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The Question of Reality

There are many different accounts of the philosophic status of Reality. As the American comedian, George Carlin, put it, "Reality! What a concept." But the conceptions of Reality can, roughly, be clustered around two positions, which we might call that of Absolute Reality and that of Relative Reality. To these we will add a third term, Groundless Reality.

Absolute Reality covers the conventional Enlightenment view, prevalent until the latter half of the twentieth century, and still the prevailing worldview. It is often characterized (by those who don't like it) as the correspondance view because it holds that we have direct access to reality. It is right there before you, unproblematic. What you see is what you get. Reality stands there, unadorned, open to the gaze of anyone willing to "divest themselves of their passions" (the traditional requirement of the scientist) and look. All rational people will be able to agree on the evidence of their senses, at least once we put those pesky passions in their place.

Relative Reality challenges the Absolute Reality stance on a number of grounds, the favourite within NLP being the observation that our perceptions are mediated by neurology. Consequently, there is no direct, unmediated access to Reality. Reality becomes a concept without an unambiguous referent. It does not point to anything knowable in absolute terms. Our experience of Reality is dependent on how we look at it. And how we look at it is relative to the perspective we take.

Both of these views have their benefits and also their limitations. The mode of Absolute Reality, characteristic of the modern era, provided a sense of confidence, of knowing what's what. It is how it is. Everything and everybody knows its/their place. This gives both stability and restriction. If things are as they are, then they are likely to remain so; the possibilities for change are curtailed. We are stuck with the status quo.

The mode of Relative Reality, characteristic of the postmodern era, provides for change and for individual perspectives. There is a greater sense of freedom; absolutes can be challenged, they are, after all, only one point of view. And your view is every bit as valid as anyone else's. However, because your experience is mediated, by neurology, by culture, by race, by gender, by what you just ate, even, you are unable to claim any contact with Reality. It exists but you are forever unable to contact it, stuck as you are in the sliver of your own experience of it, which will be different from everyone else's. Locked alone in your own constricted world. And with no (absolute) basis for judging any one view more valuable than another, that world offers only a flat moral landscape. This gives us today's world of Absolutist institutions staggering under the attack of Relativist views, with the ensuing "crisis of legitimation."

The Groundless Reality view (our name for it) was developed recently, as a reaction to the drawbacks of the other two clusters of views and as a result of their biological research and autopoetic theorizing, by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana though supported by the work of other cognitive scientists (working in hybrid disciplines) such as the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson. While the Absolute and Relative views both have the notion of the existence of an objective reality - in the one case directly accessible to us, in the other completely inaccessible - the Groundless Reality view dispenses with the notion of an absolute reality at all. After all, if you can't get to that reality (accepting the arguments of relativism) what point is there in harking back to it; let's just forego our nostalgia for an absolute reality and recognize that our reality is our experience.

That's as real as it gets, and that is a reality to which we do have direct access. The concept is nicely captured in the title of a Varela paper, "Laying Down A Path In Walking." In this analogy, the path does not exist until it is brought into being by our actions, by our walking. Similarly, reality is not a pre-existent given (an absolute) but it is brought forth in and through our actions. (Thus our actions regain the moral dimension they lost in Relative Reality.)