Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

An Incomplete Definition of Reality

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

An Incomplete Definition of Reality

Article excerpt


Reality has made a comeback in recent years. A generation ago it was common in academic circles to hear about the 'social construction of reality', usually with at least the hint of a suggestion that there can be no such thing as reality prior to our creation of it. Today, however, we see realism returning even to the continental tradition as with the 'speculative' realisms of Meillassoux and others. According to Arun Saldanha, 'The recovery of philosophy's original Galilean relationship to the physical and mathematical sciences is especially urgent, after the linguistic turn, the fad of postmodernism, and the ensuing science wars have put such great stress on this relationship. At the very least, then, speculative realism is not just good news for science, but a possible platform for new ecumenical experiments across the debilitating fissures between continental and analytic philosophy'. (1)

In support of such ecumenicism, it may be helpful to offer a definition of reality that is sufficiently open, by virtue of its deliberate incompleteness, to be useful in a variety of discursive contexts without excessively limiting the sorts of realities to which it may be applied. For example, the definition offered here is ultimately silent on the question of the sorts of stuff, if any, of which reality may consist. This openness or incompleteness allows us to use a single overlapping term to describe the possibility of mental or ideational realities, physical or scientific realities, social realities, mathematical realities, aesthetic realities, imaginative realities, and so on. The device of incompleteness allows for the possibility of a pluralism of realities and thereby avoids the suggestion that some sorts of realities must be reducible to other sorts of reality. However, the definition also openly allows for the possibility of relations between different sorts of realities such that we may speak of overlapping realities that include those different sorts.

Definitions include and exclude. A complete definition includes all the attributes, properties or qualities of the thing to be defined and excludes all those that do not properly belong to it. An incomplete definition is one that specifies some of the attributes, properties or qualities that may be included and excluded but is silent about others that may or may not be. About such a notion as reality, a complete definition seems beyond us. However, an incomplete definition may nonetheless allow us to use the word meaningfully to discuss such questions as whether there is such a thing (or a pluralities of things) called reality and whether it (or they) may be created or are only ever discovered.

The incomplete definition offered here is that a reality is the perpetuation of a pattern. A pattern may be defined minimally as the perpetuation, in one or more ways, of one or more relations. A reality then, whatever else it may also be, must be a perpetuating pattern of relations. What these relations may be, and what the elements or parts may be that are related in a reality, are among the questions about which the definition is silent. The definition leaves open the possibility that the elements or parts of reality are themselves patterns of relations, perhaps even at the most basic level of reality. Perhaps reality is pattern all the way down. That possibility, which the definition allows for but does not require, is discussed below.

Just as a reality may consist of various kinds of relations, so may the ways of perpetuation be various. The word and its variants are usefully open in their meanings, though not vacuously so. As a verb, 'perpetuate' may be taken as either transitive or intransitive. The adjective 'perpetual' may be taken as a synonym for 'eternal' but it need not be taken in that way. Perhaps realities can be created that become perpetual, for example, without being eternal in the sense of uncreated. …

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