INTRODUCTION - THE PUZZLES.
Philosophers have always tried to find out what's real and true by discovering and stripping away what's mistaken and apparent. They've asked fundamental questions about reality, and have uncovered ambiguities and contradictions which have given rise to long-standing disagreements. Different philosophers have had different worries about reality. This essay is about what's puzzled me personally, and how I've organised my ideas about it so far.
Our knowledge of the physical world outside our minds ["objective reality"] can only come to us via our own perceptions of it. Those pictures in our minds are clearly a different thing from the world itself. We assume that the two are very intimately related. Indeed, we assume that the world is exactly represented by our perceptions. But this isn't necessarily true. In fact, thought and experiment show that it's far from true. So what is the nature of the real world, and what is the relationship between that world and our perceptions of it?
[As I've discussed elsewhere, perception is a paradoxical notion that raises questions that haven't yet been answered. Until they are, we can only discuss this subject with reference to that concept, and that's what I'll do in this essay.]
Another puzzle: the discoveries of 20th century physics have forced physicists to carefully reconsider their ideas about what is and isn't real. They investigate electrons and protons and other things no one's ever seen. Are these things real, or merely convenient fictions used to describe the results of experiments?
When people discuss these matters, they're not usually concerned with the words "real" and "reality", but with the things these words refer to. They're concerned with facts and experiences, rather than with how to describe them. But we can only think and talk about facts and experiences by using words. And when we run into difficulties, it's often very easy to get confused about whether we have a problem or disagreement about the facts and experiences, or merely with the way we're describing them. So before we talk about the actual problems at issue, let's be clear about the meaning of the words we're using.
THE MEANING OF THE WORD "REAL"
We learn the meaning of the word by hearing it applied to all the familiar objects and events of ordinary everyday experience: the objects we see and touch and hear, the properties of these objects, the relationships between them, and the events involving them. And it's applied to everything else our senses perceive, such as light, sound, heat, smells, and the forces of gravity and magnetism.
The word evokes the complex of mental associations with all these things. And we abstract from all these associations a concept of what all these things have in common, the idea of being something that exists or occurs, of being something which forms part of our everyday experience.
The word gathers much of its meaning from contrast with the nature of imaginary...