In his 1978 speech “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, science-fiction author Philip K. Dick professed an obsession with the question:
WHAT IS REALITY?
Now I highly recommend that you read the transcript of this speech online (linked above), because his detailed answer to this question pretty much blew my mind in terms of its resilient appeal in the face of hilarious implausibility. I suppose the mark of a talented fiction writer is that they can make you believe that they themselves are convinced by what they have written. Read it and see for yourselves, it’s certainly interesting.
What I want to discuss here is his short answer to the question. He doesn’t elucidate much on what he means by this, but it’s had me thinking for quite some time. So, in a nutshell, what is Reality?
REALITY IS THAT WHICH, WHEN YOU STOP BELIEVING IN IT, DOESN’T GO AWAY.
Hmm… no me neither. I’m having a very hard time working out what this tells us about Reality.
It certainly excludes the possibility of a phenomenalistic account of things. Phenomenalism is a metaphysical theory that says Reality is formed exclusively of mental experiences. So if I have a visual experience of a tennis ball in front of me, the tennis ball exists – but only in so far as it can exist as my mental experience of a tennis ball. The million dollar question is, what if I have a sudden pain experience of a tennis ball hitting me in the back of my head? Well, then, it exists when it hits me in the back of the head. But how did it get there if I hadn’t experienced anyone throwing it?
The classic problem for phenomenalism is the Bath Tub thought experiment. I want to run a bath. The bath tub exists because I’m in the room with it, experiencing it. I then turn on the tap to start running the water. The water runs because I experience it running. I then leave the room. I no longer experience the bath tub or the running water. Yet, when I go back into the room, the bath has more water in it than when I left. How did the bath keep filling up if there was no one having an experience of the water running, or indeed even an experience of the bath’s continued existence?
It is the persistence of certain phenomena through time, irrespective of experience, that is the fundamental undoing of phenomenalism. So it seems that Dick attests to this same persistence when defining Reality. With his brief statement, he seems to be saying that Reality really couldn’t care less whether or not we experience it, or believe the testament of our own senses.
If I leave the bath running, then forget about it and become convinced that I turned off the tap, the water keeps running all the same. It won’t go away, and it’ll probably start leaking through my kitchen ceiling at some point, which will no doubt change my mind back again.
As for the mystery tennis ball, perhaps it was thrown at me by a friend. This friend used to throw things at me all the time, but recently he seems to have changed, become a bit nicer. Other people have told me that this friend is actually still very antagonistic, and likes to throw things at people when they aren’t looking. But no, I refuse to believe that he would ever try to hurt me, he’s a reformed character… and turn my back. When the ball smacks into the back of my skull, I’ll be exposed to the Reality that my friend really is still an asshole. I stopped believing it, but he didn’t go away.
So, having considered these scenarios, does Reality consist of facts about which we can be mistaken? After discussing this quote with a friend in the context of religious faith and spiritual conversion, I’m tempted to think that Dick had a rather more emotional interpretation in mind, and given the content of the rest of his speech, there’s definitely something in this that relates more to subjective meaning than empirical facts.
Either way, it’s a neat little quote, and I’m always happy to receive an ambiguous answer to an open-ended question.