Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

“Reality” as a Mind-Spectrum

Originally posted on December 26, 2012

I’ve elsewhere proposed that many dimensions of mind be viewed as a spectrum, and here I suggest that the experience of reality also be thus portrayed. Some things seem really, really, real, while other things seem pretty unreal. The key word is seem and what is at issue here is the illusion that something is more or less real.

The nature of a really good illusion is that it can grip you with the sense that what you perceive with your eyes, ears, touch, intuition, really, really happens. Another word for this is verisimilitude, meaning similar to truth. Some dreams can seem that way until we wake up and look back and say, “Wow, that dream seemed so real!”

We live in an era that is into reality versus superstition, truth versus illusion. Many people think that science can say what is true, but few realize that science can only asssess certain dimensions of what we all know as reality—but not others. The sense that you are real is pretty vivid for you (with the few people who suffer from a sense of de-realization, the feeling that what is going on is not real; or de-personalization—it’s not really “me” here experiencing this, etc.). But if you introspect, you’ll discover that the boundaries or nature of this experience is elusive. Is your memory of your address part of this sense of being you? What about your password on a website you rarely use?

But it’s clear to me that some hard facts experienced directly may seem real—or indeed, may really “be” real—though that status is open to question—, but unless my toe collides with it with enough force to elicit pain, not terribly significant. The distance between real-according-to-senses and trivial in importance is small and often blurred. So, anyway, what is worth counting as reality and what is okay to dismiss (or “marginalize”) as not real?

My bias is that many things that are not technically real in the way that most people mean the word are still sort-of-real, up-close and personal. Some dreams are deeply influential, and innumerable subtle impressions alter the quality of our lives in ways that most demonstrably real facts cannot. In that sense, much that we say is “not real” is real enough: It’s real to us! It’s real as a “phenomenon.”

So it may be useful to imagine a spectrum: Toward the left are things that seem (are?) indeed absolutely real and absolutely relevant. Near that point is me being here and you being there and our communication being meaningful, even though I don’t claim to know much about who or what either of us “really” are. But it’s what’s up now. The interesting thing about this category is that it all may seem unreal in a day or two from now.

On the right are whatever seems most unreal, such as dreams that have drifted out of memory. In that state they cannot be used. Slightly more towards the middle are those dream images or sequences which are remembered and which then influence my interpretation of my life even a little.

Now I always thought in the olden days that I was pretty realistic, being a psychiatrist who is the guardian of this sacred quality; but of late I’ve softened considerably. I’ve come to realize that  much of life is (on this spectrum) more towards the middle! There is lots of pretending, speculating, telling stories, fantasizing a little, envisioning, talking about what we may be doing, “creating our reality,” more or less consciously. We play much more than we are serious, and play often partakes of ambiguous word-play. Only a small part of most folks’ life is about hard-and-fast dry facts, though years ago I thought most of it was.

I confess further that I’ve been influenced by what might be called the spirit of postmodern philosophy, but before that, merely critical thinking, informed by semantics and depth psychology, to question a lot of what as a youngster I thought was “real.” But as culture has changed, postmodern philosophy becomes more relevant. It is thus in proportion to how possible it is in one’s sub-culture to co-create your own reality, to re-invent yourself. There are many role transitions that make it easier:
  – Every time you move you can introduce yourself to new friends with a new name, take on elements of a new identity, emphasize this interest or that aspect instead of whatever people in the old world you came from were used to.
  – As you evolve in jobs, marriages, you can make it a point of keeping friends and colleagues apprised of your changes. Most folks don’t, but an increasing number do: “That was then; this is now.” I hear an echo of the 1970s song, Both Sides Now: “Now old friends are looking strange; they shake their heads, they say I’ve changed. Well something’s lost and something’s gained from living every day.”
– Virtual reality allows you to experiment with new physical as well as socio-psychological configurations as you enact in “Second Life” or other multi-player programs.
– Simply announcing to friends and families that re-evaluation and renewal is for you a spiritual and practical path. People will often go along with you if you keep them clearly oriented. They just want to know how to address you, what to encourage, what to avoid. Stuff like that.
  – Changes in life style, diet, renouncing a habit or addiction, affirming a new resolve—such shifts are now common-place. Empower yourself. Ask yourself which changes may happen for you soon or starting now.

The point is that one of the advantages of our turbulent present is that it’s a little less weird, a little easier to extract yourself from a given realty-defining system. Whether a religion or sub-culture, you may choose to assert your present directions. The price? Some old friends, maybe. Some acquaintances, probably. And there is a bit of work in thinking it out—though you may have friends who help you talk about it. (You have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself in the sense that no one will walk it for you—but you can ask others to walk it with you and many will! We all can find friends willing to help if we ask straight out.


Another word for thinking is cognition, and so re-thinking involves re-cognition, rearranging the categories in your mind. If we re-cognize religion as reality-defining systems, we can see more how it is possible to feel the need to fight over which definition of reality is ultimately true and needs defending. Alternative approaches are not just different, but threatening, and therefore evil, and therefore merit destruction, even if that means via acts of righteous violence. Violence is not okay against mere ignorance, but it is justified—or it can seem so—against that which is perceived as evil. Or, saying it backwards, if one is inclined to violence, knowing no other way to peacemaking; or if one cannot imagine peace with another—who is therefore imagined not merely as other but as enemy—then it seems plausible that the other is evil and can only be coped with via destruction of the enemy. It’s a fight to the death, total victory, triumph, or total submission, subjugation, defeat, and of course this possibility is absolutely unacceptable. Victory or death.

Lots of folks think like this. This for them is the way the world is. In the olden days (1500 years ago) there was a revival of Zoroastrianism in a religion led by the prophet Mani, rather popular in the Mediterranean region—the Christians called it the “Manichean heresy”—and it resurrected the theme of the eternal struggle of good and evil. So this tendency to divide one’s experience into to simplistic categories is quite widespread. My way or the highway. No room for compromise.

And religion can serve this function: a system of reality. But what if there is a system that questions the fixity of reality itself, or suggests that reality may involve multiple perspectives —i.e., be “multi-perspectival” ? Shall we dismiss it as merely evil? Call it names such as “relativistic”?

The problem with systems of reality is that they are political, they must of necessity establish judges, leaders, people delegated with the responsibility and authority of declaring what is real and what is not, what is wise and what is foolish, what is orthodoxy and what is heresy, what is sacred and what is secular or even blasphemy. But on close examination, the lives of the people so authorized are laced with human frailties and their qualifications are subject to being questioned and obliterated? How in fact was this judgment arrived at? Is it not like the making of sausage that is a closer metaphor for the actual activity of legislatures? In fascism, laws are dictated by enlightened leaders—but history has shown also that those who are imagined as saints and fuhrers are themselves often far worse than the ordinary, because they had to be morally cruel and ruthless to attain their position of authority. So who can we idealize?

Humanity resists its noble-sounding openness to great leadership as being diagnosed as a small-minded fear of taking responsibility. We want to excuse ourselves and blame those we elect, fully denying that on the whole we get the kinds of government we deserve. Our passivity and willingness to leave the responsibility for the rough and tumble to the ruthless is—I’ll say again — denied, maintained in a state of denial, a rather childish and primitive maneuver that is basically saying “I didn’t” when confronted with indisputable evidence that one did indeed. The astonishing thing is that denial is actually convincing. Done strongly enough, it seems  real! The hinge is “seems.” There is a mental tendency to fall into believing in what seems to be so, even if there are some unbelievers— nasty them— who want to subject our beliefs to scientific testing.

In summary, there is a sub-field in philosophy called “epistemology,” which addresses the problem of knowledge. It overlaps with metaphysics. What is real and can we ever know it. Is Aristotle right that all reality is tangible and knowable, at least eventually? Or Plato, that there’s an invisible more, yet, beyond what can be experienced by the senses and most common intuitions. Can there be yet another level of subtle intuition that some call “mystical”?

Our postmodern turn in some intellectual circles is tackling this problem in spite of the fact that the greatest majority of humanity believes what it senses, accepts what is the consensus of the major reference groups—usually the community—thus, common sense—, even if that doesn’t fit with a more carefully investigation of what’s what. So there’s a lot of work to be done yet.

One Response to ““Reality” as a Mind-Spectrum”

  • […] To confabulate is to make stuff up. One then may or may not be somewhat convinced that what has been thought, imagined, is really true. Or one may be more or less aware of the made-up nature of what is perceived, thought, imagined—and of course that’s my whole point. It’s a spectrum! […]

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