “real” phenomena can be either physical or mental. While unicorns do not seem to have a physical existence, they certainly have a mental one. So, unicorns must be real. Perfect circles do not have a physical existence, but I can think of one just fine. They, too, must be “real”. This is ridiculous! According to this definition, can anything not be real?

Then again, perhaps that is a legitimate question. Can any thing not be real? How can “a thing” be “a thing” if it is not real? Perhaps the existence of “not-real things” is even more absurd! So, according to this definition, everything which exists is real, in any form whatsoever. The only things which could not be real are logical contradictions. A square circle can not exist, and it is not real. Granted, our thought about the non-existence of square circles can be real, but this is quite different from a real square circle itself.

So, everything is real: numbers, unicorns, pigs on Mars, zombies, you name it. Is this really more tolerable than saying thoughts and experiences are not real? In fact, I think so, but perhaps with a little alteration.

Now, at first, the real existence of man-eating-gingerbread-men does seem absurd. However, perhaps this can be more acceptable if we make a sharp distinction between mental realities and physical realities.

In fact, the only reason the sentence “Zombies are real” seems juvenile is because we assume that “real” means “to physically exist”. This might be a mistake. Zombies are real… in your dreams. Literally. You can really imagine a zombie, but this does not translate into your thought having a manifestation in physical reality.

Of course, this brings up other questions. Could a zombie exist without a mind to think of it? Are mental phenomena completely dependent on a mind? Do numbers go away if human beings go away? Would “experience” completely cease to exist if there were no minds?

If so, how much of our reality can exist without us? We like to think of ourselves as being separate from reality, interacting with it, but are we actually creating reality around us?

My personal opinion: I do not know what is real, because I do not know what “real” is. (I mean, “real” – as opposed to what?)

This entry was posted in How to Think Critically, Metaphysics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to What is real?

  1. Jim Caton says:

    “…but are we actually creating reality around us?”

    This is a pertinent question, but I think something is missing in your lead up to it. In a certain sense unicorns are real in that they are concepts that exist in our minds, and if we choose we can act as though they physically exist regardless of the validity of that assumption. More important, I think, is our ability to perceive reality. Given that there is a physical reality, we perceive that reality in part. (Using this language is also misleading because it might lead one to think in terms of fractions – i.e., we experience some percentage of reality.) I am convinced that we experience reality in clusters of interacting parts, and even clusters of clusters. That is, not only do we perceive given objects from a certain perspective, but the grouping of these objects relative to each other and to one’s disposition provides an intersubjective experience that allows a seemingly infinite amount of interpretations of reality. If one’s consciousness begins to grasp and integrate this, than one’s experience can become even more nuanced and interactions with that reality will exert greater influence upon it.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your comments to a question that I have had all week. I first thought of the difference between real verses truth. I have semi come to think that real is experience, mind set/thoughts, belief. When a person has experienced something and know the outcome. You can’t tell them difference because they have been there done that. Mind set, some minds are just set, maybe due to up bringing they way a person has been raised to believe. And you can’t tell them different…..it is real to them and there is no changing their mind. Belief………religion…….it is real to each religion and all at the same time they are all different and yet real to the believer. I too believe that you can create your own real in your mind……..and that a physical real is a total different level of realness………Now truth is the word of God which art in heaven and that is REAL to me……………….

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