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Mihai Pribeagu (20/4/2019 contribution within the seminar held in HM "A Journey through Philosophy....)

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According to Oxford’s free English dictionary, there are two main understandings of reality: "1. The state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. [...]; 2. The state or quality of having existence or substance." Within the latter a philosophical understanding is also referred to as: "Existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions."  (English Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar Help, n.d.)

One of the main pillars of philosophy is build upon the understanding of the concepts of reality, question that are at the base of the schools of ontology, and epistemology. From ancient times to modern philosophy the human has tried to comprehend, explain and control reality or at least parts of it.

Starting from ancient times, there were some concepts of explaining reality, also if the full matured concept of ontology was not yet quite developed. One of the first tries of explaining the concept of Reality can be observed in the works of Heraclites (520 - 460 B.C. ) , followed shortly thereafter by the “First Philosophy” of the Metaphysics by Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.) which also added a more layers of complexity to the questions of “Being” and “Becoming”.

After many centuries of slow evolution, the concept of if ontology was finally and formally established by Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Wolff managed to build his general metaphysics system or philosohia prima starting from questions of ontology and later evolving into the empirical or rational disciplines or special metaphysics : rational psychology, rational cosmology and rational theology.

Later on, Kant (1724 - 1804) criticized Ontology  for not being a discipline in itself. Ontology was seen as an escape when epistemology was not sufficient anymore. He also postulated that one cannot approach Ontology with reason, nor manage to project it. That meaning that one can not talk about things without a priori knowledge of that thing, without particular ways of knowing that thing. That is why he later postulated that time and space are also a priori concepts but also empirically real, because they can be measured and quantified. In contrast , the idealist believed that time and space were mere illusions , not taking part at reality per se.

Of course during the evolution of the concept of reality, more and more criteria started to be developed. One of the leitmotifs of discussion upon ontology and epistemology remains the question whether reality is derived from a priori knowledge of the world or if Ontology is just a mere simplification of Epistemology based on each individual personal views(“world view theory”) .

The realism view stated that reality is sufficient on its own, separated and not depended of any beliefs or perception or other byproducts by the mind. On the opposite pole is the view perpetuated in idealism , that reality resides in the mind as thought and ideas constructs.

This fundamental question , if mind artefacts have an influence on reality or if reality is derived from it started to arise a multitude of problems. Two classes of realism started to revolve around this question: Naïve or direct realism and indirect realism or epistemological dualism. The direct realism states that that what we perceive with our senses is what the objects really are, obeying the laws of physics, occupying space and having properties. On the other hand ,  the indirect realism states that what we perceive as real is only an internalization of the world, our own mind construct of it, without stating the state of the object as it really is. It is implied that our senses `lie`, distort our perception of reality, leaving us with a virtual-reality-like perception. This concept is later explored in the “Skeptical hypotheses” .

In the branch of mathematics , or better said, philosophy of mathematics, ontology and discussions about the nature of the existence of numbers were also taking place. As stated by the view of Platonic realism, numbers and mathematical constructs were also part of an abstract , immaterial reality. From here on a lot, of approaches contoured around the notions of Infinite Numbers and Sets and also on mathematical arguments like reductio ad absurdum. There are also extreme theories, like mathematical monism, that postulate that only the mathematical reality exists and everything else is a mere illusion of those mathematical entities.

As we can see it was always debated and brought to discussion the questions of what are the properties of reality , the properties that make an object real or part of reality or if abstract ideas  or dreams are part of reality. It is also interesting to note the interaction of information, knowledge with reality and how those can model and influence it. It is also a question weathe each and one of us live in and experience a different reality. This concept is known as world view , the idea that everyone of us live and experience a different reality, based upon our a priori knowledge , all of us living in a “multi-reality”-like universe.

During the modern times, since the industrial revolution and the rapid developments in science a new kind of realism started to arise. The scientific realism, that stated that the world described by science and equations is real and independent of what one may perceive or think about it. But soon here problems started to arise due to the rapid developments in the 20th century, with special contribution by the rapid success of quantum mechanics. That’s why a lot of questions started to arise due to the locality principle, the role of the observer and quantum entanglement, all of which brought more paradox in concern with the theories about reality.  A lot of well-known thought experiments started to arise, including the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” experiment, that tries to trivialize the theory of quantum superposition and wave function collapse down to everyday objects and scenarios. This thought experiment managed, although unintended, to bring quite the mysticism to the world of quantum physics. Albert Einstein also wrote Schrodinger about his thought experiment:

You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality—reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is, however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + charge of gun powder + cat in a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody really doubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation..

As we can see, the discussion started to revolve around some notions of physical, scientific reality, the observer, the act of observation and the object transition states. More and more became clear that the quantum superposition theory had also some deep implication on the notion of ontology and reality in the modern philosophical world.

A lot of thought experiments in modern physics started to be developed, surfacing more and more paradoxes of the modern so-called Theories of Everything (ToA). One of the earliest thought experiments concerning reality is of course the Brain in A Vat experiment. The Brain in a Vat experiment tries to conceptualize the idea that our senses lie, us ourselves being merely disembodied brains in a vat fed by electrical impulses with perception about the reality that we know. One such brain could never realize its existence in an artificially constructed reality, being lied to by its senses. This is also a well known thought experiments in the philosophical skepticism. One of the precursor of this modern experiment is of course Rene Descartes (1596 -  1650) evil demon, stating that an malicious omnipotent demon presents us constantly with the illusion of the external world.


  • English Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar Help. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Maxwell, N. (1993). "Induction and Scientific Realism: Einstein versus van Fraassen Part Three: Einstein, Aim-Oriented Empiricism and the Discovery of Special and General Relativity". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 275–305
  • Bhaskar, R. (2007). 12 Theorizing ontology. Contributions to social ontology, 15, 192.
  • Palmer, Gary B. (1996). Toward A Theory of Cultural Linguistics. University of Texas Press. p. 114
  • Artigas, M. (2000). The Mind of the Universe. Templeton Foundation Pr.
  • Juan Miguel Marin (2009). "'Mysticism' in quantum mechanics: the forgotten controversy". European Journal of Physics, 30(4): 807–822.
  • Schrödinger, Erwin (1935). "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics)"
  • Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.
  • Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, Phys. Rev. 47, 777 (1935) “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?“
  • Klein, Peter (2015). "Skepticism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Conitzer, Vincent (2018). "A Puzzle about Further Facts".
  • Lisa Dyson, Matthew Kleban, and Leonard Susskind, Journal of High Energy Physics 0210 (2002) "Disturbing Implications of a Cosmological Constant”

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