What is Reality?
How do you tell the real from the imaginary? For most of us, the difference ultimately comes down to a matter of control. We have less control over real things than we have over our imagination. As the old proverb warns “kick the world, hurt your foot.” This way of understanding reality is particularly characteristic of contemporary materialism, which limits the real to those elements of experience that can be perceived with the human senses. If we can’t measure it, take its picture, touch it, sample it or otherwise observe it using various other experimental procedures, then it doesn’t exist.
But this way of understanding the nature of the real has its limits; it cannot deal with experience of values or meaning. These realities that profoundly shape human life transcend the abilities of scientific descriptions let alone explanations. I both shape my world and I am shaped by it. Ideas cannot do the work of experience. If you try to force them beyond their limits, your thought will dissolve into incoherence. Experience always transcends our descriptions of it. As a result, our representations of reality remain descriptions only and so never capture the absolute essence of life.
Because experience emerges from the dynamic relationship between self and world, the boundary between the real and the imaginary is less absolute and definitive than most people think. I can change my world by changing my experience. Knowledge changes the knower. If this were not possible, then we would be stuck with what we already know.
But the history of human civilization suggests that we are not limited by either the actual or the known and this source of power comes from the use of the imagination. We can imagine the possibilities and then bring them into existence. We are masters as well as servants of our language. By naming my world, I change it. So human creativity is not constrained by the same limits as human science. Through imagination, a physical feather can become evidence of the existence of an imaginary bird. Through the imagination, the possible can become the actual.
Richad Wilbur ‘Bat Poem’
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