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What is reality?

I have attempted to answer this question as I have been very concerned with actions that justify their grounds on the basis of culture, beliefs or tradition. I believe that we can do better than produce or reproduce actions that use culture, beliefs or tradition as excuses to pursue power and to free oneself from the responsibility to think. It is my view that the very concept of culture implies practices that claim to be cultivated, hence our current respect for all cultures.  But respect is given to those that show consideration. It is my argument that actions that are based on ignorance and arrogance cannot be, at the same time, seen as considered and hence cultivated. I will argue that disrespect is not much different from madness. Both function in disregard of others i.e. seeking control rather than an understanding.

In this discussion, the general line that I would like to take here is that reality is what we experience as real. Also we would all agree that reality brings with it events of which some we understand better than others.  Since reality therefore in its true sense seems always to escape us, it may not be the issue whether one has a right or a wrong model of reality. Rather, at stake here is whether our judgments are civilised or mad. Let me explore the issue in the text below.

I would say that the question 'What is reality?' is not a relevant question. In fact, I would argue that questions that attempt to explore 'how things are' are irrelevant. This is so because opinions in regard to 'What is ...?' are opinions that seek a single, hopefully true basis for their views and, in the process, they produce answers that are based in a specific ideology that they reflect or in terms of some specific criteria that are applied. The difficulty with ideology is that it can never consider all relevant factors because the very notion of relevance is relative. We can never know it all as we can never escape the relativity of the perspective from which we construct our points of relevance.  Ideologies thus assume reality to be the way they portray it and hence prevent themselves from considering what they miss. Ideologies thereby work by exclusion rather than by inclusion of competing potentialities. Solutions that are based in ideology seek out support by means other than consideration. 

An alternative to ideology is not a set of criteria to be applied but an understanding that the most we can do is to attempt to understand better: a process that does confine its inquiry to assumptions specified prior to the inquiry itself. An alternative to ideology is not another ideology (as it is often said) that seeks to prove its point and thereby reducing the strength of the competing points of view. Rather, it is a process (as opposed to a paradigm, model or sets of criteria) in the course of which points of view are relativised in terms of what they help to open up and what they obscure. A methodology of this kind replaces a need for models or paradigms for a mode of operating whose strength comes exactly from the richness that it secures by inquiring about, rather than asserting, the truth-bases of the assumptions or hypotheses that are considered. The process is about acquiring power (more voices) by resisting one's own power (one's own voice).

A  methodology of this kind works by inclusion rather than by exclusion as its outcomes are never seen as more than the articulations of the points of view that they manage to connect.  It can be said therefore that a methodology that works by questioning and challenge never seeks to answer questions. The most it can claim to do is to systematise points of view, or perspectives, in ways that help to reveal more rather than less.

It should now become more apparent that ideologies and a methodolgy of inquiry that proceeds by challenging its own perspectives are two very different modes of operation. While ideology promises answers, a methodology that seeks challenges does not attempt to produce the truth about reality. Rather, it is a pragmatic model where the perspectives taken are seen as depending on the conditions considered. Nothing is correct in an absolute sense i.e. in itself and through itself. Although this argument may appear obvious, it needs to be said that most research institutions encourage a research tradition which proceeds within a framework of ideology rather than challenge. Consequently, we are caught in the belief that one day we will know all that there is to know. But the problem is that to realise this dream, we have divided knowledge into a multitude of specialised areas and, as a result, increasingly we become caught in a game where we find out more and more about less and less. The bigger picture keeps escaping us and will do so unless we abandon the insecurity on which ideology breeds and begin to ask big questions i.e. questions that force us to consider more rather than less. 

In view of the above arguments, the question 'What is reality?' is abandoned and, instead, I decided to explore what may be a more interesting question: 'Are we happy?'. The 'Are we happy?' - question is very interesting as it brings into play individual points of view in regard to reality or how we see reality. Furthermore, it also brings into play the realisation that our happiness does not depend solely on us but also on others. As such, the question 'Are we happy?' reminds us that  people, as individuals or group members, have the capacity to affect their reality. Depending on how our experiences of reality are affected and shaped by us and others, our understandings of reality will differ respectively. It would hence follow that what we see as reality is less a matter of how things are and more a matter of the factors in terms of which our experiences of reality are established. It would seem that the more factors we are prepared to take into account, the bigger the picture we gain from which we can judge the way we see reality and hence our role in it. 

So far it would follow that an attempt to unravel the truth behind reality should be less about searching for a single truth as to how things are and more about exploring how our actions affect us and others. To position a discussion on reality in such a light, also takes the discussion away from academic debates which pose abstract questions and seek abstact answers that they then hope to apply to the human context. Instead, this essay posits the debate right in the middle of potentially the biggest concern of humanity: 'Are we happy?'. To answer this question, as this essay insists, the least of our concerns is to find a path to happiness and then to convince others as to its correctnes. 

Rather, the essay suggests that in order to explore how our actions affect us and others, it is necessary to inquire about the potential stakes or purposes in terms of which we (and others) interpret, organise and experience our actions and those of others. To reiterate, 'real' is what individuals experience as 'real'. The greater the basis in terms of which we evaluate our experiences, the greater the chance we may have of managing our reality to our advantage. What is now emerging is a picture of reality which cannot be established in terms that are absolute or transparent. How we see things depends on what we see. It seems therefore that asking the question about reality has allowed us to build the discussion in a direction which denies the production of absolute criteria for judging reality that would then be translated into a recipe for a happier life.

Rather, reality takes on the shape of a multitude of experiences established referentially and relationally i.e. in terms that are subject to processes of legitimation which have least to do with how things truly are and more to do with how we make things beThis is a very powerful statement as it brings out he potential that is available to every human being. In every aspect of our lives, we can make conditions around us work for us rather than against us. Personally I would argue that so far we do little of that.

It is important to emphasise that this essay does not say that reality depends on one's point of view. Rather, it says that how we experience reality is a matter of how we work with the information (taken here in the broadest sense) available to us. A point of view is a closure or a state that is as powerful or as legitimate as the conditions that it is able to manipulate and hence affect. If we lock ourselves in a point of view, we lock ourselves in an ideology that refuses to consider more and hence confront more. Here the test is not what one knows but what kinds of concerns one's hypothesis can help to take account of.

It is one thing to believe in one's rights, power or values, it is another to exercise them in a way that reveals an attempt to understand rather than an attempt to tell it as it is. As stated above, things are not, they are made to be what they seem to be for reasons that appeal to the particular sources of legitimation that are applied (see essay written on this issue but in regard to linguistic competence). The more prone we are to submit and to accept the status quo, the less able we are to expand the mindset in which this status quo is shaped and projected. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, said that thinking is subversion, it cannot be anything else (P. Bourdieu, On Television, 1996). 

We may say therefore that our beliefs or experiences of reality are established dialogically i.e. in the context of and in reference to other beliefs or experiences that we construct about the world at any given time. Reality now becomes a dynamic concept where how we see things is not a matter of the beliefs that we hold but a matter of the beliefs or experiences that we consider or take into account! In other words, how we see reality is an active process on our part. When we reflect upon the question 'What is reality?',  what matters therefore is not what we believe reality to be but the terms in relation to which we establish our beliefs about reality and/or are prepared to do so. 

It is important therefore that the terms in which these beliefs or experiences are established, or sensed, are broad rather than narrow. To broaden the reference basis of one's beliefs or experiences, it is necessary to expand i.e. to learn from and about the other. One cannot fill a bucket with things that one does not have. To generate more, we have to acquire things from others. By implication, in order to understand ourselves better, we need to understand others better.

Concepts such as culture or being civilised effectively mean to understand. They are in opposition to concepts such as madness. Culture developed as an attempt to understand in order to manage the conditions around in a richer, i.e. informed, way. On the other hand, madness is about refusing legitimacy to the experiences of others i.e. experiences that are outside the reference framework that madness understands. Madness therefore is in opposition to the recognition of others as sources of positive growth.  Madness imposes its point of view. Madness invents its own sets of rules and criteria which replace the reality, where understandings are negotiated, with its own reality that is generated in disregard of others.  Madness is capable of actions that would be foreign to a concerned mind. 

Madness is in opposition to attempts at being civilised or cultivated. Civilised action seeks to understand and as such does not serve the interests of self-centred individuals. Civilised action does not seek power. It is powerful because it inquires about the sources of its own beliefs. It does not seek to reinforce its beliefs but to understand more and hence see more. Civilised action is powerful by virtue of the diversity of concerns that it embraces and engages in the process. The outcome of civilised action is not fair or just in an absolute sense. But it has the potential to be more encompassing than the outcomes of mad judgment.

15th October, 2002 (Ania Lian)


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