What is Reality?

Reality is an overall representation of our surroundings that the brain produces from sensory inputs it receives. Reality is our sense of truth, what is real and verifiable in our lives. Reality is how we make sense of the world. It is the mind’s interpretation of how an individual exists within the world.

What makes reality so interesting though is that how it evolves over time by way of the accumulation of experiences. The longer a person lives, the more experiential data the mind collects to build a model of the world.

But the mind isn’t always perfect. In fact, it’s possible that the mind’s interpretation of the world can be wrong.

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? ” – Morpheus, The Matrix

As Morpheus explains to Neo, the world he knows is a simulation, it is the real world to him because his mind cannot tell the difference. It is all he knows based on the sensory inputs his mind receives. The nature of his reality up until this point in time has been individual and only verifiable through his own understanding of his surroundings.

The human brain is an individual network capable of interpreting data on its own but also exists in a shared social reality. Ie: Humans exist as part of society made up of many people and the interactions with those people impact the nature of our individual minds.

What happens to the nature of individual reality if the brain creates a story that is objectively false? Neo’s world has been real to him up until he met Morpheus.

Morpheus goes on to offer Neo a red pill which will help open up his eyes to another interpretation of reality. A shared sense of reality that calls into question what Neo’s mind previously interpreted as real.

Put another way, how does a colorblind person know that they are colorblind? Their mind interprets what it sees and simply shows limited variance in certain colors. It is not until they meet other people that see a variance of colors that their reality is called into question.

Individual Vs. Shared Reality

Human beings are fundamentally social animals. We typically live in communal settings rather than by ourselves. Communal settings force a reconciliation of different states of reality by combining them into a shared state.

As an example, suppose I leave home and get a call from my roommate telling me the house burned down? I didn’t see it burn down and I cannot personally verify the house burned down as fact. I have some doubts until my other roommate calls and tells me the house burns down. Now there are 2 people standing behind the statement. Although I haven’t seen or experienced the burned down house for myself, I trust my roommates and believe them to be honest enough to only share this information if it were true. Finally, I receive a call from the local police informing me of the fire. Between the interaction with my peers and the credentialed expert holding a position of authority, my reality would have been updated.

As communal individuals, we don’t simply exist in our own realities but also exist in a shared reality with our community. In shared realities, truth is verifiable by more than one individual. The more individuals the more concrete the reality. Individuals that reject the shared reality are often ostracized from their communities.

Deception in Shared Reality

But what happens when your community lies to you?

 In the movie The Truman Show, the main character Truman is raised on the set of a TV show. All the main people in his life are actors hired to engage him and create a false reality for the benefit of the television audience. Everything he knows is a fabrication based on a coordinated shared reality driven by a network of individuals. Truman’s sense of self, his understanding of his own reality have been crafted over time by this coordinated effort. His world is real because his brain interprets it as such.

As Christof, the character that plays the director coordinating Truman’s life says, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”

The definition of reality is perhaps best summarized as an ongoing evolution of an individual’s state of being. It’s not set in stone. The mind develops heuristics to understand reality. It’s a learning process made from the combination of our own individual interpretations and experiences of life with those of our communities. Our reality or sense of truth changes from our experiences and across time. It is an algorithm that is not set in stone.

Most importantly, it is ultimately up to the individual on how much to weight their own interpretation of their surroundings against that of the communities.

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