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Three Perspectives on the Fundamental Nature of Reality

Is the fundamental nature of reality physics, consciousness or social agreement?

Key points

  • Modern philosophers do not agree on the ultimate nature of reality.
  • Some are physicalists who point to energy and matter as being the foundation.
  • Some are idealists who point to consciousness and the qualities of perception.
  • Some are social constructionists who highlight social contexts and processes of justification.

What is the fundamental ground of reality? What will ultimately ground our "theory of everything"? Philosophers and scientists tend to give three very different answers to these questions.

Three philosophical perspectives on the nature of reality

First, there are physicists like Sean Carroll, who, in The Big Picture, tells us that energy and matter are fundamental. That what is really real, at the bottom, are things like quantum field fluctuations. Carroll does not think everything can be reduced to quantum fluctuations. For example, he regularly comments that cats are real, even if they are not fundamental. Nevertheless, his ontology, or theory about reality, is that the physical or material reality is ultimately what is real.

Idealists give a different answer. Idealists believe that everything is mental and that the fundamental reality is consciousness. The philosopher Bernardo Kastrup and the scientist Donald Hoffman both argue for versions of idealism. They argue that science cannot explain subjectivity, but, ultimately, all science is based on observation. This position argues that things like particles and brains actually are best thought of as ideas in consciousness.

Third, there are language philosophers and strong social constructionists. These thinkers, folks like Jaques Derrida and Kenneth Gergen, argue that what people claim to be real is found in and framed by how they talk about reality and justify what is real in social contexts, which frames the dialogue in inescapable ways.

We can think about these three positions as the (1) objectivists who rely on natural science to determine what is real; (2) subjectivists who rely on perceptual experience; and (3) intersubjectivists who point to the process of social construction and justification to frame reality.

What we know

So which is it? Is the ground of reality matter, perceptions, or socially constructed narratives about what is real? Modern scientists, philosophers, and scholars do not agree. The ongoing confusion between these domains was stated clearly by the philosopher Donald Davidson, who, in his work, Subjective, Intersubjective, and Objective, summed up his analysis of the difficulty linking these three domains together as follows:

I want, first of all, to stress the apparent oddity of the fact that we have three irreducibly different varieties of empirical knowledge [i.e., the subjective, the objective, and the intersubjective]. We need an overall picture which not only accommodates all three modes of knowing, but makes sense of their relations to one another. Without such a general picture we should be deeply puzzled that the same world is known to us in three such different ways.

Is there a way to weave together these three frames of knowing into a coherent whole? What would such a system look like? To be effective, it seems it would have to simultaneously account for the following facts:

1. If science has revealed anything, it has shown that the universe has evolved over billions of years and that evolution has moved from simpler things, like energy, particles, and atoms, into cells, animals, and finally, people. This fact seems to point to the physicists like Carroll.

2. We do not have direct access to the world, but each of us perceives the world through a unique epistemological portal. Moreover, science gives very little understanding of why and how each of us experiences the world the way we do. Many think this "hard problem" of subjective conscious experience cannot be solved by science. However, if we start with perception, then we may be able to work from there. The hard problem of consciousness and the fact that, in some ways, knowledge is dependent on perception seems to point to the idealists.

3. All claims to generalizable knowledge must ultimately be public and based on shared modes of reasoning, propositions, and systems of justification. This fact seems to make it such that as soon as we agree with either point one or two, we are actually doing so in the context of an intersubjective agreement, based on shared propositions and thus the social construction of what is true.

Together, these facts seem to point to the idea that any coherent philosophical system that might eventually resolve this pickle would help show the effective interrelations between energy and matter, subjective conscious experience, and intersubjective systems of justification.