Three Responses to the Question of Reality

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Introduction and Overview

Every area of knowledge begins with the question: What is reality? If I see an apple, is it real? If I see some work of art and think it is beautiful, is it really beautiful? Is money real? Is power real? Is objectivity real? Does she really love me? The question of reality pervades every aspect of our existence, and it is no surprise that it appears within science and philosophy as well.

There are broadly two kinds of responses to this issue – (1) materialism and (2) anti-materialism.

The materialist says that there is reality, that this reality is individual objects, and that the objects are independent of the other objects. This view of reality forms the basis of modern science where everything is supposed to exist as individual and independent objects.

The anti-materialist says that there is no reality, and hence there are no individual objects and hence they are not independent of each other. There is only one thing that exists, which is undifferentiated, non-individual, and non-independent. You can call this thing oneness, nothingness, the universal being, or whatever else you might decide to call it.

Problems in Materialism

The problem in materialism is that it seems to work very well when we describe individual objects, but fails when we describe object collections. If you begin with $1 notes and count 100 of them individually, it seems that $100 is built up from $1 notes. It appears that $1 notes are real and $100 is just a made-up thing from these notes. But if you begin with the value of $100 and divide it into smaller parts, it now seems there are many ways to divide it into different denominations. Each such division creates interdependent parts; i.e. if you choose to have $10 notes, then you must only have 10 of them.

The problem of materialism is that when we study object collections, we find that there are still individuals but they are not independent. If they are not independent, then how do we define their existence? How do we define an individual that depends on the other individuals which in turn depends on this first individual?

The problems of holism in science are too many to list here; they appear in many areas of physics (such as atomic theory and statistical mechanics), they appear in mathematics (because numbers are properties of collections), they appear in computing theory (because the meaning of a program is defined as a whole) and they appear in biology (because the functions in a living being are defined collectively).

Problems in Anti-Materialism

The anti-materialist does not suffer from this problem. For him, the supposed individuality and independence of things are false. There is only one thing that is undivided and undifferentiated and all division and differentiation is a manifestation of this oneness. The problem for the anti-materialist is how the differentiation occurs. If there is only one thing, then how does it divide itself up? What is the origin of all the diversity?

The problem of anti-materialism appears at the origin and at the end of the universe. How does all the variety in the universe appear at the beginning of the universe? And where does all this variety disappear if and when the universe is destroyed?

Note that any kind of variety involves some information. The unified is symmetric and therefore lacks information. The creation and dissolution of the universe involve the appearance and disappearance of information. How does so much information appear and disappear? From where does information come and where does it go?

The anti-materialist position is that the absolute is formless, that it cannot be described because the words that describe it must themselves be produced from this absolute. The absolute is therefore prior to language, and hence totally unknowable.

Semantic Materialism

There is also a third approach to the problem of realism, which I have adopted. In this approach, there is reality, which comprises of many individual things, but these things are not independent. Rather, the things are interdependent because the whole of which they become parts of is logically prior to the parts. The parts are created by dividing the whole, and the parts are therefore defined in relation to the whole. Their relatedness to each other is an outcome of their relatedness to the whole.

Of course, if we have to define the whole even before we define the parts, then we have to define it in a new way that does not depend on the parts. (If the whole depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole, then the problem of recursion would preclude this definition to be meaningful and useful in any theoretical sense.)

I define the whole as something that is more abstract than the parts in it. The house is more abstract than the rooms in it, the city is more abstract than the houses in it, the country is more abstract than the cities in it, and the world is more abstract than the countries in it. If the parts have to be defined in relation to the whole, then the whole must exist prior to the parts. That is, the world must exist before the countries, which must exist before the cities, which much exist before the houses, which must exist before the rooms. The abstract is logically prior to the contingent and precedes it.

Hierarchical Space-Time

Semantic materialism amounts to the following shift in science – space and time are hierarchical rather than flat. For instance, your postal address defines your location hierarchically: the mailman first looks at the country, then the state, then the city, then the street, then the house, and finally the person in the house. If this method of defining an object’s location was also the manner in which the objects themselves were created, then the abstract would precede the contingent in time.

Of course, we could not always observe the abstract. For instance, if the city precedes the streets, can we even perceive the city when nothing has been constructed? Therefore, for this idea to be meaningful, new forms of perception have to be defined, which can perceive the abstract world even before it manifests into the contingent world.

Unlike the locations in a flat space-time which are all identical (and hence can be interchanged through a coordinate transform), the locations in a hierarchical space-time are all different types. This hierarchy of space-time locations forms a tree structure, which I have described in books such as Godel’s MistakeQuantum Meaningand Moral Materialism. The semantic materialism, therefore, changes how we look at the universe from a flat space-time structure to a hierarchical tree-like space-time structure.

Materialism and Anti-Materialism

The nodes in the tree begin in an abstract root that perceives itself, proceeds into branches that perceive other nodes, and ends in leaves that do not perceive anything. The root of the tree is similar to anti-materialism, while the leaves are similar to materialism. The classic materialist and anti-materialist views are both false in this case. Their opposition is further false because they happen to be two ends of a single structure, not two opposite ways of looking at the same reality.

Materialism is false in this view because there are individuals but they are not independent. Anti-materialism is false because the root of the node is not formless. The universe, therefore, begins in a form, which successively instantiates into instances of this form – quite like the idea of animal can instantiate into many species, and each species then manifests into individual members of this species, etc.

All the species collectively instantiate the idea of animal, just as all the members of a species instantiate the idea of the species, and the bodily parts of each such member collectively instantiate each member of the species. Therefore, it is not possible to define any part of the animal body independent of the other parts; it is not possible to define a member of the species outside the social circle of that species; it is not possible to define the idea of a particular species outside the animal kingdom. The parts are individual, but they are not independent, and the parts are related by a hierarchy.

Applications to Science

The hierarchical space-time view has myriad applications in science, ranging from a different view of numbers that makes number theory consistent and complete to an understanding of program semantics that helps us distinguish between useful and malicious programs, to problems of indeterminism and incompleteness in various parts of physics (quantum theory, statistical mechanics, and general relativity), to problems in biology where a species is defined as an abstract concept rather than a collection of atoms and molecules, to problems in chemistry where physical states in molecules can encode information about other molecules, and thereby act as information carriers.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Three Responses to the Question of Reality," in Shabda Journal, February 28, 2015,