Essay by Az777 October 2005

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Philosophers have always tried to find out what's real and true by discovering and stripping away what's mistaken and apparent. They've asked fundamental questions about reality, and have uncovered ambiguities and contradictions which have given rise to long-standing disagreements. Different philosophers have had different worries about reality. This essay is about what's puzzled me personally, and how I've organised my ideas about it so far.

Our knowledge of the physical world outside our minds ["objective reality"] can only come to us via our own perceptions of it. Those pictures in our minds are clearly a different thing from the world itself. We assume that the two are very intimately related. Indeed, we assume that the world is exactly represented by our perceptions. But this isn't necessarily true. In fact, thought and experiment show that it's far from true. So what is the nature of the real world, and what is the relationship between that world and our perceptions of it?

[As I've discussed elsewhere, perception is a paradoxical notion that raises questions that haven't yet been answered.

Until they are, we can only discuss this subject with reference to that concept, and that's what I'll do in this essay.]

Another puzzle: the discoveries of 20th century physics have forced physicists to carefully reconsider their ideas about what is and isn't real. They investigate electrons and protons and other things no one's ever seen. Are these things real, or merely convenient fictions used to describe the results of experiments?

When people discuss these matters, they're not usually concerned with the words "real" and "reality", but with the things these words refer to. They're concerned with facts and experiences, rather than with how to describe them. But we can only think and talk about facts and experiences by...