What IS reality?

Our worldview is our way of dealing with reality.  In exploring the truth we would like our evidence to be real. So it’s worth thinking about what “reality” actually means.

I consider myself to be ‘real’.  I cannot be a figment of my imagination, because otherwise there would be no ‘me’ to imagine myself.  Perhaps everything else is a figment of my imagination, perhaps even my body is a figment of my imagination, but I know (at least that part of me that is able to know) that I am real.  Descartes captured this in his famous quotation that has been translated as “I think therefore I am”.

Alone, I am one person.  If you were with me there would be two people.  As more and more join us we would increase to 3, 4, 5, and so on.  So what are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5?  They are a concept that represents something about something real. The number itself is not real.  So, there may be 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 men in a room, but there is never just ‘1’. Thinking further, we can have 1 man or even 0 men.  But we can’t have “minus 1” men, or “minus 1000” men, yet mathematically that is perfectly possible.  So are numbers, and hence the whole of mathematics ‘real’?

On a five pound note it says “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of five pounds”.  So money represents a promise.  In our bank account it’s perhaps quite reasonable to have £-1000 as our balance.  We owe 1000 promises to someone else.  Is a promise ‘real’?  Is money ‘real’?

We use both the concept of numbers and the concept of money daily, and they are invaluable for helping society work.  I want some potatoes for my dinner, so I use the concept of numbers to decide how many will fill my stomach, and I use the concept of money (promises) to give in exchange for your potatoes.  And at some time in the future you will probably ‘call in’ that promise and ask someone else for a pair of trousers.  Now you, I, the potatoes and the pair of trousers are what we would normally consider ‘real’, but are the numbers and the promises?

In the simple example above, we use mathematics (numbers) to represent a quantity of something real.  When we do engineering or science, we think we are doing the same.  We define not only ‘a potato’, but we define ‘properties’ of the potato; its mass, its volume, its temperature and so on.  Then we use mathematics to quantify the amount of those properties; a 6 ounce potato for instance.  So are the properties of the potato real? We know that a big potato travelling at a high speed will hurt more than a small potato travelling at low speed, so perhaps it is reasonable to think of the properties by themselves as ‘real’?

Once we have defined these properties and given them ‘units’ to allow us to quantify them (ounces in our example above) then we start to do experiments to see how the properties relate to each other. We might see how a given force acting on a potato of a given size causes its velocity to increase. Then we might carry out the same experiment on a bigger and smaller potato to see how the properties of force, mass, and velocity relate to each other.  And we define further properties that help us do our sums more effectively (like ‘momentum’ … the mass multiplied by the velocity).  Are those combined properties ‘real’, or simply concepts?

We can then capture these relationships in mathematical formulae, and we can do mathematical sums on them to predict what will happen in experiments that we have yet to carry out.  We might have done all our experiments on a five ounce potato.  We take our deduced formulae to work out what might happen with a ten ounce potato, and then we carry out the same experiments on a ten ounce potato to see if our predictions are right. And we find that the experiment will not quite tie up with our prediction, and so we think a bit more about the formula and whether we have left anything out of our experiment, and we come up with more complex and advanced formulae to predict what the ‘real’ potato will do in all circumstances.  That is what we call science.

So are those complex formulae ‘real’?  Is the inaccurate formula ‘not real’ but the more accurate formula ‘real’?  If all the formulae are wrong, are none of them ‘real’?  How can something wrong be real?  If all of this is what science is, can science be real?

According to Richard Feynman (US educator & physicist (1918 – 1988)), a philosopher once said that ‘It is necessary for the very existence of science that the same conditions always produce the same results’.  It is ingrained in us that each time we carry out the same experiment on the potato we get the same result, but what if we don’t? What if the potato just doesn’t behave in the same way? In that case can we claim mathematics or science to be true, or real?  It may seem silly to suggest that the potato will not always behave in the same way, but that’s just conditioning on our part; our faith in this happening is so deep we are not aware of it.

We can perhaps believe that carrying out the same experiment on the same human being will not always give the same result; so what does that tell us?  Are scientific statements on the behaviour of human beings are just informed guesses perhaps?

But let’s get back to mathematics and our friendly potato again. Imagine a light shining on a potato, which is now bouncing up and down on a spring (a bungee potato?).  The shadow of the potato moves up and down on the wall with a changing speed but in a repeating pattern.  Do the same thing with a potato on the spoke of a wheel that is rotating around a spindle and we find that the movement of the shadows of both are the same.  We can use the same mathematical formula to describe how the shadow of each moves, but the ‘real’ objects are moving differently.

Many different forms of equations and mathematical models can be used to describe the motion.  In one form, a concept of an ‘imaginary’ number is used, ‘i’ = the square root of minus 1.   The name suggests that the number ‘i’ is not real, yet in one of our formulae it can be used to represent something that is ‘real’.

So what is real?

Does it matter?

What is my point?

The simple question of ‘what is real’ is not such a simple question after all.  In our day-to-day lives we rely on our ‘common sense’ and freely decide some things are real and others not real (“I don’t think ghosts are real” for instance).  Yet if we scratch below the surface, much of what we accept as real may not be so, and vice versa.

Atheists say that God is not real.  But what does God being ‘real’ might actually mean?   Perhaps the question is not quite as simple as we might think.

Scientific and mathematical equations may or may not be real in the sense of what our common sense tells us, but they are sufficiently real to have a massive effect on our lives.  God may not be the same sort of ‘real’ that we would apply to a potato; although some claim that he has a massive effect on our lives.   But we mustn’t therefore jump to the conclusion that therefore God must be the same sort of ‘real’ as a mathematical equation; there can perhaps be many forms of ‘real’.

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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7 Responses to What IS reality?

  1. Aron says:

    You keep on coming back to the idea that maths is “numbers”, but it isn’t. A potato is real, in the sense that it exists, has mass, has volume, has a shape, has a size etc…
    God hasn’t been proved to have any of those things, people have just claimed to have seen him in a dream, or for a prayer to have come true, where really the odds of that particular thing happening were in favour of them happening anyway.
    Also, your last sentence “There can perhaps be many forms of ‘real’.” may seem like a likely explanation, but you don’t go on to explain this, leaving it inconsequential.
    I’d like to know what you mean by this phrase.


    • I think it’s generally accepted that something is ‘real’ if it has some physical basis – like a solid potato. And I think we probably accept it as real if it is one of the forces. i.e. we think of things that comprise physics as real. But that is just habit, and the only evidence we have for it is through our perception (Descartes conclusion that all we really know is that we think, that we are conscious (whatever that means)). Is a painting real? It is the image that people buy, not the canvas and paint – the reality is the image. War and Peace is real, but is not paper and ink. What we consider most important is not the material but the immaterial – but it is no less real than the material.

      Even if we get back to the material world, is a particle real before it is observed? Is a wave function something real, or does it only become real when it collapses?

      Would you still be you if I cut off your leg? your lower half? what about if I removed all the atoms in your body? I don’t know the answer, but neither does anyone else. So if we don’t even know what we are, how can we conclude that ‘God’ is real or not real? Maybe only by our experience? Or by observing someone else’s?


      • Aron says:

        I’m getting the feeling that what you are saying is kind of a paradox. Nothing is real, and nothing is not real. So in essence then, is life real? Or are we just living what we want to live. Can anything be defined as life, apart from being born or made, and then going through death. What happens after death though is obviously a mystery, most likely for humans we just lose permanent consciousness and then lie in a coffin or get burnt. If there is some form of an afterlife, then why can’t that be proved, or explained in a way which doesn’t just say that we go to Heaven or Hell? Atoms are incredibly small, technology has advanced so much that we are now able to see them. Before that technology, how did we know that atoms existed without evidence? We didn’t, but due to theories and hypotheses, people were able to carry out experiments to prove (or disprove) them. If there was a way in which we could tell whether people were lying when they say they have “seen” God, then that would be great! Because if they were telling the truth, then we would be able to unlock all sorts of mysteries about life after death, or Heaven and Hell, or to explain the creation of the Earth. Circling back to the point on what’s real and what’s not, then technically God can be real, because someone believes it to be. This can then lead us to believe in vampires, and ghosts, and other mythical creatures, because one simply says that they are real. If a thing can be defined, proven, seen (in any way, not just with our eyes), and then explained, then surely something must be real. But then also, surely not. I agree that’s it’s a rather confusing matter, but I think that when it comes to religion and incorporating facts, then what’s “real”, is a matter of opinion.


        • I enjoyed reading your train of thought. You’re thinking outside of the normal constrained box that we tend to drift into. Perhaps what is real is a matter of perception? Or faith? We all have to create a model of the world in our brain – all our eyes detect is photons, yet we build a model with colours, shapes, movements, etc. so all we can perceive is the model.
          But it seems to me that the things that really matter are the things that are not material. Your thoughts, my thoughts, this exchange of views matters. But it is not the computer screen that matters. And our thoughts exist. So if we imagine God to be the same ‘essence’ as our thoughts then it is no wonder we can’t actually see him, but perhaps we can experience him. In the same way that your computer screen is holding these thoughts of mine, perhaps the universe is holding the thoughts and presence of God?
          Perhaps when Jesus said that ‘if you have seen me you have seen God’ he meant God’s attitude, his love, his way of relationship?
          I’m not claiming to ‘know’ this, but I’m trying to show that we need to be ready to question what we ‘know’ … do we really know it? Are we ready to embrace new ways of thinking about it?


  2. Aron says:

    It was interesting to read that you were once an atheist, or agnostic. You then, like me and many others, must have had similar thoughts to mine once and had questioned many times what we can consider to exist and what we can’t. People believe in God because they have been told to from an early age, or have experienced something which made them question or turn to a belief. To these people then, God is real. To others however, God isn’t real. I like to stay open minded and read about new discoveries all of the time, whether they are to do with science, history, or religion. Some people are just completely ignorant and won’t accept facts, or what’s right and wrong. Personally, I have no time for these people as they won’t listen to whatever I have to say.
    I think it is good to stay sceptical, and not just be blunt about things, as there are never only two sides to one story. As long as I can stay happy and know that I’m not as close minded as some people, and as long as I can embrace whatever hits me, providing there is a logical explanation behind it, then I don’t really mind what knew things come along.


    • Hi Aron, A friend of mine wrote the following and sent it to me this morning. Were the events real I wonder?

      “I have just started reading a book called “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” it is the true story of an ordinary boy’s most extraordinary journey. In 2004, Kevin Malarkey and his 6 year old son, Alex, suffered an horrific car accident. The impact from the crash paralysed Alex and, medically speaking, it was unlikely that he could survive but two months later, Alex awoke from a coma. He tells his incredible story of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious, of the angels that took him through the gates of heaven itself and of meeting and talking to Jesus.
      I was reading this book down by the riverside one lunchtime and Alex tells how he saw five angels lift his dad from the car, he then saw those same five angels in heaven. God reminded me of my motorbike accident 5 years ago, I sat unharmed on a grass verge by Mr Kipling Island (you Rugby folk will know the place) as I watched a motorcycle being dragged up the dual carriageway mangled beneath the wheels of a juggernaut, it took me some time to comprehend that a lorry had just ploughed into the back of me and the bike was mine. I would relay the story to friends at church and work alike saying ‘I swear a big ol’ angel just lifted me off my bike and sat me on the grass’, some folk would laugh at what they thought was my humour, yet I would repeat in all seriousness ‘I swear a big ol’ angel just lifted me off my bike and sat me on the grass’.
      The book concludes “As you see heaven and earth through Alex’s eyes, you’ll come away with new insights on miracles, life beyond this world, and the power of a father’s love”. I agree with this statement, however, I would add that when we spend time in the wind of His presence we obtain a glimpse through our heavenly fathers eyes and become excited that, for the ‘here and now’ and for the ‘here after’, we are made for so much more than just the things of this world.”


  3. Aron says:

    That’s quite interesting! I’ve read a couple of cases like this, where people in comas can still have dreams, or imagine vivid things happening to them, or what they would like to happen. It’s a possibility that this person imagined he saw some Angels, because that’s what he believed would happen once the accident had taken place. There are also other cases, where psychologists have said that states of unconsciousness for a short period of time, or states of heavy confusion, can leave us forgetful in a particular thing happening. So maybe it’s a possibility that the other chap did end up on the grass, but forgot how it happened, so his brain filled in the gap for him with what he thought must have been a likely explanation.
    You may be thinking that I’m just trying to find every possible answer to oppose these happenings, but I’m not. What I’m trying to do is find logical answers to what could have happened, and then, once all of the possibilities have been tried and tested, then maybe we can ask ourselves whether a supernatural force has interfered.


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